John Sidney McCain III is a victim.
John McCain is a victim of torture and a broken man who has demonstrated repeatedly that he is willing to sell out his principles for political power.
That is the frame that Democrats and progressives need to aggressively push if they want to win in November. That is how they need to redefine McCain.
Barack Obama only hurt himself when he opened a speech in Ohio with “John McCain is a great American hero.”
What he should have said was “John McCain has my greatest sympathy for what happened to him in Vietnam, but his policies are bad for America.”
It is not even dishonest like the “Swift boat” attacks were; it is the absolute, documented truth. Right now John Sidney McCain III is running around the country touting his “war hero” image and getting a free pass by the media, who appear too busy buying him his favorite doughnuts to ask any tough questions.
I have written in other essays about framing and how it is the most vital skill Democrats and progressives need to learn in order to win in modern politics. One of the most key elements of framing in politics is to define your opponent and define yourself in the public’s mind. Democrats have a very bad habit of buying into Republican frames and thus allowing Republicans to define themselves, their opponents and the entire debate in the public’s mind. This is why we have the common media narrative of Republicans as ‘macho’ and Democrats as ‘weak’ even though the facts do not match the story. It is a testament to how good cons have gotten at framing and to the inherent bias by the conservative corporate media.
John Sidney McCain III is no more of a hero than every other soldier who actually did go fight in Vietnam.
John McCain is a victim of torture, a victim of bad policies that put him in Vietnam in the first place and ultimately a victim of his own hubris that comes from his elite status in society as the son of an Admiral.
There is a difference between feeling really sorry for someone and considering him or her a “hero”.
Sure there is some argument to be made that everyone who goes to war at all is a “hero” in some sense of the term. But no one can expect that to be enough to warrant the title “war hero” when running for national political office, yet John McCain is trying to do it based on his story that he got shot down in Vietnam, taken prisoner and held captive for five years.
What exactly is a “Hero” anyway?
The root of the word is the Greek word “Heros” which in Greek mythology was someone who was blessed by the gods.
The dictionary says a hero is:
1. a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.
2. a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal:
Generally a hero has come to mean someone who as the second definition states, “performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal”.
Martin Luther King, Jr. for example, is rightly considered a hero for his non-violent approach to civil rights and his unwavering courage in sticking to his message in the face of threats that ultimately were fulfilled.
So what exactly is John McCain’s story?
John Sidney McCain III is the son of a Navy Admiral and Grandson of a Navy Admiral. He was born into moderate wealth but great power and ultimately married into great wealth with his mistress-turned-second wife, Cindy.
According to Wikipedia:
“John McCain’s capture and imprisonment began on October 26, 1967. He was flying his 23rd bombing mission over North Vietnam, when his A-4E Skyhawk was shot down by a missile over Hanoi. McCain fractured both arms and a leg, and then nearly drowned when he parachuted into Truc Bach Lake in Hanoi. After he regained consciousness, a mob attacked him, crushed his shoulder with a rifle butt, and bayoneted him; he was then transported to Hanoi's main Hoa Loa Prison, nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton".”
Wikipedia also notes this about John McCain’s time in the Hanoi Hilton:
“In August of 1968, a program of severe torture began on McCain, at the same time as he was suffering from dysentery, and McCain made an anti-American propaganda "confession". He has always felt that his statement was dishonorable, but as he would later write, "I had learned what we all learned over there: Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine."”
What does being broken do to a person’s psyche? How long can the effects from a traumatic experience like that last? A lifetime? How much of John McCain’s infamously unstable temper comes from his experience as a victim of torture? Is that a person we really want with his finger of the nuclear button?
Ok, now I feel very bad for McCain and he has my deepest sympathies for what he experienced, but that does not qualify him for status of “hero”. Especially when McCain just recently voted against banning torture!
If we are supposed to consider John McCain a hero by virtue of him being held captive and tortured until he was broken then what are we supposed to think about all the people we are doing that to now? Are they also heroes? What does that say about us now that we are doing it to others?
Getting shot down, captured, and tortured and being broken both physically and mentally does not strike me as someone “blessed by the gods”. Neither does bombing runs on villages or creating propaganda videos for the enemy strike me as particularly “noble” and it certainly is not something I think should be regarded as a “model or ideal”.
Now lets look at the story of another Vietnam veteran who shares his first name, John Kerry. This is just one story of how he earned one of his medals in Vietnam. Also from Wikipedia.
“Eight days later, on February 28, 1969, came the events for which Kerry was awarded his Silver Star. On this occasion, Kerry was in tactical command of his Swift boat and two others. Their mission included bringing a demolition team and dozens of South Vietnamese soldiers to destroy enemy sampans, structures and bunkers. Running into an ambush, Kerry "directed the boats to turn to the beach and charge the Viet Cong positions" and he "expertly directed" his boat's fire and coordinated the deployment of the South Vietnamese troops, according to the original medal citation (signed by Admiral Zumwalt). Going a short distance farther, Kerry's boat was the target of an RPG round; as the boat beached at the site, a VC with a rocket launcher jumped and ran from a spider hole. While the boat's gunner opened fire, wounding the VC on the leg, and while the other boats approached and offered cover fire, Kerry jumped from the boat and chased the VC and killed him, capturing a loaded rocket launcher.”
So what I want to know is, if John Kerry’s war record was not above reproach, why do Democrats act as if John McCain’s is? The one thing that Karl Rove was right about was the tactic of taking your opponent’s strength and turning it into a liability. John McCain’s war record is his greatest strength and it is the reason the media is treating him with kid gloves. If Democrats want to win this they are going to have to take off the kid gloves and bring up the hypocrisy of someone who was broken by torture turning around and voting against banning the same behavior by Americans. They are going to have to bring up the fact McCain cooperated with the enemy and made anti-American propaganda for them.
John McCain’s low moral standards and questionable judgment have been repeatedly shown by his behavior. From the fact he was one of the infamous “Keating Five” to the fact he is breaking his own campaign finance laws right now by taking public financing and then going over the spending limits and by using his wife’s corporate jet for free, we have seen examples again and again of a man who is willing to sell out his principles for political convenience.
Hypocrisy is also a serious issue with John McCain. His record as a Senator shows a pattern of opposing Veteran and POW/MIA issues.
John Sidney McCain III opposed the Missing Personnel Act and the POW/MIA Rescue Act, which would have granted political asylum to any Southeast Asian national who brought a living American POW to freedom.
How can a former POW oppose that?
John McCain disagreed with the findings of the 1990 Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which concluded that our government had indeed abandoned some of our men when the war ended.
John McCain then went on to single handedly undermine the Senate Select Committee created to investigate the issue.
“During the course of their several month-long investigations, they heard unbelievable testimony from hundreds of people. No less than four former Secretaries of Defense testified that men were left behind. National Security analysts testified that they tracked the movements of our men long after the war ended. Radio transcripts of American POWs being moved in Laos were recorded in the early 1980s:
There were satellite photos of pilot distress signals taken as recently as 1992, complete with pilot name and authenticator code numbers. Former Soviet Commanders testified that they debriefed our men in the Soviet Union, and even Boris Yeltsin admitted American POWs had been transferred there.
No less than four committee investigators provided the Senators of their estimates ranging from a low of 150 to as many as 600 men who they believed were still alive and in captivity. This doesn't even include the testimony they heard behind closed doors that supposedly endangered our national security.
The conclusions of this committee was that "no credible evidence was provided to support the possibility that Americans were still alive and in captivity," This, despite documents from Soviet Archives that showed that the Vietnamese were holding more than 1,200 American POWs, and released less than 600, John McCain signed his name on this incredibly flawed report.”
John McCain opposes Senator Jim Webb’s New GI Bill, which would become the military’s greatest recruiting tool, because he says he thinks it would encourage soldiers to leave the military. God forbid they should leave the military to pursue an education! Who would occupy Iraq for 100 years if they do that?
John Sidney McCain III is not a hero by any standard of measure. He is an old, rich elitist with an infamously explosive temper and very questionable morals, which he has a record of selling out for political convenience. John McCain is a victim of torture, a victim of crimes against humanity, a victim of war crimes and a victim of bad policies and poor judgment that put him in that position in the first place. Probably worst of all, John Sidney McCain III is a victim of his own hubris.
That is a person I feel very sorry for, but I do not admire that person and I do not think that qualifies that person to be any kind of a leader.
That is not the kind of person we need leading this country at this time in history.
We don’t have to wait for the media to pick this frame up before we start using it either. That is not how it actually works. We the people, individual progressives and Democrats, can set the frame in the public debate by using it ourselves. If we get in the habit of actively re-framing the issues instead of passively accepting whatever frame the media is putting out. That is how we change the discussion in America, by refusing to have the discussion the cons want to have and steering the conversation toward the issues we want using our frames for them.