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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

John McCain stands out in age of moral relativism

In 2002, a young Vietnamese man helps William

In 2002, a young Vietnamese man helps William F.B. O'Reilly find the Hanoi Hilton, where John McCain was held prisoner. Credit: Priscilla O’Reilly

It was impossible to communicate on the streets of Hanoi. And it wasn’t just the language barrier. A nod or a wave meant nothing. “OK” was met with blank stares.

So when my sister and I asked a smiling, destitute young man outside our hotel in November 2002 where Hoa Lo Prison might be, we were out of luck.

Knowing the name of the prison Americans call the Hanoi Hilton was no help. Our guide a day earlier, Trin Huy Tho, the proud and delightful son of a Viet Minh soldier who had fought both the French and Americans, explained that a single Vietnamese word can mean dozens of things depending on how one pronounces it. No variation of Hoa Lo we tried unlocked the door.

But just as we were about to give up, and slip a few Vietnamese dong into the young man’s hand for his patient diplomacy, my sister or I — I can’t remember who — spoke the magic words: John McCain. The young man’s face changed instantly. “John McCain!” he said gleefully, pulling each of us by a hand toward the old French prison a block away.

McCain had dropped bombs on the young man’s parents’ city more than three decades earlier; the young man’s countrymen had made the young Navy captain pay for it. But that was all in the past. Each had believed in his cause while it was being fought, and each had forgiven the other when it was decided. Graciousness had prevailed.

Nowhere are the qualities of honor formally listed, but graciousness has to be among them — right up there with selflessness, courage and humility. McCain exhibited them all, not just with the Vietnamese, but throughout his life. At the end of every fight came an olive branch and a handshake.

George W. Bush’s campaign team did the unforgivable to McCain during the 2000 Republican presidential primary, spreading rumors that McCain’s brain was fried from years of solitary confinement in a scorching POW cell. (The Bush camp denies this.) And yet McCain forgave them.

Bush will join former President Barack Obama in eulogizing McCain at his funeral, the two men who denied the Arizona senator the presidency.

What makes McCain such an important American figure wasn’t his virtue as a man. It was his insistence that honor and virtue are immutable fixtures; it’s man who wavers. McCain’s lifelong acknowledgment of his shortcomings as he saw them is what made him stand out in this age of moral relativism.

Few will forget his extraordinary apology to Americans after hedging on the question of whether Confederate stars and bars should remain in South Carolina’s flag. “I feared that if I answered honestly I could not win the South Carolina primary,” McCain said. “So I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth.’’

But more often than not, McCain spoke his mind, damn the torpedoes. He railed against waterboarding despite prevailing sentiments following the 9/11 terror attacks; he took on powerful conservative talk-radio hosts who ushered in the angry populism we’re now living with — “Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths . . .” — and he pushed back against bigotry even when it came to his own supporters. “No, ma’am. No, ma’am,” he said to a woman questioning Obama’s patriotism at a 2008 presidential campaign rally. “He’s a decent, family man, citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” He referred to immigrants here illegally as “God’s children.”

“Glory belongs to the act of being constant to something greater than yourself,” he once wrote.

If that’s so, it will forever belong to John McCain. Here and in Hanoi.

William F.B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.