“[John McCain’s] not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”
— Donald Trump, July 2015
“Despairing of any relief from pain and further torture, and fearing the close approach of my moment of dishonor, I tried to take my life.”
— Sen. John McCain,
“Faith of My Fathers”
Physically and nearly spiritually broken after enduring months of unimaginable sadism at the hands of his bombarded North Vietnamese captors, the 32-year-old Navy pilot fought back with his last remaining weapon: his life. In surrendering it, he would deprive the enemy of his signature on a so-called “confession.” John McCain, the son of an American admiral, infuriated the North Vietnamese by refusing early release, which they wanted for propaganda purposes. He insisted that Americans captured before him be repatriated first.
For four days, McCain tried to kill himself by hanging under the watchful eyes of his guards. Each attempt was met with beatings. When there was nothing left — when he was broken and stripped of all possible suicide tools — McCain scribbled his name across a piece of paper placed in front of him. It read: “I am a black criminal, and I have performed the deeds of an air pirate.” Fifteen words.
It was the only time McCain — a 30-year U.S. senator recently diagnosed with a brain tumor — would sign such a confession. However, the North Vietnamese would try to make him do it again and again during his 5 ½ years in captivity. McCain had reached his nadir.
The Hoa Lo Prison wasn’t on tourist maps. When my sister and I searched for it in December 2002, we were met with blank stares on the streets of Hanoi. No one had ever heard of Hoa Lo, or the Hanoi Hilton, as Americans call it. But when we spoke the name “John McCain” to a boy begging outside our hotel, his face lit up instantly. “John McCain!” he said joyfully, taking us by the hand and leading us a short distance to what’s left of the prison, one of several where McCain was held.
The Hanoi Hilton is the gloomiest place you can imagine — a museum of torture demonstrating what the French did to suspected Viet Minh agents inside its walls during colonial rule. Walking through Hoa Lo’s chambers makes your hair stand on end, though propaganda displays show only smiling American prisoners.
My sister and I were in Hanoi to meet her beautiful daughter-to-be, now an extraordinarily graceful and talented 14-year-old American girl. But burrowed inside my pant pocket was a McCain-for-President lapel pin I had selfishly carried over with singular purpose: Somewhere in the prison, where it could not easily be found, I would leave the pin in defiance of his wartime tormentors.
But when I found such a spot, the face on that kid fresh in my memory, and McCain’s dignified and magnanimous visit to the prison two years earlier, I kept the pin in my pocket. Leaving it at the prison somehow would have felt diminishing. The war, which I only watched on TV as a boy, was long over.
McCain’s eventual presidential run turned out to be a disappointment. In retrospect, I don’t think he was meant to serve as president. But as a soldier, congressman and senator, he’s accomplished something even greater than winning the presidency: He’s shown generations of Americans what honor and passion and patriotism look like. (Candidate Donald Trump on McCain’s presidential bid: “I’ve never liked him as much after that. I don’t like losers.”)
“I had a lot of time to think over there,” McCain wrote in 1973, “and came to the conclusion that one of the most important things in life — along with a man’s family — is to make some contribution to his country.”
He is still making one today.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.