John McCain’s Fraudulent Legend
BY ALLAN UTHMAN
I know we’re supposed to be used to this stuff by now, but this recent rash of “faith and values” presidential campaign events is still freaking me out. It was bad enough listening to Republican Senators lie about how often they pray, but now I’ve got to watch Democrats prostrate themselves before the one demographic that despises them the most, evangelical Christians. At least John McCain had the good sense to pass up an audience with the NAACP. When you’re beat, you’re beat.
It’s not surprising McCain got a better response from the audience at squishy Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. He gave short, decisive answers that pushed all the right fundamentalist buttons, while Obama stammered his way through more complex explanations of why he basically disagrees with everything the audience believes, except the Jesus part. Perhaps Obama was wise to show up and make an effort, but it was McCain’s show on Friday, and the pres agreed he had won the day.
That doesn’t necessarily mean he cheated, except he probably did. It also doesn’t necessarily mean he lied—except he definitely did. In fact, McCain’s performance at Saddleback was so dense with dishonesty it’s really something of an achievement, something to be cataloged for posterity.
Of course, there is the “Cone of Silence.” As Warren introduced Obama at Saddleback, already an obviously tilted forum for a secret Muslim, he assured the audience that McCain was “safely placed … in a cone of silence.” When McCain’s segment began, Warren, unable to resist his own wit, asked McCain he was comfortable in the Cone. McCain joked that he was “trying to hear through the wall.” polite chuckles all around.
But the real joke is that it was entirely false. McCain arrived a half hour late, well into Obama’s interview. The well-worn excuse was that his motorcade was “stuck in traffic.” Whether that’s true or not, it doesn’t change the fact that he and a staff replete with high tech wireless devices had every opportunity to monitor the live event and prepare accordingly. In addition, Pastor Warren, in defending himself on “Hannity & Colmes” on Monday, explained that the monitor in McCain’s green room had been “totally disconnected from the source” by an associate. Details on the disconnection’s totality were not forthcoming, but we can pray, I suppose, that Warren meant more than just unplugging a cable that could simply be reconnected.
And then there’s this: McCain referenced a question that hadn’t been asked yet. After fielding a question on abortion and then one on gay marriage with blunt, immediate, no-nonsense answers, McCain asks to “get back to” a question about Supreme Court justices that had as yet only been asked of Obama:
WARREN: Define marriage.
MCCAIN: A union — a union between man and woman, between one man and one woman. That’s my definition of marriage. Could I — are we going to get back to the importance of Supreme Court Justices or should I mention –
Again, there had been no mention of Supreme Court Justices until that point in McCain’s interview. He seems to be referring to a question given only to Obama at that point (“Which existing Supreme Court Justice would you not have nominated?”)
And then, immediately, this exchange:
WARREN: We will get to that.
MCCAIN: OK. All right. OK.
WARREN: You’re jumping ahead. You got all my questions, good.
Altogether, it’s suspicious at best. But unfairly prepared or not, McCain still managed to pack an amazing amount of self-aggrandizing bullshit into his clipped, rehearsed responses.
In response to the question, “Who are the three wisest people that you know that you would rely on heavily in an administration?” McCain went for absurd choices: David Petraeus, laughably calling him “one of the greatest military leaders in American history,” E-Bay CEO Meg Whitman (this, McCain’s hat tip to the ladies, would almost certainly have been Carly Fiorina if she hadn’t said that thing about health insurers paying for Viagra but not birth control last month), and, in an awkward gesture to minorities, Democratic Representative and civil rights icon John Lewis.
McCain, who opposed recognizing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday as a holiday until 1990, has been name-checking Lewis quite a bit this year, citing him as a potential advisor. But after 22 years that they’ve both been in Congress, they have no relationship whatsoever. As Lewis told Mother Jones, “Sen. McCain and I are colleagues in the US Congress, not confidantes. He does not consult me. And I do not consult him.” And yet McCain names him as one of the top three people he expects to “rely on heavily”? That, my friends, is not straight talk.
And then there’s the touchy subject, the place no reporter dares to tread: McCain’s POW stories. I wrote recently about how McCain inexplicably switched the Green Bay Packers for the Pittsburgh Steelers in one of his stories about giving false names to his interrogators in Vietnam, a strange embellishment that calls the story itself into question. But McCain has another, even better story, one that ties his War Hero backstory to the Lord God himself: The “Cross in the sand.” You’ve probably heard it. Here it is from Friday:
MCCAIN: One night, I was being punished in that fashion. All of sudden the door of the cell opened and the guard came in. The guy who was just — what we call the gun guard — just walked around the camp with the gun on his shoulder. He went like this and loosened the ropes. He came back about four hours later and tightened them up again and left.
The following Christmas, because it was Christmas day, we were allowed to stand outside of our cell for a few minutes. In those days we were not allowed to see or communicate with each other, although we certainly did. And I was standing outside, for my few minutes outside at my cell. He came walking up. He stood there for a minute, and with his sandal on the dirt in the courtyard, he drew a cross and he stood there. And a minute later, he rubbed it out, and walked away.
For a minute there, there was just two Christians worshiping together. I’ll never forget that moment.
For some reason, there is no record of McCain ever relating this tale prior to 1999, despite the fact that author Robert Timberg interviewed McCain specifically about three of his Christmases in captivity, including 1969, the year McCain now claims the story to have occurred on. McCain gave accounts for each year, which became an entire chapter of Timberg’s book The Nightingale’s Song, but no mention of a cross in the sand. In 2000, Mcain told the story again during his “agents of intolerance” speech, but this time it was a third-person fable: “Many years ago a scared American prisoner of war in Vietnam…”
Then the story goes back to starring McCain. In some iterations, as it was at Saddleback, the cross-drawing guard’s first scene comes in May of the same year, as he mercifully loosens the “torture ropes” McCain is bound with. But McCain was moved to a new prison camp in December of 1969, so how can it be the same guard?
But the real kicker is this: McCain’s “cross in the sand” story is nearly identical to another prisoner’s tale—Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s, from his time in the Soviet Gulag. The great Russian author told of an episode in the Gulag when, his spirits dimming, a fellow inmate drew a cross in the dirt, giving Solzhenitsyn the strength to carry on. It’s also notable that McCain is a big fan of Solzhenitsyn, having written about him in Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life (coauthored by longtime collaborator Mark Salter) in 2004.
The only person to recall McCain telling this story prior to 1999 is—are you ready?—Orson Swindle, a fellow POW to McCain who is now a Washington lobbyist and Republican advocate, and is actively campaigning for McCain. Despite having told Politico in May of this year, “I don’t recall us talking specifically about our faith,” He now begrudges to National Review Online: “I vaguely recall that story being told, among other stories.” Of course.
You may think all this is very sordid. I don’t care. McCain vowed to run a clean, serious campaign and has completely ignored that promise. He has decided to get down with the shit-sniffers who sullied Kerry’s war record, and accused McCain himself of having an illegitimate black baby in South Carolina in 2000. I don’t care if he’s been pressed into acquiescence by major Republican donors or if the whole revolting “celebrity/antichrist” strategy against Obama is entirely his idea. Every Democratic candidate in recent memory has had their reputations mercilessly assaulted—affairs exposed, lies about their past incessantly repeated, while the Republicans enjoyed a strange kind of deference. Bush was a deserter, a cocaine user, a drunk until 40, but those truths just slid right off of him, while GOP strategists used surrogates and their numerous friendlies in the press to turn Democratic candidates’ strengths against them.
McCain has two strengths, aside from his lack of pigmentation: His POW ordeal, and his largely unearned reputation as a straight-talking maverick. Both of these strengths are vulnerable to revelations that McCain is embellishing his POW stories.
The thrall of Obama’s unlikely primary victory over, I think we can all sense that this election isn’t going to be easy, not easy at all. The numbers are closer than they should be, and as election day approaches, many fence-sitters are likely to jump to McCain as the “safe” choice, as idiotic as that truly is.
This election will not be won through civility; they never are. I am not, however, suggesting that people should lie about McCain. Negative political attacks are just fine with me, as long as they are true. And there are plenty of underreported negative truths about McCain to feed a full-scale assault on his reputation until November, which is precisely what needs to happen. The “cross in the sand” and “Steelers defensive line” stories need to become the “I invented the internet” of this election season. It’s long past time to stop playing footsie with these sons of bitches.
If you want to understand why McCain’s “can’t touch this, I’m a War Hero” defense must be eradicated, consider that he has already been revealed by The New York Times as having had an affair with a lobbyist, for Christ’s sake, cheating on the wife he was cheating on his first wife with, and nobody seems to give a damn, while John Edwards, a man not running for dogcatcher at the moment, has captivated public outrage for over a week now for a plain vanilla affair with a woman his age.
Or consider the McCain camp’s reflexive response to the allegations that he broke the Cone of Silence: “The insinuation from the Obama campaign that John McCain, a former prisoner of war, cheated is outrageous.”
What the hell being a POW has to with the matter is anyone’s guess, but it’s a perfect illustration of why it’s a wrongheaded strategy to shy away from scrutinizing McCain’s legend. As long as his heroic confabulations persist in their immunity to criticism, this formula works for anything: “The insinuation from X that John McCain, a former prisoner of war, did Y is outrageous.” While Obama stands accused of playing the “race card” any time he obliquely refers to his ancestry in any way, McCain gets to play the victim at will, for any reason, his pockets bulging with “how can you be mean to me after all I’ve been through” cards.
The only way to pierce McCain’s media Kevlar is to show him for the phony fabulist he really is. This is no time to go wobbly. There can be no doubt that the attacks on Obama will only grow uglier and more dishonest. The Republicans will not hold back; they will not let their consciences interfere with their mission, which is simply to win, no matter what. Refraining from heavy combat is how Democrats lose; we’ve seen enough examples of that by now. Just calling him “McBush” isn’t going to do it, people. So grab a harpoon and start jabbing. It’s time to take this white whale down.