For­mer POWs say McCain’s ex­pe­ri­ence is clear

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics -

ST. PAUL, Minn. | There were 24 of them here, the men who went through hell with John McCain in Viet­namese prison camps four decades ago.

A few were pol­i­tick­ing and or­ga­niz­ing, but most were here sim­ply to sup­port the man they say rep­re­sents a choice for Amer­ica be­tween honor and im­age.

“There is a wan­ing sense of honor and duty [. . . ] and that is trou­bling. And this elec­tion may be all about that very thing,” said Or­son Swindle, who was a cell­mate with Mr. McCain for two years in the in­fa­mous “Hanoi Hil­ton” prison camp.

“Do we want to have an ‘Amer­i­can Idol’ elec­tion, or do we want to elect a man who is ca­pa­ble of do­ing great things and solv­ing big prob­lems?” said Mr. Swindle, one of sev­eral speak­ers who for­mally nom­i­nated Mr. McCain for pres­i­dent on Sept. 3.

Barack Obama, the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee, is viewed by Mr. McCain’s “band of broth­ers” with a mix­ture of pa­ter­nal con­de­scen­sion and dis­be­lief that the younger man has drawn mas­sive pop­u­lar sup­port.

“In my mind, there’s no choice. [Mr. McCain is] so wellqual­i­fied, bet­ter than the op­po­si­tion,” said Dave Wheat, 68, of Du­luth, Minn., who was shot down in Oc­to­ber 1965 and im­pris­oned by the Viet Cong for more than seven years.

“Barack Obama re­peat­edly scares the hell out of me be­cause of his naivete,” Mr. Swindle said. “He has no qual­i­fi­ca­tions for the job other than that he’s a hell of a nice guy.”

Mr. McCain, a Navy pi­lot dur­ing the Viet­nam War, was im­pris­oned in camps for al­most six years af­ter be­ing shot down in his fighter plane on Oct. 26, 1967.

He has not faced the mil­i­tary op­po­si­tion that helped sink the 2004 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign of Demo­crat John Kerry, a fel­low Viet­nam vet­eran.

Fel­low for­mer pris­on­ers of war said Mr. McCain’s ex­pe­ri­ence of tor­ture and cap­tiv­ity stands as an un­de­ni­able tes­ta­ment to his char­ac­ter, tough­ness and pa­tri­o­tism that Mr. Obama can­not touch.

“John McCain went through a cru­cible of ad­ver­sity, and he was there be­ing tested. He came out of it a stronger per­son, a more fo­cused per­son, a per­son who con­ducted him­self with in­cred­i­ble honor,” said Mr. Swindle, 71, who served as as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of com­merce un­der Pres­i­dent Rea­gan.

“If we’ve got a choice be­tween a per­son who’s had that, as op- posed to some­one who’s organized neigh­bor­hoods, give me a break. What’s the is­sue here?”

The Obama cam­paign on Sept. 2 con­tin­ued to re­but crit­i­cism of their can­di­date’s ex­pe­ri­ence by redi­rect­ing at­ten­tion to the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, ar­gu­ing that Mr. McCain rep­re­sents no clear dif­fer­ence from the cur­rent pres­i­dent.

“We honor and re­spect Se­na­tor McCain’s tremendous and heroic ser­vice to the countr y,” said Obama spokesman Hari Se­vu­gan. “What we dis­agree on is John McCain’s plan to con­tinue for an­other four years the same Bush poli­cies that have failed Amer­i­can fam­i­lies for the last eight.”

In his nom­i­na­tion ac­cep­tance speech two weeks ago in Den­ver, Mr. Obama in­di­rectly raised the is­sue of whether Mr. McCain’s years in cap­tiv­ity have made him too emo­tion­ally volatile. “If John McCain wants to have a de­bate about who has the tem­per­a­ment and judg­ment to serve as the next com­man­der in chief, that’s a de­bate I’m ready to have,” Mr. Obama said.

Capi­tol Hill in­sid­ers have whis­pered for years about the is­sue of Mr. McCain’s tem­per.

Rod Knut­son, who was shot down on the same day in 1965 as Mr. Wheat and later was con­fined in a cell next to Mr. McCain’s, said that ex­pe­ri­ence made him “a bet­ter per­son.”

“I have more courage, I have more pa­tri­o­tism, I have bet­ter tol­er­ance for things. I think I’m a bet­ter fa­ther and a bet­ter hus­band, and I think I did a bet­ter job in the Navy. And I think all of those at­tributes can be car­ried over to John McCain,” said Mr. Knut­son, 69, of Thomp­son Falls, Mont.

“It’s not a neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ence at all. It was a hard­ship. It was a sac­ri­fice, and it’s some­thing none of us would ever want to do again, but we’re bet­ter off hav­ing been through it,” he said.

Mr. Knut­son, who re­tired from the Navy af­ter 38 years of ser­vice, paid out of his own pocket to at­tend the con­ven­tion with his wife. He has no of­fi­cial ca­pac­ity here, al­though he and all other for­mer POWs have been given spe­cial seat­ing priv­i­leges.

“I’m just here cheer­ing him on,” Mr. Knut­son said of Mr. McCain.

Mr. Swindle is an ad­viser to the McCain cam­paign on vet­er­ans is­sues and was en­veloped Sept. 2 in a nearly non­stop flurry of phone calls, events and meet­ings.

“It’s chaos,” he said at the Hil­ton ho­tel in Min­neapo­lis, where the McCain cam­paign had its head­quar­ters.

Dur­ing prime time Sept. 2, Mr. Swindle spoke briefly to the crowd in­side the Xcel En­ergy Cen­ter and in­tro­duced Medal of Honor re­cip­i­ents. He told the crowd that two dozen for­mer POWs were in the crowd, and the au­di­ence col­lec­tively gasped.

“Gents, we have come a long way and I am hon­ored to be among you,” Mr. Swindle said. “Would you please stand and be rec­og­nized.”

The crowd gave a long stand­ing ova­tion and chanted, “Thank you, thank you.” The theme that night was “the courage and ser­vice of John McCain.”

Mr. Knut­son was di­rectly be­hind Mr. McCain’s wife, Cindy, who stood along with the crowd and ap­plauded him and the other POWs.

The McCain cam­paign said the se­na­tor had no meet­ing slated with all of the two-dozen for­mer POWs, and the gath­er­ing ini­tially sched­uled for Sept. 1 was post­poned be­cause of the na­tional at­ten­tion to Hur­ri­cane Gus­tav.

For­mer POWs in­ter­viewed by The Wash­ing­ton Times said they were hop­ing for a few mo­ments in pri­vate with Mr. McCain.

“Every­one wants to tug at his coat and tell him, ‘Gee, you ought to do this,’ “ said John L. Bor­ling, 68, a for­mer POW from Rock­ford, Ill. “We’ll be re­spect­ful and cau­tious with re­spect to of­fer­ing gra­tu­itous ideas.”

“Each of us will carry not only a per­sonal mes­sage of sup­port, but we’ve prob­a­bly got a fa­vorite thought or two that we want to be able to share pri­vately,” he said.

The McCain cam­paign said their can­di­date is grate­ful.

“Their pres­ence and sup­port is a pow­er­ful char­ac­ter en­dorse­ment that John McCain will stand on prin­ci­ples and fight for bet­ter days in Amer­ica,” said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds.

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