Last year at the dedication of the National Prisoner of War Museum in Andersonville, Georgia, former Attorney General Griffin Bell, a Democrat, introduced Senator John McCain, the featured speaker, with these words: "We often hear people now say, where are our heroes, where have all our heroes gone? Well, Senator McCain is an authentic, living American hero."
Over the years, the Arizona senator with the hard-won head of white hair has survived three plane crashes, a firestorm at sea, North Vietnamese prison camps, a national scandal, as well as his own mercurial and lusty temperament, to emerge as a major player on the national political stage.
During four years in the House and twelve in the Senate, he has defined himself as a mainstream conservative, though neither a dogmatic nor a predictable one. He has earned a reputation for independence that some say borders on stubbornness while displaying a willingness to take on tough, often thankless issues. He is called a maverick, which in some ways is accurate and may appeal to voters. But the term can be a two-edged sword in that it may trivialize the decade and a half he has spent in Congress as a hardworking, effective legislator.
Today, having just won reelection to a third six-year term, he is running for the Republican presidential nomination. He faces formidable obstacles—modest name identification, no national political or financial base, and the hostility of many fellow Republicans because of his efforts to pass campaign finance and antitobacco legislation. But, as with Ronald Reagan, one of his enduring political heroes, only a fool underestimates John McCain.
Nor should anyone underestimate the impact on McCain of a long-ago war, a war that fractured a generation of young Americans and created a divide that may never be bridged. McCain spent five and a half years in North Vietnamese prisons, thirty-one months in solitary. Brutally tortured, he left prison crippled. And yet, almost immediately upon his release in 1973, he began putting Vietnam behind him. He told himself that whatever destiny had in store for him, good or bad—and it had both—he was going to fulfill it, prison or no prison. And somehow he has. But this sunniest, most life-affirming of men rarely loses sight of what he has called "the shadow of Vietnam."
To understand McCain and how he arrived at where he is today, one must first recognize the role played by Ronald Reagan in bringing Vietnam veterans—and with them the rest of the armed forces— back into the mainstream of American life. Absent Ronald Reagan, there certainly would have been a John McCain. But there may never have been a Senator John McCain, let alone the prospect of a President John McCain.
In the fall of 1980, a few weeks before Election Day, my newspaper job took me to Carter campaign headquarters in Austin, where I hoped to get a sense of how the presidential race was taking shape in Texas, a crucial battleground state. Talking with Carter political aides, still a cocky bunch at that point, I noticed some news clippings tacked to the wall, an irreverent mishmash, like "Far Side" cartoons slapped on the refrigerator door.
The articles on display related to the Reagan campaign, selected to demonstrate the essential looniness of the GOP standard-bearer. The one I remember was about a speech he had given a few days earlier. The headline, as I recall, was "Reagan Calls Vietnam 'Noble Cause.'" One of the Carter guys smirked as he gestured toward it, as if to say, Can you believe this antediluvian horseshit?
Though I had served in the war, I had long since moved beyond thinking of Vietnam as a noble cause, or so I thought. "Nobility" was not the word that sprang to mind in light of the costly misjudgments and tawdry machinations of the men who got us into the war, then found themselves stumped for a way to get us out.
I was thus surprised to find myself seeing red when Reagan's remark met with such ridicule, not just by the Carter aides in Austin but by press colleagues who dismissed it with superior grins and smug putdowns, the newsroom equivalent of boos and hisses.
Years later, as three of John McCain's fellow U.S. Naval Academy graduates—Oliver North, John Poindexter, and Robert McFarlane—were being swept up in the Iran-Contra scandal, that scene in Austin came back to me, made me wonder whether the attitude I encountered there had played any role in driving them to do the things they supposedly had done. I had a strong but vague sense that it had, but I was having trouble putting it together.
Barbara Feldon did it for me. One day in 1987, as Iran-Contra was at its height, old Agent 99, Maxwell Smart's trusty sidekick, spoke at a Labor Department symposium in Washington. Appearing in her capacity as president of the Screen Actors Guild, she told a little story.
"Did you know," she asked, "that a nightingale will never sing its song if it doesn't hear it first?" If it hears robins or wrens, she said, it will never croak a note. "But the moment it hears any part of a nightingale's song, it bursts into this extraordinary music, sophisticated, elaborate music, as though it had known it all the time.
"And, of course, it had."
She explained that scientists had learned that the nightingale has a template in its brain that contains all the notes for the music, but that the bird cannot sing unless its song is first triggered by the song of another nightingale.
Feldon's speech had nothing to do with Iran-Contra or John McCain. However, the tale of the nightingale, it seemed to me, harmonized perfectly with the burgeoning scandal. I began to think of McFarlane, North, and Poindexter in their pre–White House years as akin to young nightingales, voices caught in their throats, awaiting the song of another nightingale. And, on finally hearing the melody, responding with a vigor and enthusiasm that resulted in several notable achievements, but perhaps Iran-Contra as well.
The "noble cause" speech was part of the song that attracted McFarlane, North, and Poindexter to Ronald Reagan. It did the same for John McCain and millions of other Vietnam veterans. Not that Reagan or McCain did not know by then that incompetence, cynicism, and double-dealing had gone into America's failed commitment to South Vietnam. What Reagan was saying, and more important, what John McCain and men like him were hearing was that when they or their fellow soldiers headed off to war, they did so believing that the cause was just—indeed, in its way, noble.
They were also hearing Reagan say that even if the mission was later tarnished beyond redemption, in a distant land under the most brutal of circumstances their friends and comrades, in some cases they themselves, often acted with a raw courage that by any measure qualified as noble.
Reagan was not a newcomer to the issue. In his unsuccessful 1976 presidential campaign, he had repeatedly declared, to what Reagan biographer Lou Cannon remembers as rafter-shaking applause, "Let us tell those who fought in that war that we will never again ask young men to fight and possibly die in a war our government is afraid to win." By 1980 he had distilled it to its essence: "No more Vietnams."
The Nightingale's Song, as rendered by Ronald Reagan, did more than attempt to recast Vietnam as a noble cause. Throughout that 1980 campaign and well into his presidency Reagan regularly portrayed servicemen not as persons to be feared and reviled—ticking time bombs, baby-killers, and the like—but as men to whom the nation should be grateful, worthy of respect and admiration. To the men of the armed forces, he had a single, unvarying theme: I appreciate what you have done. The whole nation does. Wear your uniforms with pride.
Vietnam veterans, of course, were not nightingales waiting to sing for the first time. Before the war, their voices had been lusty and full-throated, their pride a seemingly immutable part of them. But the vocal cords of many had been stunned into silence during the Vietnam era by the hostility and ridicule heaped on them by their own countrymen.
John McCain had been silent by choice. Vietnam, he knew, could kill dreams as surely as it had once killed men. Best not to monkey with it. Use it when you can, learn from it, but don't get too close to it.
For him, the Nightingale's Song performed different roles. At first it served as his overture, priming the audience for his entrance onto the national political stage. After that it became his theme, a tune that greeted his every appearance without his ever having to hum a note, though occasionally, when it suited his purposes, he did.