How Vietnam Shaped John McCain's Worldviews

The presidential candidates' experiences abroad have shaped their worldviews, and those views offer clues about how they would govern. Both Barack Obama and John McCain have expressed those views in memoirs. Newsweek editor Jon Meacham talks with Steve Inskeep in the second of two conversations about the candidates' worldviews, finishing with McCain's experiences as a POW during the Vietnam war.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Just as the presidential candidates reduce themselves to simple soundbites, we've been going the other way. We've been rereading the candidates' multiple books. In those works, John McCain and Barack Obama offer a fuller picture of themselves.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Yesterday we heard about Barack Obama's youth in Indonesia. In his writing, Obama uses that as a metaphor for the way he views the world.

MONTAGNE: John McCain, of course, was also in Southeast Asia during the 1960s, though the experience was very different. We talked about that experience with Jon Meacham of Newsweek.

Mr. JON MEACHAM (Editor, Newsweek; Author) Well, he was shot down 41 years ago this week. He was a grandson of an admiral, the son of an admiral, comes from a long line of warriors. The family traces its warrior line, actually, back to Charlemagne. There's been a McCain in every - each of America's wars since the Revolution.

INSKEEP: John McCain was captured by the North Vietnamese when his plane was shot down in 1967. They tortured him and held him for more than five years. McCain co-authored a memoir and other works that described that as a key to his character.

Mr. MEACHAM: He is absolutely resolute. In crisis, under fire, his instinct is to endure, not to compromise. Remember, he has a very sophisticated view of the Vietnam War. When he came back, he asked to go to the War College so he could basically catch up and figure out what had happened.

INSKEEP: Oh, he'd missed the whole war, basically. A lot of it.

Mr. MEACHAM: Yeah. Five years he'd only been told what the Communists wanted to tell him. And it's interesting his father too, just as a sort of a tragic side note, had to authorize bombings of Hanoi that could have killed his son. So this is a family that understands the price of war. And John McCain is not eager to use force; I think that's wrong. He's someone whose life experience is if you are going to commit American troops to a conflict, then you damn well better be prepared to do what you have to do to win.

INSKEEP: Meaning the lesson that he took from that was not bad war, bad idea, bad choice, but we could have executed it better.

Mr. MEACHAM: Precisely. He also has - when he went into politics in the 1980s, he has a slightly more complicated record on questions of projections of power. He was against putting the Marines in Lebanon in 1983.

INSKEEP: Let's add another nuance here, though. Because as you read through the multiple books that John McCain has written with Mark Salter, you come across in a book called "Hard Call" a chapter that is admiring of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, even though Niebuhr was somebody who opposed the war in Vietnam. As McCain summarizes it here, he believed that in Vietnam we'd fallen into the trap of deluding ourselves that we were invariably a force for goodness in the world. How did McCain come to be an admirer of someone who was such an opponent of it?

Mr. MEACHAM: Because McCain is a moral realist which is, I think, a Niebuhrian construct. Niebuhr is the great Protestant theologian who had a hugely tragic view of the world that the world would never fully conform to our wishes. We can never make it be exactly what we want it to be. And Niebuhr, as a Christian, found the essence of the gospel message to be tragic.

INSKEEP: I wonder if you look at this theologian who argued that you have to get in and get your hands dirty, basically, in real life, if you have a key to the way this particular Senator John McCain has thought. If you think about the legislator who's gone in and compromised with people in trying to get the best bill that he can, or the senator who supported the Iraq War even though he seems over the years to have had grave doubts about the way it's being waged, or even the senator who last summer looked at this conflict between Russia and Georgia that most of us were bewildered by, and he chose a side and said, these guys are right, these guys are wrong, and let's support them.

Mr. MEACHAM: He clearly understands the art of compromise. He has passed significant legislation. He has made mistakes. The Keating Five scandal where he was seen as being too close to a savings and loan that was looking for government favors. McCain didn't grant them, but he was part of an ethics investigation that shamed him, I think, is a safe way of putting it. And instead of shutting down or mindlessly defending himself, he threw himself into campaign finance reform. He tried to learn from it and then do better.

I think that's a classic kind of Niebuhrian thing to do. You do the best you can with what you have. And I think if people are looking for some grand McCain doctrine of foreign policy, I think you probably look in vain. I think he is ultimately a big-hearted man who believes in - he has a far more romantic view of America's role in the world than Senator Obama does. I think that clearly comes out of the books and...

INSKEEP: What do you mean romantic?

Mr. MEACHAM: I think he has a more epic sense that America can be the America of 1945. I sometimes have to really make an effort to remind myself that John McCain fought in Vietnam and not the Second World War. And I'm not being cute about his age. He just feels like a figure from that war as opposed to Vietnam.

INSKEEP: What does it mean that we've had these discussions about these two very different men, Barack Obama and John McCain, and both times we've wandered around to the subject of Reinhold Niebuhr, the same theologian with this very complicated view of the world, this effort to see the world in nuance but still make a moral choice about it? Does that suggest that they are alike in their thinking in ways that neither of them would want to admit a couple of days before the election?

Mr. MEACHAM: Absolutely. I think they're much more similar than dissimilar. I think they both have tragic sensibilities. They both like "For Whom the Bell Tolls," Hemingway's novel about the Spanish Civil War, which, as you remember, Robert Jordan, the hero of the novel, he joins the forces fighting the fascists in Spain. And the novel ends with - in the popular memory of the novel - Jordan dying. Jordan doesn't die at the end of the novel. It's interesting. He's lying on the forest floor.

INSKEEP: He's been left for dead. He's left himself for dead.

Mr. MEACHAM: But he doesn't die. The image Hemingway leaves us with is the heart pounding on the forest floor as he is taking aim at an enemy of freedom, and then the novel ends. I think the fact that both men - both Obama and McCain - have talked about the importance of that novel suggests that they have a very similar worldview in that they believe in doing their duty as best they can, they believe in trying to do the right as best they can determine what that is, and I think there's a sincerity and a conviction in both men.

And I think that, if anything, given the incredible distinction between their ages, their life experience - you can go down the list - but at heart, they both see the world essentially the same way. It is tragic. It is destined to disappoint us. But we have to do the best we can to ameliorate that disappointment.

INSKEEP: Jon Meacham of Newsweek magazine and also author of "American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House," thanks for reading these selections with us and talking about them.

Mr. MEACHAM: Thanks so much.

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