The Magazine


From Teddy Roosevelt to John McCain

Apr 26, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 30 • By DAVID BROOKS
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Almost everywhere John McCain goes on the campaign trail, he gets the Hanoi Hilton introduction. A local poobah will be up on the podium, and he'll be saying what an honor it is to welcome Senator McCain to town. Except that when he says the word "honor" it's with an extra ripple in his voice so you know he means it. And then he mentions the day in 1967 when McCain was shot out of the sky by a Vietnamese ground-to-air missile. He may tell of the broken leg and arms McCain suffered during ejection, and the mob of Vietnamese villagers who found him when he hit the ground and savagely beat and bayoneted him. And then the introducer goes into McCain's five and a half years in the POW camp, two of them spent in solitary. The introducer's voice is down an octave, and at three-quarters speed for dramatic effect. He's genuinely inspired by his tale, and the audience is emotional. And meanwhile Senator McCain sits there waiting to get up and speak, listening to the story for the millionth time. He wears an expression appropriate to a man who is modest but moved -- his mouth is flat and stoical and his eyes have that 1,000-mile stare.

This 30-year-old wartime episode has become the constant companion of McCain's public life. "To be honest," he says in a private moment, "I get uncomfortable when they keep talking about it. Not because I get flashbacks or nightmares. But I can't tell you how many have performed greater acts. And after all these years it bores me. After all these years you'd rather talk about something else."

But McCain plays his role, knowing that the story, endlessly retold, has its uses. His gripping campaign video plays it to the hilt, complete with North Vietnamese photos of McCain being dragged away by the Vietnamese mob, then lying half-dead in the POW camp. But the story has deeper uses as well. Because McCain isn't just another politician running for president. He is also a traveling icon. He personifies heroism and patriotism. And through him, audiences are able to savor patriotic sentiments, which in this day and age, they don't otherwise have many opportunities to express.

All politicians stand in front of American flags, but McCain more than most believes in stoking patriotic fervor, and in cultivating patriotism as an end in itself. He uses the word "patriot" more than just about any other living politician, even where it is almost out of place. "Patriot" is one of the two words he wants on his tombstone. ("Compassionate" is the other.) And he concludes most of his major speeches with a story of American heroism. Sometimes he tells about a group of Marines who were abandoned on the Mayaguez, and who fought on alone until they disappeared into the mists of history. Sometimes he finishes with the story of Roy Benavidez, a Green Beret who dropped in to rescue a twelve-man American patrol that had been surrounded inside Cambodia in 1968. Benavidez managed to drag several of the men to safety despite suffering seven serious gunshot wounds, twenty-eight shrapnel wounds, and bayonet wounds in both of his arms.

"I fell in love with my country while I was in prison," McCain told an audience at a ceremony honoring Ronald Reagan last year. "I had loved her before then, but like most young people, my affection was little more than a simple appreciation for the comforts and privileges we enjoyed and usually took for granted. It wasn't until I lost America for a time that I realized how much I loved her." Now on the campaign trail, the loss of patriotism is one of McCain's constant themes. "The spirit of America is dissipating," he warns. "People are not proud any more of their institutions. They are not eager for public service, or willing to work for a cause greater than themselves."

It's fascinating to watch McCain and the people who introduce him trying to articulate their patriotism, because for most of this century, patriotism has been the most tongue-tied of the sentiments. Patriotism has had what historian Michael Kammen calls a "spasmodic" history, but patriotic eloquence went into long-term decline after World War I. The volunteers in that war marched off to France to great rousing crescendos of patriotic bluster. The horror they discovered in the trenches and on the no-man's-lands made all that high-flown talk seem false, or disgusting. The English poet Robert Graves recalled that after the war he could hardly bear the sound of patriotic rhetoric, and Ernest Hemingway wrote in A Farewell to Arms that the stockyards-like slaughter of the war made it embarrassing to hear words like sacred, glorious, and sacrifice.