McCain Falling into the Kerry Trap?

John McCain has a new campaign video out, entitled “Service With Honor.” It’s pretty powerful.

As good as it is, I think the letter accompanying it by Marine legend Orson Swindle, who was imprisoned with McCain in the same camp, is even better. (Although the story Swindle tells in the video, about why McCain didn’t become a Marine, is pretty funny.) Here’s an excerpt:

Things could have been very different for John. The son and grandson of Navy Admirals, the North Vietnamese quickly realized when they captured him that they had a special prisoner from a distinguished military family. In an effort to embarrass us and our country, they offered John early release. John consistently refused those offers, understanding that freedom without honor was not worth having. He kept faith with us, his fellow POWs, and stood by the Code of Conduct through which we pledged “I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.” Because of his dedication to principle, the North Vietnamese made his life a living hell for a number of years.

I was fortunate to know John in prison, and we have remained the closest of friends. His refusal of early release, his constant resistance, and his undying sense of humor were traits we all admired. We were inspired by his commitment to honor and encouraged by his sense of humor. His commitment to principles, straight talk, and honesty in Washington continues to inspire us today. I could never have imagined all those years ago that one day the man sharing a concrete slab for a bed next to me would be a candidate for President of the United States. I am very proud to stand next to him today.

As our country battles a new kind of evil and our fighting men and women take the battle to the terrorist, making incredible sacrifices in their efforts, I think back to those days in Hanoi, back to the experiences that have shaped my life ever since. My friend, John, has been tested through circumstance and fire, has met the challenge, and he is prepared to lead America in difficult times ahead. No one is better qualified to be Commander in Chief. He has made me proud over the years, and I know he will do the same for us all as President.

All that said, though, I wonder if McCain isn’t falling into the same trap as John Kerry in 2004: Campaigning as if it’s 1973. Both men earned Silver Stars for gallantry in battle, more than passing the threshold to be called “war hero” without embarrassment. And what McCain went through in that prison camp for five and a half years is unfathomable to the rest of us. Then again, James Stockdale endured that much and more and became a laughingstock in an hour with one bad debate performance; the public is fickle.

John McCain came home from Vietnam in 1973 and retired from the Navy in 1981 after twenty-three years of honorable service. He got elected to the U.S. House of Representatives the next year and then to Barry Goldwater’s Senate seat in 1984. That means he’s been a Member of Congress for longer than he was a naval officer.

There’s not a Republican voter who doesn’t honor McCain’s sacrifices for his country in Vietnam; not too many Americans, period, probably. On the other hand, he’s got a lot of explaining to do about his record as a United States Senator. Ultimately that, not his time in Vietnam, is what voters will judge him on in 2008.

FILED UNDER: 2004 Election, 2008 Election, Congress, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Director Mitch says:

    There are lots of men and women in uniform who I would shake their hand, buy them a drink, and thank them for serving our country.

    That doesn’t mean I would want them as my president.

  2. ken says:

    Judging McCain by his Senate record you would think he was an agent for the Chinese communists.

    Throughout his twenty plus years as a US Senator he never once, that’s right never once, found anything that our government does worth paying for. Nothing, nada, zip.

    If McCain had his way the USA would not exist.

  3. Eneils Bailey says:

    I agree with you 100 per cent.
    I have the utmost respect for John McCain and what he went through for this country. It is enough to make you cry when you read about what he endured for this country at the POW camps. And I have no problems with the people of Arizona who keep him a a United States Senator.
    It always surprises the leftoids when you can speak of a personal life and separate that from their political life. If I came face to face with John McCain, I would be in awe of him as a person. And I would disagree with him vehemently on his political decisions. I could dish out my disagreements with him, but I am sure he could take it. No doubt, he has seen far worse than me.
    I don’t know what he has been through, could not even imagine.
    I salute him, but I can not vote for him.

  4. anjin-san says:

    Did Bush and his crew honor McCain’s sacrifices for his country when they slimed him during the 2000 campaign?

    The “war hero” factor is overrated. I think McCain is a hell of a guy for enduring what he did in ‘Nam. I still don’t really want him to be president.

  5. I’m not sure where McCain is going with this. His service is absolutely a plus. But, like Kerry found out, service is not a trump card that excuses all else.

    I suppose it doesn’t hurt to push something that you would probably find 99% of republicans would give McCain high marks on, but the problems McCain is having with the republican base doesn’t stem from their forgetting he served.

    The best thing you can say for it is that it is a positive message telling us about McCain (and thus why we should vote for him) as opposed to a negative message tearing down his competition.

  6. Bithead says:

    All that said, though, I wonder if McCain isn’t falling into the same trap as John Kerry in 2004: Campaigning as if it’s 1973.

    You make it sound like this is a change for him.

  7. cian says:

    There’s not a Republican voter who doesn’t honor McCain’s sacrifices for his country in Vietnam; not too many Americans,

    Absolutely James. His extraordinary heroism cannot be denied, and as an ordinary Joe challenged by nothing more than the usual trials and tribulations of 21st century middle American life, his courage has always been an inspiration.

    But politics in general, and the presidency particularly, is all about the art of the possible and, as we have seen over the past few months, requires huge compromise and an innate ability to pander. No matter how he tries, it just doesn’t suit a man of McCain stature and it shows.

    Also, as was pointed out by veteran organisations at the time, the swiftboat attack didn’t just ridicule Kerry’s medals, it put a question mark over all such awards. Watching supporter of President Bush wearing band aids on their faces at the republican convention in 2004 was truly depressing. What was it that sticker Homer wore in one episode said? Oh yeah, ‘Supporting some of our troops’. Get one to General Pace, quick.

  8. Wayne says:

    McCain service and Kerry service including Kerry’s three weeks on the river has little in common. Saying they both receive the Silver Star is misleading as well particularly for that time period. It implies they both did similar actions to receive it, which was often not the case.

    I admire McCain’s service. Although it ticks me off when he acts like he knows how it is to be in any branch of the service. A pilot’s and infantryman’s job are completely different not to mention Special Forces.

    However the only way I will vote for McCain using the current list of candidates for president is if he is running against Clinton.

  9. Eneils Bailey says:

    “I salute him, but I can not vote for him.”

    Thanks Wayne, for reminding me, my comment is in the context of the Presidential Primary.

    In the general election, holding my nose and crossing my fingers, I would vote for McCain over any democrat in the field.

  10. Steve Perry says:

    I have voted for McCain and will continue to vote for him and support him with all my heart. Although a republican, he tries to reach consensus with the other party, but does what he thinks is right regardless of the consequences. Think about the other front runners in the Republican primaries. Have they changed their positions on important issues? Positions that they ran on over and over again when they began running for President? What stands have they taken that were sure to alienate a large section of their own party? And what sacrifices have they made for this country? Sure John served in the Navy, but he’s been a member of the Armed Services committee for a long time so it’s kind of a hollow argument to say he doesn’t know what it’s like to be in the Army. What do Romney, Giuliani, Clinton, Obama, Gingrich, Edwards, or any of the others know about the military– period? What sacrifices have they made that shows their love of our country?