November 02, 2008

David Foster Wallace on John McCain's honor, courage, and selflessness

For the last few weeks I've tried, unsuccessfully, to read the late David Foster Wallace's Up, Simba!, his account of John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign. I'll read a few pages, get exhausted by the sheer davidfosterwallaceness of it, and put it aside. But there's a passage I just read from it that I need to share.

I wouldn't normally post such a long quote, and maybe it's pushing the limits of Fair Use, but it's DFW and he never settled for saying something in 10 words when 73 would do and besides it's not like he can really complain these days and I'm sorry for the previous remark and oh god now I'm starting to write like him so here's his reason for trusting John McCain:

One of the things that makes John McCain's "causes greater than self-interest" line harder to dismiss... is that this guy also sometimes says things that are manifestly true but which no other mainstream candidate will say. Such as that special-interest money, billions of it, controls Washington and that all this "reforming politics" and "cleaning up Washington" stuff that every candidate talks about will remain impossible until certain well-known campaign-finance scams like soft money and bundles are outlawed. All Congress's talk about health-care reform and a Patients' Bill of Rights, for example, McCain has said publicly is total bullshit because the GOP is in the pocket of HMO lobbies and the Democrats are funded and controlled by trial lawyers' lobbies, and it is in these backers' self-interest to see that the current insane U.S. health-care system stays just the way it is.

But health-care reform is politics, and so's marginal tax rates, and defense procurement, and Social Security, and politics is boring -- complex, abstract, dry, the province of policy wonks and Rush Limbaugh and nerdy little guys on PBS, and basically who cares.

But there's something underneath politics here, something riveting and unSpinnable and true. It has to do with McCain's military background and Vietnam combat and the five-plus years he spent in a North Vietnamese prison, mostly in solitary, in a box-sized cell, getting tortured and starved. And with the unbelievable honor and balls he showed there. It's very easy to gloss over the POW thing, partly because we've all heard so much about it and partly because it's so off-the-charts dramatic, like something in a movie instead of a man's real life. But it's worth considering for a minute, carefully, because it's what makes McCain's "causes greater than self-interest" thing easier to hear.

Here's what happened. In October of '67 McCain was himself still a Young Voter and was flying his 26th Vietnam combat mission and his A-4 Skyhawk plane got shot down over Hanoi, and he had to eject, which basically means setting off an explosive charge that blows your seat out of the plane, which ejection broke both McCain's arms and one leg and gave him a concussion and he started falling out of the skies over Hanoi. Try to imagine for a second how much this would hurt and how scared you'd be, three limbs broken and falling toward the enemy capital you just tried to bomb. His chute opened late and he landed hard in a little lake in a park right in the middle of downtown Hanoi. (There is still an N.V. statue of McCain by this lake today, showing him on his knees with his hands up and eyes scared and on the pediment the inscription "McCan -- famous air pirate" [sic].) Imagine treading water with broken arms and trying to pull the lifevest's toggle with your teeth as a crowd of North Vietnamese men swim out toward you (there's film of this, somebody had a home-movie camera and the N.V. government released it, though it's grainy and McCain's face is hard to see). The crowd pulled him out and then just about killed him. U.S. bomber pilots were especially hated, for obvious reasons. McCain got bayoneted in the groin; a soldier broke his shoulder apart with a rifle butt. Plus by this time his right knee was bent 90 to the side with the bone sticking out. This is all public record. Try to imagine it. He finally got tossed on a Jeep and taken only like five blocks to the infamous Hoa Lo prison -- a.k.a. the Hanoi Hilton, of much movie fame -- where they made him beg a week for a doctor and finally set a couple of the fractures without anesthetic and let two other fractures and the groin wound (imagine: groin wound) stay like they were. Then they threw him in a cell. Try for a moment to feel this. The media profiles all talk about how McCain still can't lift his arms over his head to comb his hair, which is true. But try to imagine it at the time, yourself in his place, because it's important. Think about how diametrically opposed to your own self-interest getting knifed in the balls and having fractures set without a general would be, and then about getting thrown in a cell to just lie there and hurt, which is what happened. He was mostly delirious with pain for weeks, and his weight dropped to 100, and the other POWs were sure he would die; and then, after he'd hung on like like that for several months and his bones had mostly knitted and he could sort of stand up, they brought him to the prison commandant's office and closed the door and out of nowhere offered to let him go. They said he could just... leave. It turned out that U.S. Admiral John S. McCain II had just been made head of all naval forces in the Pacific, meaning also Vietnam, and the North Vietnamese wanted the PR coup of mercifully releasing his son, the baby-killer. And John S. McCain III, 100 lbs and barely able to stand, refused the offer. The U.S. military's Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War apparently said that POWs had to be released in the order they were captured, and there were others who'd been in Hoa Lo a way longer time, and McCain refused to violate the Code. The prison commandant, not pleased, right there in the office had guards break McCain's ribs, rebreak his arm, knock his teeth out. McCain still refused to leave without the other POWs. Forget how many movies stuff like this happens in and try to imagine it as real. Refusing release. He spent four more years in Hoa Lo like this, much of the time in solitary, in the dark, in a special closet-sized box called a "punishment cell." Maybe you've heard all this before; it's been in umpteen different profiles of McCain this year. It's overexposed, true. Still though, take a second or two to do some creative visualization and imagine the moment between McCain getting offered early release and his turning it down. Try to imagine it was you. Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interest would have cried out to you in that moment, and all the ways you could rationalize accepting the offer: What difference would one less POW make? Plus maybe it'd give the other POWs hope and keep them going, and I mean 100 pounds and expected to die and surely the Code of Conduct doesn't apply to you if you need a real doctor or else you're going to die, plus if you could stay alive by getting out you could make a promise to God to do nothing but Total Good from now on and make the world better and so your accepting would be better for the world than your refusing, and maybe if Dad wasn't worried about the Vietnamese retaliating against you here in prison he could prosecute the war more aggressively and end it sooner and actually save lives so you could actually save lives if you took the offer and got out versus what real purpose gets served by you staying here in a box and getting beaten to death, and by the way oh Jesus imagine it a real doctor and real surgery and painkillers and clean sheets and a chance to heal and not be in agony and to see your kids again, your wife, to smell your wife's hair... can you hear it? What would be happening in your head? Would you have refused the offer? Could you have? You can't know for sure. None of us can. It's hard even to imagine the levels of pain and fear and want in that moment, much less to know how you'd react. None of us can know.

But, see, we do know how this man reacted. That he chose to spend four more years there, mostly in a dark box, alone, tapping code on the walls to the others, rather than violate a Code. Maybe he was nuts. But the point is that with McCain it feels like we know, for a proven fact, that he is capable of devotion to something other, more, than his own self-interest. So that when he says the line in speeches now you can feel like maybe it's not just more candidate bullshit, that with this guy it's maybe the truth. Or maybe both the truth and bullshit: McCain does want your vote, after all.

But that moment in the Hoa Lo office in '68 -- right before he refused, with all his basic normal human self-interest howling at him -- that moment is hard to blow off...

You might even call it the Audacity of Hope.

Can you imagine if Obama was ever put in such as situation? I can't picture him conducting himself quite so honorably, especially considering that most POW camps aren't outfitted with teleprompters. Considering he wouldn't have David Axelrod and Charlie Gibson there to conduct a smear campaign against his captors. Although maybe -- and keep in mind that there's no way I can prove this, I'm just speculating -- maybe that level of physical suffering would actually cause Obama to say something that was true.

If the NVA couldn't kill John McCain, neither can the NYT.

Posted by Jim Treacher at November 2, 2008 07:09 AM