November 26, 1999
John McCain in the Crucible
By JAMES B. STOCKDALE
CORONADO, Calif. -- I am not surprised by reports that Senator John McCain's political
enemies have been spreading rumors that his famous temper is a sign of a broader
"instability" caused by his imprisonment in Vietnam.
In fact, a few weeks ago I received a call from an old friend who is also close to the
George W. Bush campaign soliciting comments on Mr. McCain's "weaknesses." As I
told that caller, I think John McCain is solid as a rock.
And I consider it blasphemy to smudge the straight-arrow prisoner-of-war record of a
man who was near death when he arrived at Hoa Loa prison 1967: both arms broken, left leg
broken, left shoulder broken by a civilian with a rifle butt.
He was eventually taken to the same rat-infested hospital room I had occupied two years
earlier, and, like me, he had surgery on his leg. By then the Vietnamese had discovered
that his father was the ranking admiral in the Pacific Fleet, and he received an offer
that, as far as I know, was made to no other American prisoner: immediate release, no
strings attached. He refused, thereby sentencing himself to four more years in a cell.
There was a special cramped and hot privy-like structure in that Hanoi prison reserved
for whichever American was causing the Vietnamese the most trouble. I was the first in the
camp to be locked up in it, and I gave it the name Calcutta.
There was only room for one person at a time in the cage, and after a couple of months
I was taken out and marched back to a regular cell. As I limped along, I sneaked a peek at
my replacement: John McCain, hobbling along on his own bad leg.
As one of the few Americans who spent more than four years in solitary confinement
during that war, I know that pride and self-respect lead to aggressiveness, and
aggressiveness leads to a deep sense of joy when one is under pressure. This is hardly a
The military psychiatrists who periodically examine former prisoners of war have found
that the more resistant a man was to harsh treatment, the more emotionally stable he is
likely to become later in life.
The troublemakers who endured long stretches in solitary, the men we called the tigers,
are for the most part more in tune with themselves now than are those who chose the easier
path of nonconfrontation, which made them "deserving" of cell mates. The
psychiatrists tell us that many of those prisoners who chose a more docile existence
missed out on the joy of "getting even" after release; some look back on their
performances with regret.
The psychiatrists have it partly right, but the truth of imprisonment is best learned
from the writings of men who have spent a lot of time in cells, like Dostoyevsky,
Cervantes and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The last described his feeling of high-mindedness in
his gulag writings:
"And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within
myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line
separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between
political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human
hearts. . . .
And that is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the
astonishment of those about me: 'Bless you, prison!' "
I understand that, and so does John McCain.
James B. Stockdale, a retired Navy Vice Admiral, was the Reform Party
vice-presidential candidate in 1992.