Today Michael Scherer quotes David Foster Wallace.
And uses the quote to bang Johnny Mac a little bit on the timetable dust-up between McCain and Romney.
The ironic thing is that the quote comes from a Wallace piece in Rolling Stone that was written about John McCain. Back in 2000. And it is the reason that we fell in love with the Senator from Arizona in the first place.
In fact, we liked the piece so much that we cited it last March. And today might be a good opportunity to re-run some of the passages that Scherer left out.
The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys And The Shrub, from Rolling Stone Issue #838 (April 13, 2000):
But there’s something underneath politics in the way you have to hear McCain, 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, getting tortured and starved. And the unbelievable honor and balls he showed there,
It’s very easy to gloss over the POW thing, partly because we’ve heard so much about it and partly because its so off the charts dramatic, like something in a movie instead of a man’s life. But it’s worth considering for a moment, because it’s what makes McCain’s “causes greater than self-interest” line easier to hear.
You probably already know what happened. In October of ’67 McCain was himself still a Young Voter and flying his 23rd 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 of McCain’s arms and one leg and gave him a concussion and he started falling out of the skies over Hanoi.
Try to imagine how much this would hurt and how scared you’d be, three limbs broken and falling towards 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…
A (Vietnamese) crowd pulled him out and just about killed him…
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 degrees to the side with the bone sticking out. Try to imagine this.
He finally got tossed in a jeep and taken to the infamous Hoa Lo Prison where they made him beg for 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…
Think about how diametrically opposed to your own self-interest getting knifed in the balls and having fractures set without pain killers would be, and then about getting thrown in a cell to just lie there and hurt, which is what happened.
He was delirious with pain for weeks, and his weight dropped to 100 pounds, and the other POWs were sure he would die; and then after a few months like that after his bones mostly knitted and he could sort of stand up they brought him in to the prison commandant’s office and offered to let him go.
This is true. They said he could just leave. They had found out that McCain’s father was one of the top-ranking naval officers in the U.S. Armed Forces, and the North Vietnamese wanted the PR coup of mercifully releasing his son, the baby-killer. McCain, 100 pounds and barely able to stand, refused.
The U.S. military’s Code of Conduct for Prisoner’s of War apparently said that POWs had to be released in the order that they were captured, and there were others who’d been in Hoa Lo a long time, and McCain refused to violate the Code.
The commandant, not please, right there in the office had guards break his ribs, rebreak his arm, knock his teeth out. McCain still refused to leave without the other POWs.
And so then he spent four more years in Hoa Lo like this, much of the time in solitary, in the dark, in a closet-sized box called a “punishment-cell”.
Try to imagine the moment that moment between getting offered early release and 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. Can you hear it? You simply can’t know for sure. None of us can. It’s hard to even imagine the pain and fear in that moment, much less know how you’d react.
But, see, we do know how this man reacted. That he chose to spend four more years there, 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 we know, for a proven fact, that he’s capable of devotion to something other, more than his own self-interest. So that when he says the line in speeches you can feel like maybe it isn’t just more candidate bullshit, that with this guy it’s maybe the truth. Or maybe both the truth and bullshit; the guy 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.
The fact is that John McCain is a genuine hero of the only kind that Vietnam now has to offer, a hero not because of what he did but because of what he suffered – voluntarily, for a Code. This gives him the moral authority both to utter lines about causes beyond self-interest and to expect us, even in this age of Spin and lawyerly cunning, to believe he means them.