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Reflections on Historian Mary Hershberger's Piece on McCain's War Record, and a Q&A with the Author


Friday, Oct. 17, 2008

Presidential candidate John McCain has made his military experience and record the centerpiece of his campaign for the presidency. Yet we know little more than what the McCain campaign has told us about that record. Rolling Stone offered an overview that raised a few questions, and the Los Angeles Times published a fleeting (albeit partially erroneous) glance that went beyond McCain's campaign literature. However, no serious and hard investigative examinations have been made to determine if McCain's claims about his "heroic" record are true.

Mainstream news organizations such as CBS, NBC and ABC News, the AP and major daily newspapers are probably concerned about embarking on such an inquiry because of what happened during 2004 presidential race: "Swift Boat" veterans from the Vietnam War circulated brutal, dishonest and disgusting smears, falsely attacking John Kerry's war record, largely because they were unhappy with his anti-war activities after he completed his military service. Kerry, it seems, thought the charges were so patently untrue and outrageous that he did not bother to respond to the charges. He also lost that election by a close margin which many attribute to his being "swift-boated."

Much of the mainstream news media was complicit in the attacks against Kerry by the Swift Boat veterans. They treated this bogus assault as news, not feeling it was their task to sort fact from fiction. After Kerry lost, many news organizations realized that they had been effectively manipulated and used by Kerry's opponents. So sleazy were the Swift Boat attacks, that now, in 2008, not only have news organization shied away from any such coverage, but journalists have also largely given John McCain a pass on his war record. They doubtless fear they will be seen as Swift Boaters in this year's contest if they even attempt to dig out the truth.

Fortunately, however, a few historians who are familiar with McCain's true record - and the one-sided distortion of that record by his campaign - do not believe it serves democracy for them to remain silent. One such historian is Mary Hershberger, who has spent many years examining what did and did not occur in North Vietnam during and after the war with the United States. Her research caused her to read all of the published accounts of the American POWs' experiences, which shed light directly and indirectly on McCain's POW experience.

The Questions Raised By Mary Hershberger About McCain's Record - and a Q&A with Her to Follow Up on Them

Mary recognized, as a result of her research, that John McCain's account was deeply flawed. A few of her observations, particularly regarding the often-overlooked parts of McCain's record, were recently published by Truthdig. I am familiar with Mary's work because I met her many years ago at a lunch with Jane Fonda, when Mary was working on her biography of Jane, which included Fonda's activities in Vietnam. I am now calling attention to Mary's work because I know that she is a solid researcher, and she has raised troubling and fundamental questions about McCain's record.

Her research establishes that McCain has not been honest about his war record, a fact which speaks volumes: McCain is a man who so desperately wants to become president that he is deceiving Americans about his true record, and himself. Here are my questions to Mary, and her responses:

A Few Background Questions and Answers

QUESTION: What prompted you to undertake this devastating examination of the historical truth of McCain's war record?

ANSWER: I was interested as soon as I read his Faith of My Fathers and found it to be a chronological mess. As a historian who believes that it's important to know whether one thing happened before another, I established a time line that, in turn, revealed numerous internal contradictions and discrepancies. So I set out to find reliable documents and sources to help figure things out: newspaper accounts, official reports, interviews with other POWs, and news film. McCain's accounts are, as he might put it, "festooned" with embellishments, and many stories are exaggerated or just made up. For example, it's incomprehensible why he made up the story about Robert Zwerlein, his plane captain on the USS Forrestal, dying before his eyes or why he said that he didn't know who "the kid" was. Zwerlein didn't die that afternoon but lived three more days and died only after McCain skipped off the still-burning Forrestal for what he called "some R&R" in Saigon. How is McCain honoring the memory of his plane captain by turning him into an anonymous prop in a melodramatic tale? And why has he claimed that the Zuni rocket knocked the bomb off his plane when the Navy report and film show that the rocket hit Fred White's plane? Does he realize the significance of insisting that the bomb dropped from his plane when, absent the Zuni strike, it suggests catastrophic pilot error? It takes effort to come up with odd stories like that and after a while you just can't ignore it.

QUESTION: Why is McCain's war record relevant to his potential service as President of the United States?

ANSWER: McCain has made it relevant by presenting it to the voting public as a measure of his readiness to be elected president and "commander in chief," as he is fond of saying. Since he references his military record to establish that he's presidential timber, we ought to examine it so that we can decide for ourselves if that record demonstrates what he says it does: honesty, courage in times of crisis, and steadfast commitment to his fellow servicemen and country above himself.

QUESTION: Has anyone accused you of "Swift Boating" McCain, and if they have, what is your response?

ANSWER: People who read the piece haven't responded that way. There's a big difference between the use of standard research methods and "Swift Boat" tactics that rely on shoddy research, unsupported claims, false assertions, and outright smears. The longer impact of the 2004 "swift boating" of John Kerry is dismaying; for fear of being labeled "Swift Boaters," the press now shies away from ordinary investigation into McCain's military record. It astonishes me that large swathes of the media appear convinced that they can't do that fairly anymore, at least not for Republican candidates. If their attitude lasts, then the Swift Boaters win. Maybe that was their goal all along.

QUESTION: I understand you tried to place this essay with several mainstream media pieces. Who turned it down and, if you know, why?

ANSWER: It was turned down at a number of places, including The Nation and the Huffington Post. They obviously can't use everything they're offered so I don't want to make too much of that, but there were concerns raised about publishing something that could be construed as an attack on McCain's military record.

QUESTION: When your piece was published by Truthdig, it drew a wide range of responses. What did you think of the comments, and did you learn anything from them?

ANSWER: Some comments came from those who are confused about what happened on the Forrestal because of false rumors that the fire was caused by a "wet start" from McCain's plane. Add to that McCain's own misleading stories, and you have a tangle of conflicting claims so dense that people are tempted to throw up their hands and say that we can't ever know what happened. I don't believe that. We can sort through these details and find out what happened. There were also objections to bringing up things that happened years ago, an objection to which I'm sympathetic. In this case, though, unraveling what happened on the Forrestal years ago is relevant because McCain repeatedly points to his navy record as showing that he is strong under pressure and knows how to respond, as he put it recently, "when a crisis calls for all hands on deck." Since he left his stricken ship under what seem to be questionable circumstances, and because his account differs dramatically from official and other credible reports, it becomes a legitimate point of inquiry.

QUESTION: Have you examined other aspects of McCain's war record, and found any similar discrepancies?

ANSWER: There are a lot of discrepancies, beginning in 1982 when he first ran for public office in a district in Arizona he'd recently moved into. People started calling him a "carpetbagger," so he replied that he'd grown up in a Navy family that moved a lot and didn't have a place to call home, so he just moved to his wife's state. It wasn't a strong answer and his campaign floundered until he added that, "as a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place that I lived longest in my life was in Hanoi." After that dramatic claim, raising the carpetbagger issue seemed unpatriotic. It worked like magic and he said it showed him that his time as a POW was "a good first story to sell" on the campaign trail. He's been selling it ever since. The problem, of course, is that it's far from the truth, at least if he lived with his parents while growing up. With the exception of two years, from the time that John was nine until he was in his twenties, they lived in Washington, D.C. They had a house on Capitol Hill where Congressional leaders regularly dropped by for meals. When he returned from Vietnam in 1973, he lived and worked in Washington, D.C, four more years. So, when he made his political claim in 1982 about living longest in Hanoi, he surely knew that it wasn't true, but nobody checked it out and he kept saying it. I heard it most recently on August 21, of this year, when his biographer, Robert Timberg, repeated it as fact on NPR's "Talk of the Nation."

QUESTION: I have heard people speculate that McCain became deeply involved in resolving the "missing in action" problems in Vietnam, and the recognition of Vietnam, because he wanted to keep his own records buried. Did you look at this during your research, and is it a legitimate question?

ANSWER: A lot of people have wondered about that. I haven't looked into it yet but it is certainly a fair question to ask because McCain's claims about his medical treatment in Hanoi and his stories about why he criticized the war while he was a POW diverge significantly from reliable sources that we do have access to. If he would allow relevant records to be released, these questions could be answered.

QUESTION: Do McCain's fellow POW from Vietnam see him as the hero he apparently sees himself as?

ANSWER: There are POWs on both sides but only one perspective gets a voice in the mainstream media. For example, David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times wrote a piece about John McCain's POW experience in which McCain singled out two fellow POWs by name and called them "the camp rats." I spoke with them both and they said the story was false. One of them wrote a letter to the editor, but the Times refused to print it.

Some Closing Thoughts

Recently, the mainstream news media has worried (for good reasons) about its dwindling importance. Its treatment of McCain's record provides an excellent example of why its influence is flagging. The mainstream news media is intimidated by candidates like McCain. As a result, it has collectively given McCain a pass, rather than risk irritating him by digging out the truth of his military background.

Fortunately, all Americans can take heart and solace in the growing power of the Internet, where an historian like Mary Hershberger can find a publisher who will check and verify work and then publish it. As newspaper circulation shrinks, and news broadcasting becomes increasingly fragmented and partisan, the Internet is filling the void. Truthdig, like countless other sites, should be recognized for doing what the old Fourth Estate media no longer is willing to do. Do take the time to read what Mary reports in Truthdig, unless you do not care who John McCain has become.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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