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 character flaw.

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.

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