John McCain’s flight suit, helmet, and parachute are on display in a glass case at a Hanoi prison nine blocks from where President Trump is expected to meet with the North Korean leader this week.
The arched brick entrance to what the Vietnamese call Hoa Lo Prison and American POWs dubbed the Hanoi Hilton still bears the words “MAISON CENTRALE” that McCain would recall seeing when he was carried there a half century ago.
At the time, McCain had two broken arms and a broken leg suffered while ejecting from his stricken warplane. He had been beaten and bayoneted after he landed in Truc Bach Lake, which is also within easy walking distance of the upcoming summit with Kim Jong Un.
The site of the capture is now marked by a stone monument. The inscription is in Vietnamese but a date and name is recognizable to an English speaker.
“26-10-1967...JOHN SIDNEY MCCAIN”
Of course, neither the monument inscription nor the museum display make any mention of the years of torture McCain suffered. Nor is there mention of the offer of early release the Vietnamese made to McCain 10 months after his capture. They did so upon learning his father was the new commander-in-chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific.
McCain famously refused, citing the P.O.W. Code of Conduct, which prohibits accepting special favors from the enemy, including being released other than in the order of capture. He would later voice a more visceral reason, drawn from that selfless sector of the soul from which true American greatness rises.
"I knew that every prisoner the Vietnamese tried to break, those who had arrived before me and those who would come after me, would be taunted with the story of how an admiral's son had gone home early, a lucky beneficiary of America's class-conscious society," McCain would subsequently explain.
At the time, McCain simply told the Vietnamese he was not interested. He would recall one of the guards warning, “Now, McCain, it will be very bad for you.”
That very same week in July of 1968, Local Draft Board No. 3 in Jamaica, Queens, New York changed Donald Trump’s classification from 2S (“registrant deferred because of activity in study”) to 1A (“available for military service.”) Trump was suddenly in danger of being drafted and sent to Vietnam.
By October, Trump had secured a letter from a doctor saying that he suffered from bone spurs in his heels. Trump was reclassified to 1Y (“registrant qualified for service only in time of war or national emergency”) and then 4F (“registrant not qualified for military service.”) He remained free to ride around New York City in a limo and pursue a social life that later prompted him to say that STDs were “my Vietnam.”
In the meantime, McCain endured five more years of torture and torment. He survived to become a U.S. senator from Arizona and to run unsuccessfully for president.
When Trump took a turn at running for president, McCain took exception with his base-rousing description of Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals. Trump responded by declaring that McCain was “not a war hero.”
“He's a war hero because he was captured,” Trump famously remarked. “I like people that weren't captured.”
After Trump said that, nobody should have been surprised by all the other things he said. Nobody who supported him could later truthfully say they did not know what he was like. Nobody who voted for him could rightly say it was to make America great again. He was in collusion with what is worst in us, whether or not Special Counsel Robert Mueller finds he was in collusion with the Russians.
Trump’s attempts to intimidate the special counsel by calling the investigation a “witch hunt” only sound ludicrous when you consider the citation for the Bronze Star that Mueller received for his actions on Dec. 11, 1968 while serving as a Marine platoon commander in Vietnam.
“2nd Lt. Mueller fearlessly moved from one position to another, directing the accurate counter fire of his men and shouting words of encouragement to them,” the citation for the Bronze Star reads. “With complete disregard for his own safety, he then skillfully supervised the evacuation of casualties from the hazardous area and, on one occasion, personally led a fire team across the fire-swept terrain to recover a mortally wounded Marine who had fallen in a position forward of the friendly lines. 2nd Lt. Mueller’s courage, aggressive initiative and unwavering devotion to duty at great personal risk were instrumental in the defeat of the enemy force.”
Mueller had also been deemed 4F in 1967, only his classification was an unwelcome one due to a knee he injured playing sports. He recovered and also secured a letter to his draft board from a doctor, only his said he was fit for service.
In his postwar roles as a homicide prosecutor, a U.S. attorney, and FBI director, Mueller proved as focused and disciplined and resolute as his platoon remembers him in even the most intense combat. He has no doubt been the same as special counsel.
As Mueller was pressing ahead with his investigation, leaking nothing, no doubt examining whatever merited examining, McCain succumbed to brain cancer. His funeral procession from the Capitol paused at the Vietnam War memorial on the way to the National Cathedral.
McCain had quietly made it known he did not want Trump to attend the services and the president began the day ranting from the White House on Twitter about trade with Canada and the news media. Trump then headed for the golf course, wearing a white hat bearing the slogan that he once more tweeted at the end of the day.
“MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
McCain left behind a message of his own, a final one well worth remembering. McCain essentially said America has always been and always will be great. The challenge is for us to live up to what makes her so.
“To be connected to America’s causes—liberty, equal justice, respect for the dignity of all people—brings happiness more sublime than life’s fleeting pleasures. Our identities and sense of worth are not circumscribed but enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves. ‘Fellow Americans'—that association has meant more to me than any other. I lived and died a proud American. We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil. We are blessed and are a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world. We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. We have acquired great wealth and power in the process.”
He went on, “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.”
He spoke with love, “We are three-hundred-and-twenty-five million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.”
And he ended with hope, “Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.”
Of course, Trump continued to slight McCain even in death, most recently at a private luncheon with TV news anchors preceding the State of the Union address. Trump said with a telling pettiness, “By the way, he wrote a book and the book bombed.”
Meanwhile, Mueller has continued on. As the special counsel's report looms and Trump’s troubles mount, the draft-dodger who was elected president promising to Make America Great Again is seeking to Make America Diverted Again by meeting for a second time with Kim Jong Un.
And this summit is set for where else but in the capital of Vietnam. You can be sure Trump will again hit it off with a murderous and manipulative dictator who knows exactly how to play a narcissist with troubles at home.
And nine blocks away will be the prison displaying the flight suit of a great American who proved himself a true war hero after he was captured.