If you already know who you’re voting for, the new Rolling Stone profile of John McCain is either the story nobody else has had the guts to tell or it’s swiftboating raised to an art form. (Tim Dicksinson isn’t the first writer to take a crack at McCain for Rolling Stone. The late David Foster Wallace rode the Straight Talk Express in 2000.)
The McCain described in Tim Dickinson’s 11,000-word story wasn’t much of a navy pilot before he was nothing special as a POW, and since he left Hanoi 35 years ago he hasn’t been much of a husband, senator, or human being. This, says Dickinson at the outset, “is the story of a man who has consistently put his own advancement above all else, a man willing to say and do anything to achieve his ultimate ambition: to become commander in chief, ascending to the one position that would finally enable him to outrank his four-star father and grandfather.”
Dickinson compares him to another POW, air force pilot John Dramesi. “McCain broke down under torture and offered a ‘confession’ to his North Vietnamese captors. Dramesi, in contrast, attempted two daring escapes.” After coming home, both officers enrolled in service colleges that would send them abroad. They talked about their plans.
Dramesi said he was going to travel through the Middle East — “It’s a place we’re probably going to have some problems.” McCain said he was going to Rio. Why? Dramesi asked. Dickinson, who obviously got the story from Dramesi, continues, “McCain, a married father of three, shrugs. ‘I got a better chance of getting laid.'”
Then Dramesi says, according to Dickinson, “McCain says his life changed while he was in Vietnam, and he is now a different man. But he’s still the undisciplined, spoiled brat that he was when he went in.”
Most of us consider McCain’s conduct as a POW out of bounds. Who are we to judge? Dramesi’s more than willing to.
I met John Dramesi 35 years ago when I was writing a series of articles on the returned POWs for the Sun-Times. I called him at home in Pennsylvania on Thursday to ask if he’d really said those things about McCain, but I was sure he had. They sounded just like him. To establish Dramesi’s bona fides, Dickinson even has McCain hailing him as “one of the toughest guys I’ve ever met,” but hailing — that’s Dickinson’s verb — is deceptive. Dramesi was one of the most unpopular prisoners in the camps. He was so tough he was viewed as a danger to the health, and even the lives, of the other POWs.
Dramesi knows what they thought about him, and still think. He told me, “If you talk to another POW — and I’ve been told this — if you mention my name to another POW, if you meet somebody and you find out they were a POW, and they’ll be telling you stories, and you say ‘I know a POW.’ ‘Who do you know?’ ‘I know John Dramesi.’ All of a sudden the conversation will come to a complete standstill and they’ll probably walk away.”
As Dickinson noted, Dramesi escaped and was recaptured twice. The second time, the North Vietnamese made vicious reprisals against the rest of their prisoners, and Dramesi and Ed Atterberry, the POW he escaped with, were beaten so badly that Atterberry died. Dramesi planned a third escape, but the senior POWs at his camp ordered him not to try it. Nobody wanted to be tortured again. Dramesi says he once got a letter from McCain that called the escape with Atterberry “infamous.”
“So obviously,” said Dramesi, “he doesn’t agree with the escape, because it did bring a great degree of discomfort down on everyone.”
In his memoir Faith of My Fathers, McCain admitted to being a lousy midshipman at the naval academy and a flier who lost four or five planes. (The time he decided to hug the ground in Spain for the hell of it and flew into some power lines the plane may have survived–it’s not clear from his account.) And when he was captured he caved under torture. He concedes other POWs performed better.
I asked Dramesi if four or five planes was par for the course. He laughed long and hard. “Anybody who loses one airplane is lucky to still have a career in the air force.” Dramesi said. “[McCain] told me once — he was laughing — and he said, ‘I jumped out of six or eight airplanes,’ and I was thinking, ‘Holy shit! How could anybody still be in the military and lose six or eight planes. That was hilarious. It really was. Here he was talking to a guy who had friends who killed themselves trying to save an airplane. ‘I’m not going to suffer the embarrassment of crashing and bailing out.'”
So Dramesi doesn’t think much of McCain. But in his eyes, few of his fellow prisoners measured up. He told me their behavior, graphed, would form the familiar bell curve, with the outright collaborators on the far left and the POWs like Atterberry who died resisting on the far right. The prisoners to the left of center were easy to break, while those to the right of center took the North Vietnamese a little longer. Dramesi, according to his memoir Code of Honor — and the testimony of other prisoners — didn’t break at all.
I mentioned one of his prison’s senior officers, James Bond Stockdale. A navy pilot, Stockdale attempted suicide to show his captors he’d rather die than talk. He feared that under unremitting torture he would talk, and there was no way he could let the North Vietnamese find out what he knew: that the attack in the Tonkin Gulf in August 1964, which plunged the U.S. into the war, was bogus — the radar on the destroyer Turner Joy had mistaken bad weather for enemy boats. Later he wrote, “I was in possession of the most damaging information a North Vietnamese torturer could possibly extract from an American prisoner of war.”
But the origins of the Vietnam war are another story. When Stockdale came home he was awarded the Medal of Honor. The best Dramesi can do for him is place him on the right side of the bell curve.
He told me about a conversation they once had. Stockdale was wondering how Dramesi had managed to do what so few POWs could — give the North Vietnamese nothing beyond his name, rank, and serial number. Stockdale told Dramesi it had been so hard to uphold the code he was prepared to kill himself rather than violate it. And again he asked, “How did you do it?”
Dramesi’s puzzled reply: “Well, why didn’t you let them kill you?” And he explained to me, “The point was, I was willing to lose my legs in the stocks or allow them to literally kill me before I’d deny the code of conduct.” If you died at the enemy’s hands, he said, “you wouldn’t have any problem and you’d be able to uphold the code and retain your dignity and honor.’
What was Stockdale’s reaction to that? “He had to think a little bit more about ‘why didn’t you let them kill you?'” says Dramesi. “He walked away.”
As a senior officer in the prison, Stockdale established a policy that Dramesi — but few other POWs — profoundly disagreed with. Dramesi calls it “Bounce Back,” the idea being that no matter what they make you say or do under duress, tomorrow’s another day and you can begin the fight all over again.
“Stockdale was a nice guy,” said Dramesi, but he thinks Bounce Back gave the POWs permission to fail. He thinks that if Stockdale and the other leaders had made it clear that no collaboration of any degree was permissible, that the code of conduct clearly demanded they put “their country before their life,” more of the POWs would have braced and done that. More POWs would have died — Dramesi concedes this. But they’d have died doing their duty, their honor intact.
He recalled that when POWs came home they liked to talk about the tap code they’d devised that made it possible for prisoners in solitary to communicate. “It was an easy system to teach the uninitiated,” McCain said in his memoir, “and new guys would usually be communicating like veterans within a few days.”
Dramesi snickered. In his eyes the tap code was something the POWs boasted about because it made them sound self-reliant, defiant, and resistant. “But the interesting thing about that so-called resistance,” he said, “is that when the tap code was used, what do you think it was used for. What the Internet is used for today.”
Pornography? I asked.
“Pornography and entertainment. When we all got together we had this toastmasters club, I was chastised for talking about resisting.”
Dramesi was a warrior through and through, and probably living in the wrong century. When Ho Chi Minh died, Dramesi stood at the window of his cell and saluted him. He explained in Code of Honor, “I thought that as a good soldier I should render my salute and that, as a soldier, I should try to defeat my enemy.” He spiced the book with reflections he accumulated during his six years as a prisoner and called “realized word relationships.” One said this: “Be not ashamed to look to those who elevated themselves above all others, for it is they who, knowing that indecision is the burden of man, guided the confused minds of the masses. It is they we recall when we speak of leadership, genius, the great.”
In my experience the mind of John Dramesi has never betrayed the slightest confusion. I asked him for his thoughts on the present war. “The Iraqi war never should have happened,” he said. “I’m convinced and I think Congress is convinced — but Congress never had guts enough to impeach Bush.”
And who will he vote for next month? “Knowing John, and what I know of Barack Obama, I would say I would vote for an individual who is certainly more intelligent and who has discipline, which is the key factor I’m concerned with. A president without discipline. . . . Again, the old adage ‘Country first’ with John McCain really doesn’t apply.”