A Former Pow Bucks Conventional Wisdom Sen. John Mccain Defied The Gop And Veterans Groups: He Backed Clinton's Vietnam Decision.

Posted: July 12, 1995

WASHINGTON — Barry Goldwater, as always, was blunt when he first met an aspiring young politician named John McCain, who hoped someday to replace the conservative icon in the Senate.

"You know, John, if I had won the presidential election in '64, you wouldn't have spent all those years in a Vietnam prison," said the man many believed would have been a more aggressive commander in chief than President Lyndon Johnson.

"No, Barry, it would have been a Chinese prison," responded the brash McCain.

Goldwater was not amused at the implication that he would have broadened the war. But he learned what others along McCain's travels have also learned: Despite a life amid the discipline of the military, McCain thrives on defying authority and spitting in the eye of conventional wisdom.

So, it was perfectly natural for Sen. McCain - third-generation Navy,

Vietnam War hero, conservative chairman of a Republican presidential campaign - to stand yesterday and endorse the normalization of relations with Vietnam by President Clinton - avoider of the draft, war protester, Democrat.

Clinton made his announcement with McCain standing behind him, assuring that the Republican senator would appear in television shots of the ceremony. His presence gave Clinton political cover for a controversial decision, as if to say: "If a war hero like McCain is for it, it must be OK."

Some have called McCain a "Manchurian Candidate," after the fictional character in a Cold War-era movie who is brainwashed by communists. Some have questioned his patriotism.

"There have been some really scurrilous attacks," McCain said. "It always hurts when your patriotism is attacked . . . but you try to get over it."

While McCain said he neither likes nor trusts the Vietnamese, he believes the Hanoi government is cooperating in determining the fate of Americans still missing from the war.

The Arizona Republican believes full diplomatic relations will help, not hinder, that process.

"This normalization will help heal the wounds of what is still a very emotional issue with the American people," he said.

"Mine ended a long time ago," he said. "I was one of the fortunate ones. I never had a nightmare or flashback.

"It's just a memory."

But a vivid memory, nonetheless.

He was 27, a hotshot Navy fighter pilot, flying over Hanoi when his jet was hit on Oct. 26, 1967. He broke both arms and his right knee when he ejected, and an angry mob beat him and stabbed him after he landed.

He might have died in prison, but the North Vietnamese soon learned they had a prize catch: a "crown prince" whose father was an admiral who would soon command U.S. forces in the Pacific. His grandfather also had been an admiral.

They gave him medical care. And, the next year, they gave him the opportunity to leave. That would have made them look magnanimous. That would also have violated the American code of conduct for prisoners, that no man should accept favor, that no one should leave before someone who had been a captive longer.

John McCain told them where to go.

They beat him for his insolence. Still, he stayed. They put him in solitary. He stayed. He stayed for 5 1/2 years, until March 1973, and when his cellmates came home, so did he.

Yesterday, as he prepared to leave his Senate office for the White House, McCain remembered that his refusal to knuckle under helped him keep his wits and his resolve.

"It was very important for me in prison to have that defiance . . . and a sense of humor . . . to make fun of them so they weren't larger than life."

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