So much has been going around the internet about Governor Sarah Palin's (dis)qualifications for executive office (and she is such an easy target for the Eastern Elite Eastablishment in all its tolerance for white people who are, shall we say, earthier, than your average Bostonian) that I do not think there has been a high enough focus on increasingly distressing news that is surfacing, and being documented, about Senator John McCain. There are a variety of facts emerging about McCain's character and Senate record that are far more disturbing in some ways than what we know about Palin's difficulty in telling the truth about her past actions (although what could be more disturbing than the fact that when Palin was Mayor of Wasilla the town instituted a policy of billing rape victims for their emergency room care and for the cost of the rape kits used to collect evidence that would theoretically put their attackers behind bars?)
But it is McCain who would be President, and it is McCain about whom we must ask the hard questions: although critics go on about his age, living until 76 or even 80 is not unheard of in this country, particularly if you have access to good health care, as Senators (although not all rape victimes) do. And I think military families ought to scrutinize his record particularly closely, a record that has been obscured by repeated references to his experience as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, having undergone torture and prolonged physical suffering, and his refusal to be exchanged early because he was the son of a high-ranking officer. All of these things have been cited as proof of his patriotism, his character, his judgement, and his concern for the men and women who make up our military.
This is a patriotism, or actions at least, of which McCain has a right to be proud. But there is another kind of patriotism McCain has practiced as a politician, and that variety might strike the families and friends of members of the armed forces as less conducive to their interests and concerns in the current crisis. That kind of patriotism is loyalty to the state, a loyalty that may override an ethical concern for soldiers and their families. It appears that McCain may be implicated as an integral player in aiding in the effort to suppress, along with several Presidents and several intelligence bureaus, credible evidence that POW-MIA soldiers were held back by the North Vietnamese government after the 1973 prisoner exchange (including 20 airmen downed in Laos who responded via an electronic signalling system but have not been heard from since) in an effort to obtain reparations and other concessions from the United States -- reparations that the United States has refused to pay. Read an article about it by Sydney Schanberg, a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter, here.
What did John McCain have to do with the suppression of such evidence? Well, as a member of the Senate committee investigating the POW-MIA question between 1980 and 1993, and as its only member who had been a POW and celebrated war hero, he was, Schanberg argues, uniquely persuasive in quashing subpoenas, opposing legislation that would have allowed further investigation and keeping evidence from the public domain that might have shed light on the issue for the many military families who still do not know what happened to their loved ones.
Perhaps because I am currently reading Linda Colley's Captives, a book which takes a fresh look at the British Empire from the perspective of those Britons who were taken prisoner by their imperial subjects, I found McCain's failure to side with citizens, particularly those who had made the greatest sacrifice in war, and his desire to side with the state, particularly awful, and the position that their families have been left in, for what seem to be purely political reasons, deeply poignant. Furthermore, these military families have been repeatedly kicked to the curb as they try to resolve the decades-long, unresolved, absence of family members. For example, in the face of a 1992 request made of the committee by Delores Alfand, the sister of a missing officer and chair of the national Alliance of Families, for electronic surveillance data, McCain bullied her until she wept. As Schanberg writes,
He has regularly vilified those who keep trying to pry out classified documents as "hoaxers," "charlatans," "conspiracy theorists" and "dime-store Rambos." Family members who have personally pressed McCain to end the secrecy have been treated to his legendary temper. In 1996 he roughly pushed aside a group of POW family members who had waited outside a hearing room to appeal to him, including a mother in a wheelchair.
I am not quite yet ready to celebrate John McCain's patriotic concern for our armed forces. Are you? Because if this is true (and Schanberg's article is compelling about something I haven't believed in for years) McCain's behavior is self-serving and unconscionable. There is absolutely no strategic reason for not telling the truth about those missing soldiers, except to conceal the collaboration of John McCain, and others, in the official abandonment of American prisoners. It is nothing more, or less, than a cover-up that has been given credibility by the most famous POW since Major Andre was executed by George Washington.
But let's say you want to forget about Vietnam, just like John McCain and his Republican cronies do. O.K. In other news, check out this piece in today's New York Times that details McCain's high-stakes gambling habits, the privileges he receives from casinos in return for his patronage, and -- far more important than this -- his actions as chair of the Indian Affairs Committee, which gives him a significant role in determining which tribes may establish casinos, and which Indian groups will actually be awarded the federal status that permits them the legal standing to bypass state and local gaming laws. The article details at least eight members of the campaign who have strong ties to the casino gambling industry, donations from the gaming industry (including Steve Wynn and Donald Trump, whose casinos McCain patronizes as a privileged guest) and muliple ties between the campaign and gambling lobbyists. The article also notes that the Abramoff investigation, in which McCain was an important player, succeeded in taking out important right-wing enemies who had implemented the dirty tricks used against McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary. If even half what has been reported is true, this one could make McCain's role in the Keating Five Scandal look tame. In addition to being on the payroll of the industry, apparently McCain was also able to help his pal Joe Lieberman reverse the tribal status of the Schaticoke Indians of Kent, Connecticut. The tribe, which was annoying a lot of very wealthy people in western Connecticut, wanted to establish a third casino, which would have cut into the Pequot and Mohegan casinos. These latter two tribes are big McCain, and Lieberman, donors.
And in case you are ready to write both of these articles off as the lying rants of a liberal press, I suggest you go here, for a collection of articles by conservative journalist George Will that raise the question of whether McCain's outbursts of rage and impulsive decision making are not cause for alarm in a potential President. "It is arguable," Will writes, "that because of his inexperience, Obama is not ready for the presidency. It is arguable that McCain, because of his boiling moralism and bottomless reservoir of certitudes, is not suited to the presidency. Unreadiness can be corrected, although perhaps at great cost, by experience. Can a dismaying temperament be fixed?"
Not at the age of 72, is my guess. Not with the best medical care in the world.