Thursday, May 1, 2008

Karl Rove on John McCain

Col. (Ret.) Bud Day with John McCain at a campaign stop in Pensacola,Fla., in January.

When it comes to choosing a president, the American people want to knowmore about a candidate than policy positions. They want to know about character, the values ingrained in his heart. For Mr. McCain, that meansthey will want to know more about him personally than he has beenwilling to reveal. Mr. Day relayed to me one of the stories Americans should hear.

It involves what happened to him after escaping from a North Vietnameseprison during the war. When he was recaptured, a Vietnamese captor brokehis arm and said, "I told you I would make you a cripple." The break was designed to shatter Mr. Day's will. He had survived inprison on the hope that one day he would return to the United States andbe able to fly again. To kill that hope, the Vietnamese left part of abone sticking out of his arm, and put him in a misshapen cast. This wasdone so that the arm would heal at "a goofy angle," as Mr. Dayexplained. Had it done so, he never would have flown again. But it didn't heal that way because of John McCain. Risking severepunishment, Messrs. McCain and Day collected pieces of bamboo in theprison courtyard to use as a splint. Mr. McCain put Mr. Day on the floorof their cell and, using his foot, jerked the broken bone into place.Then, using strips from the bandage on his own wounded leg and thebamboo, he put Mr. Day's splint in place.

Years later, Air Force surgeons examined Mr. Day and complemented thetreatment he'd gotten from his captors. Mr. Day corrected them. It wasDr. McCain who deserved the credit. Mr. Day went on to fly again.

Another story I heard over dinner with the Days involved Mr. McCainserving as one of the three chaplains for his fellow prisoners. At onepoint, after being shuttled among different prisons, Mr. Day had foundhimself as the most senior officer at the Hanoi Hilton. So he tapped Mr.McCain to help administer religious services to the other prisoners. Today, Mr. Day, a very active 83, still vividly recalls Mr. McCain'ssermons. "He remembered the Episcopal liturgy," Mr. Day says, "andsounded like a bona fide preacher." One of Mr. McCain's first sermonstook as its text Luke 20:25 and Matthew 22:21, "render unto Caesar whatis Caesar's and unto God what is God's." Mr. McCain said he and hisfellow prisoners shouldn't ask God to free them, but to help them becomethe best people they could be while serving as POWs. It was Caesar whoput them in prison and Caesar who would get them out. Their task was toact with honor.

Another McCain story, somewhat better known, is about the Vietnamesepractice of torturing him by tying his head between his ankles with hisarms behind him, and then leaving him for hours. The torture so badlybusted up his shoulders that to this day Mr. McCain can't raise his armsover his head. One night, a Vietnamese guard loosened his bonds, returning at the endof his watch to tighten them again so no one would notice. Shortlyafter, on Christmas Day, the same guard stood beside Mr. McCain in theprison yard and drew a cross in the sand before erasing it. Mr. McCainlater said that when he returned to Vietnam for the first time after thewar, the only person he really wanted to meet was that guard. Mr. Day recalls with pride Mr. McCain stubbornly refusing to acceptspecial treatment or curry favor to be released early, even when gravelyill. Mr. McCain knew the Vietnamese wanted the propaganda victory of theson and grandson of Navy admirals accepting special treatment. "Hewasn't corruptible then,"

Mr. Day says, "and he's not corruptible today." The stories told to me by the Days involve more than wartime valor. For example, in 1991 Cindy McCain was visiting Mother Teresa's orphanagein Bangladesh when a dying infant was thrust into her hands. Theorphanage could not provide the medical care needed to save her life, soMrs. McCain brought the child home to America with her. She was met atthe airport by her husband, who asked what all this was about. Mrs. McCain replied that the child desperately needed surgery and yearsof rehabilitation. "I hope she can stay with us," she told her husband.Mr. McCain agreed. Today that child is their teenage daughter Bridget. I was aware of this story. What I did not know, and what I learned fromDoris, is that there was a second infant Mrs. McCain brought back.

She ended up being adopted by a young McCain aide and his wife. "We were called at midnight by Cindy," Wes Gullett remembers, and "fivedays later we met our new daughter Nicki at the L.A. airport wearing theonly clothing Cindy could find on the trip back, a 7-Up T-shirt shebought in the Bangkok airport." Today, Nicki is a high school sophomore.Mr. Gullett told me, "I never saw a hospital bill" for her care. A few, but not many, of the stories told to me by the Days have beenwritten about, such as in Robert Timberg's 1996 book "A Nightingale'sSong." But Mr. McCain rarely refers to them on the campaign trail. Thereis something admirable in his reticence, but he needs to overcome it.

Private people like Mr. McCain are rare in politics for a reason.Candidates who are uncomfortable sharing their interior lives limittheir appeal. But if Mr. McCain is to win the election this fall, he hasto open up. Americans need to know about his vision for the nation's future,especially his policy positions and domestic reforms. They also need tolearn about the moments in his life that shaped him. Mr. McCain cannotmake this a biography-only campaign - but he can't afford to make it abiography-free campaign either. Unless he opens up more, many voterswill never know the experiences of his life that show his character,integrity and essential decency. These qualities mattered in America's first president and will matter asAmericans decide on their 44th president.

Mr. Rove is the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff toPresident George W. Bush.

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