CBS News' Andante Higgins reported in a blog post that "[o]ne of [Sen. John] McCain's claims to fame is his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, something he didn't like to discuss a lot before this campaign," adding, "Perhaps he didn't speak about it sooner because he learned from his father not to." In fact, McCain and his campaign repeatedly invoked his experience as a POW during his failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.
In a March 31 post on the CBS News From The Road blog, discussing Sen. John McCain's "Service to America" speech that day in Meridian, Mississippi, CBS News' Andante Higgins reported: "One of McCain's claims to fame is his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, something he didn't like to discuss a lot before this campaign." Higgins added, "Perhaps he didn't speak about it sooner because he learned from his father not to." In fact, as Media Matters for America has documented, McCain prominently used his experience as a POW in Vietnam in his failed 2000 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, including in campaign advertisements and in a stump speech.
A "Campaign 2000 ad watch" item in the February 25, 2000, Los Angeles Times (accessed via Nexis) featured the text of the McCain ad titled "Leader," which highlighted his experience as a POW in Vietnam:
Text: "A young Navy pilot who volunteered for duty in Vietnam, John McCain was shot down over Hanoi. McCain refused early release from prison, where he suffered repeated beatings and was held for 5 1/2 years. He returned home just as devoted to his country, taking on the establishment. (McCain on camera) 'I'll give the government back to you, and I promise you that.' (voice-over) Ready to be president and leader of the free world. John McCain -- character courage -- for president."
Analysis: Media consultants agree no one can beat John McCain's life story as a war hero. McCain was a U.S. Navy pilot shot down on Oct. 26, 1967. Offered early release to embarrass his Navy admiral father, McCain refused and was a POW until March 1973. The ad features grainy black-and-white photographs of McCain in his flight suit, as an imprisoned soldier and lying on a bed bandaged. It alludes to his return to the U.S. and a life of public service. He was elected to the House in 1982 from Arizona and the U.S. Senate in 1986, where he still serves. McCain's "taking on the establishment" refers to his controversial campaign finance reform plan. The plan is a cornerstone of his presidential campaign, attracting supporters as well as critics who say McCain is hypocritical since he has a prolific fund-raising record.
In a February 4 Time magazine article, James Carney wrote that "McCain's first campaign was about character and biography much more than issues" and noted the role that McCain's Vietnam experience played in his bid for the presidency in 2000:
But conservative and independent voters have the same question about McCain: What kind of Republican is he? In 2000, when the U.S. was at peace and the economy was luxuriating in the frothy end days of the first Internet boom, McCain's first campaign was about character and biography much more than issues. McCain was the authentic hero, the fighter pilot who had been shot down over Hanoi and spent more than five years as a prisoner of war. He was the reformer and the straight talker, the rare politician who -- perhaps because of his experience as a POW -- wasn't going to compromise his principles or hold his tongue to please his party. He was also, at his core, still the rowdy, runty, red-tempered plebe who finished near the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy despite an IQ of 133. McCain became a symbol in 2000 of courage and candor. Few took close looks at his policy positions. It was almost enough to get him the Republican nomination.
A January 31, 2000, article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (accessed via the Nexis database) describing McCain's use of his experience as a POW in Vietnam reported:
McCain, who once downplayed his prisoner-of-war experiences in Vietnam, now emphasizes his military service. He pleaded with veterans at one stop yesterday to "go on one more mission" to help him win. A new campaign ad says that he is the only one in the campaign with the military experience to be president.
An item in National Review's February 11, 2000, "Washington Bulletin" reported on the negative attack ads featured during the 2000 Republican presidential campaign and noted:
Today, for instance, the McCain campaign sent out a press release accusing the Bush campaign of making a 14-year-old boy cry with its negative "push polling." This same release announced a new ad suggesting that, just as the communists tortured McCain in Vietnam, now the special interests are "coming after him here in South Carolina because John McCain will take the government away from the special interests and give it back to you."
In a February 20, 2000, Washington Post article (accessed via Nexis), Howard Kurtz reported that "[i]n Michigan, McCain has run ads that highlight his background as a Navy pilot shot down in Vietnam. The ads attack the 'special interests' and declare McCain 'ready to lead.' "
The Boston Globe (accessed via Nexis) reported on March 1, 2000, that "John McCain ran a campaign ad about the Christmas sermon he wrote for fellow prisoners of war in North Vietnam 30 years ago." And USA Today noted on January 4, 2000, that McCain ran a television ad featuring Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) "accusing [then-President Bill] Clinton of betraying the military" and "mention[ing] McCain's time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam."
From Higgins' March 31 post:
Making an appearance with family members in Meridian, Miss., John McCain delivered the first speech of his "Service to America" tour where he talked about his family and the impact his father and grandfather had on him, while also outlining the role of government as it relates to families.
"I was once a flight instructor here at the airfield named for my grandfather during my long past and misspent youth," McCain said on the campus of Mississippi State University with wife Cindy, daughter Meghan and mother Roberta McCain sitting on stage to his side.
McCain comes from generations of McCains born and raised in Carroll County, Miss., that date back to 1848. The airfield at the naval base is named after his grandfather, Adm. John "Slew" McCain.
McCain described the close relationship between his father and grandfather including last words spoken to his dad before his grandfather died. "Son, there is no greater thing than to die ... for the country and principles that you believe in," McCain said.
One of McCain's claims to fame is his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, something he didn't like to discuss a lot before this campaign. His speech today explained that children learn from their parents and while it was not the happiest time of his life, he and fellow POWs are now using the experience as an example of inspiration for others.
Perhaps he didn't speak about it sooner because he learned from his father not to. "My father seldom spoke of my captivity to anyone outside the family, and never in public. He prayed on his knees every night for my safe return. He would spend holidays with the troops in Vietnam, near the DMZ. At the end of his visit, he would walk alone to the base perimeter, and look north toward the city where I was held," he said.