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POW past key to McCain's future

Recalling his military past may be key to John McCain's political future.
Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., uses his background as a Vietnam war prisoner of war as an element in a broader narrative when trying to paint himself as an experienced leader.Michel Euler / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Recalling his military past may be key to John McCain's political future.

Declining in the polls and struggling with fundraising, the Republican presidential candidate draws an appreciative response from audiences when he recounts his Navy pilot days and the fortitude of some of his fellow POWs during the 6 1/2 years he spent in a North Vietnamese prison.

Vietnam is hardly the centerpiece of McCain's campaign; it's part of his biography and, as such, is an element in a broader narrative he is trying to paint of an experienced leader.

POW memories
McCain routinely brings up Vietnam as he discusses the challenges in Iraq and he often recognizes veterans in each audience he addresses. He typically only tells his war stories when the opportunity presents itself, like when he was campaigning this spring in Sioux City, Iowa - hometown of Bud Day, one of his fellow prisoners of war in Hanoi.

McCain did the same in a recent visit to Mike Christian's home state of Alabama, holding Republicans spellbound at a recent state GOP dinner.

Before a rapt audience of more than 500, McCain recalled how Christian, a cellmate from Huntsville, became an inspiration for him and other prisoners of war. He described how the feisty Navy bombardier stitched together an American flag from scraps of cloth, and even though his captors found it and beat him severely, he made another.

"He came from a very poor family. He told me that he didn't wear a pair of shoes until he was 13 years of age. He enlisted in United States Navy" as a way to build a better life and eventually became an officer, McCain said.

In their concrete-floor cell with a single bulb hanging in each corner, Christian fashioned a needle out of bamboo and used scraps of cloth to stitch an American flag inside his prison shirt.

"Every evening before we had our bowl of soup of undetermined content, we'd take Mike's shirt with the flag sewn inside of it and say the Pledge of Allegiance," McCain said.

"Some guys had already been there as long as seven years - being able to pledge our allegiance to our flag and our country was indeed the most important part of our day."

McCain said the Vietnamese captors found Christian's flag and beat him "very soundly." When Christian was brought back to the cell, McCain and others tried to help with his broken ribs and bruises. Then as McCain started to go to sleep, he said, he looked in one corner of the cell and was surprised by what he saw.

"Sitting there beneath that dim light bulb with a piece of white cloth and a piece of red cloth and another shirt with his eyes almost closed from the beating he received was my friend Mike Christian sewing another American flag," McCain said.

"He was doing that because he knew how much it meant to us to pledge our allegiance to our flag and our country."

Christian died from smoke inhalation in a Virginia Beach, Va., fire in September 1983.

Future dreams
Being a POW is at the core of McCain's appeal to voters and talking about it more would help re-invigorate his sagging presidential bid, said Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University.

"But it's not enough to base a presidential campaign on. That's not the part of John McCain that's controversial," Black said.

John Kerry was similarly struggling in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 until he brought out Jim Rassmann, whose life he saved under harrowing combat conditions in Vietnam. The two held a reunion just before the Iowa caucuses, which Kerry came from behind to win.

Charlotte Strong Neal, who was Christian's wife, said McCain's recounting of what happened in Vietnam is nearly all true, except her husband didn't grow up as poor as McCain makes out.

"Every time I see John, I tell him Mike had shoes," she said.

Neal, who helped in McCain's campaign for president in 2000, said he also told the story back then while campaigning for New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary, and it always moved audiences.

"Every place we went, people would say, 'Oh, you're Mike Christian's wife,'" she recalled.