Sunday, October 19, 2008

The "Other" Hit Piece

Cindy McCain isn't the only member of her family subjected to a journalistic "hit" in the final weeks of the presidential campaign. Three days before The New York Times dragged Mrs. McCain into the gutter, Rolling Stone weighed in with its take on Senator McCain's military career.

Entitled "Make-Believe Maverick," it's about what you'd expect from the magazine, which abandoned at pretense of fairness and objectivity long ago. And, like the Times' piece on Cindy McCain, it's a rehash of familiar stories and anecdotes, retold with the right spin to put the GOP candidate in the worst possible light.

Writer Tim Dickinson begins his article with a "chance" reunion between then Lieutenant Commander John McCain and a fellow Vietnam prisoner-of-war, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel John Dramesi. Barely a year after their release from the Hanoi Hilton, McCain and Dramesi met on the grounds of Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.

As the article relates, the two men talked briefly about about their "school" assignments; McCain was attending the National War College, while Dramesi was enrolled at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. When the subject of their "class trips" arose, Dramesi said he was heading for the Middle East, since he believed the region would cause future problems for the United states. In response, Dickinson writes, McCain said he was going to Rio, because he "had a better chance of getting laid."

According to Colonel Dramesi, the incident confirmed his view of McCain as a "spoiled, undisciplined brat" who never grew up, despite his years in captivity. It's a refrain that forms the central thesis of Dickinson's article, in his effort to rebuke McCain's "Maverick" image.

But there's are a couple of problems with the Fort Meyer episode--and other episodes from the Rolling Stone article. First, while we have no reason to question Dramesi's integrity, McCain's comments during the encounter have never been independently corroborated. In fact, the telling "incident" is noticeably absent from other books about John McCain, including The Nightingale's Song, authored by fellow Annapolis grad (and former Baltimore Sun reporter) Robert Timberg.

Additionally, Dickinson portrays McCain's class trip as a government-funded private vacation. But that's a gross distortion; in reality, war college students travel in groups, and their itinerary is selected by the school, not the participating officer. McCain's trip agenda in 1974 was determined in advance, and he had little say about the areas he would visit. As for his planned extracurricular activities, McCain has long admitted to his infidelity after returning from North Vietnam, indiscretions that (ultimately) destroyed his first marriage.

By the the low standards of Rolling Stone, that's sufficient proof of a "honor gap" in McCain's military career, and evidence of an officer who moved along on family connections, rather than ability.

But, that narrative has a few holes as well. The final, formative assignments of McCain's naval career came after his father (a four-star admiral) retired from active duty. Obviously, former flag officers still have some pull in navy circles, but its ludicrous to think that retired Admiral John S. McCain, Jr., was still arranging his son's career in the late 1970s, less than five years before his death.

Indeed, wags would suggest that the Admiral did a lousy job of managing his son's career, at least in its early stages. After graduating from Annapolis (near the bottom of his class) and completion of pilot training, McCain served tours in a pair of A-1 Skyraider squadrons, assigned to the carriers Intrepid and Enterprise. By any standard, they were routine assignments; apparently, no one in the clan tried to maneuver the younger McCain into a job that would put him on the fast track, say flag lieutenant to an admiral.

John McCain's third assignment was equally pedestrian. He was assigned as a flight instructor at McCain Field in Meridian, Mississippi (an installation named for his grandfather). In that capacity, McCain trained--and evaluated--future naval aviators. By all accounts, McCain was good at his job, although Dickinson (again) concentrates on his off-duty pursuits, as one of the founding members of the hard-partying "Key Fess Yacht Club," a group of Navy and Marine Corps officers assigned to the base.

The rest of the article provides a similar slant on McCain's military days. Dickinson cites the Senator's claim that he was "unqualified" for a later assignment, as commander of a pilot training group in Jacksonville. McCain was referring to the fact that he didn't have a previous tour as executive officer of a similar organization--the usual stepping-stone to a commander's slot.

Instead, Mr. Dickinson carefully structures the paragraph, portraying McCain as an incompetent officer who on the assignment on family connections. He never mentions that, under the leadership of McCain, the group won its first naval unit commendation for excellence--or that McCain's performance in Jacksonville was the major factor in his subsequent selection as the Navy's chief liaison to the U.S. Senate.

Readers will also note that Dickinson studiously avoids interviews with military personnel who might provide a more balanced portrait of McCain as a naval officer, or his conduct as a POW. Air Force Colonel Bud Day, who won the Medal of Honor for his heroism and leadership in the Hanoi Hilton, paints a much different picture of John McCain as a prisoner of war. But, because Day is a Republican--and supporter of McCain--he's not worthy of an interview. Ditto for other survivors of the POW camps, men like Orson Swindle

Obviously, Rolling Stone's depiction of McCain's military days should come as no surprise. After all, it comes in the same issue that has a smiling Barack Obama on the cover. Perhaps someday the magazine will get around to talking with people with less-than-flattering views of Barack Obama.

Don't hold your breath.


owr084 said...

Ft McNair, NOT Ft Meyers (which does not exist - perhaps you meant Ft Myers...)

Unknown said...

Good catch...I was obviously thinking of other places when I typed that paragraph.