McCain’s Vietcong Endorsement: Believe It...or Not!

Let’s get this clear up front: This is not some sort of liberal swift-boating. The fact that John McCain’s Vietcong jailer has backhandedly endorsed him for president isn’t -- or shouldn’t be, anyway -- anything more than one of those weird political stories.

McCain spent over five years as a POW in Hanoi’s Hoa Lo prison, and no matter what difference of opinion you might have with him over American politics or who should be the next leader of the free world, you have to agree that being a POW for that long -- or a POW at all -- pretty much sucks.

So this recent story is literal insult to injury.

Tran Trong Duyet, jailer and eventual prison chief of Hoa Lo, has come out of nowhere and perversely recommended his former prisoner for America’s highest office -- but at the same time claims that McCain’s reports of his POW camp beatings, torture, and prolonged seclusion in solitary were “invented…to win votes.”

It sort of begs the question as to whether there’s a chance in hell that Duyet is sincere. On the one hand, there’s the idea that Duyet is just doing this because he saw an opportunity to get his name on American television, in print and on the digital media. He had this connection, obscene as it was, with a candidate for president, and he took advantage of it. But why?

There doesn’t seem to be any money to be made on it (though a book deal probably isn’t out of the question), and it’s not like South Vietnam is suddenly on any sort of mission to win American hearts and minds. So on the other hand, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Duyet means what he’s saying -- that the guy actually thinks that not only is McCain lying about his treatment at the hands of the Vietcong prison system, but would nevertheless be the best choice for President of the United States . This is bad news for the McCain campaign in any and all scenarios. Obviously, McCain’s supporters will take no encouragement from this dubious endorsement. Its source knows apparently little about American politics, the recommendation itself has the unmistakable whiff of something being not-right, and it’s coming from a former avowed enemy of the U.S. Strike three, you’re completely and utterly out. (You’ll notice that no one’s courting the coveted Shoebomber vote, either.)

But even given that McCain’s detractors won’t try to make much political hay out of this—not that they need to, since the story is already out there—the very existence of the endorsement causes McCain problems. For one, it brings up questions—if not actual doubts—about the veracity of his war record. This is nothing to take lightly, given the 2004 actions and effect of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth -- one of the lessons of which was that even an exemplary war record can be sullied with enough ready cash and a willing suspension of disbelief from the right audience. Perhaps more important, it spotlights McCain’s recent 180 on the allowance of torture in military questioning—something that McCain’s campaign seems very eager to not talk about.

Worst of all, even the McCain response team seems not to know how to handle it. McCain’s campaign referred questions about the issue to fellow former POW and Lieutenant Colonel Orson Swindle, who said that Duyet has “no credibility.” This was probably the way to go. Problem was, Swindle kept talking. “He says John McCain would make a great president. How the hell does he know?” Which makes it sort of sound like Swindle’s not all that sure about a McCain presidency, either. That's not what he meant, of course. It’s a sticky thing, trying to discredit a guy and agree with him at the same time. (Fortunately, McCain’s been walking that same line with George W. Bush since he started his bid for the presidency. So he’s got experience.)

Again, this is just a weird story, something that might be featured in some future edition of Ripley’s Believe it…or Not! It shouldn’t make much of a difference one way or the other as to whether one thinks that McCain should or should not be president.

Of course, the same was true for John Kerry. So the McCain campaign should be thankful for one thing in regard to all this: that Karl Rove is on its side. -- Teague Bohlen

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun

Latest Stories