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Cross Drawn in the Dirt – Gate

Steve Waldman has been covering the Cross Draw in Sand-Gate scandal that is heating up.  It was the first time I had heard the story and found it moving. It would be absolutely nuts if it turns out to be some sort of hybrid memory.  Here is Waldman’s post:

Andrew Sullivan is offering a detailed account of how similar the McCain story is to that offered by Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsen and then later popularized by Christian leaders Chuck Colson and Billy Graham. Sullivan also points out other suspicious changes:


The story changed from the guard using a sandal to the guard using a stick.

At Saddleback, McCain talked about a single guard being the protagonist. The same guard loosened his ropes and then later sketchd the cross in the dirt. In McCain’s 1999 book, these were two different guards at two different prison camps.

McCain’s first writings about his time in captivity didn’t mention the story at all, so he’s asked his readers for evidence of McCain offering that story prior to his 1999 book (when he was gearing up for a presidential run).

Several contributors to the comment thread on my first post have pointed to this rather stunning New York Times piece from 2000 in which McCain tells the story – but about someone else!


Many years ago a scared American prisoner of war in Vietnam was tied in torture ropes by his tormentors and left alone in an empty room to suffer through the night. Later in the evening a guard he had never spoken to entered the room and silently loosened the ropes to relieve his suffering. Just before morning, that same guard came back and re-tightened the ropes before his less humanitarian comrades returned. He never said a word to the grateful prisoner, but some months later, on a Christmas morning, as the prisoner stood alone in the prison courtyard, the same good Samaritan walked up to him and stood next to him for a few moments. Then with his sandal, the guard drew a cross in the dirt. Both prisoner and guard both stood wordlessly there for a minute or two, venerating the cross, until the guard rubbed it out and walked away.


I don’t know where all this is headed. It makes me very uncomfortable questioning someone’s POW camp memories. It’s possible this did happen but that McCain originally viewed the moment has being largely about the goodness of the guard, rather than his own faith. That would be a campaign misdemeanor, not a felony. But if this turns out to be substantially altered or made up, it will be absolutely devastating to McCain

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Katharine F. Walker

posted August 18, 2008 at 7:07 pm

Two things come to my mind. One, it is not unusual for a prisoner to find at least one camp guard who treats him/her a bit better than other guards do. So this can have happened to Solzhenitsen as well as McCain. I am sure there are many such stories we shall never hear. Two, it is not unsuual for someone to speak of their own experiences as those of someone else. One is a simple matter of privacy and another is to spare onesself the ohhing and ahhing that may follow. One thing we all need to be careful of when we “investigate” is to remember that even presidential candidates are human.
I am an Obama supporter.
Let us not decide elections on issues such as this one.

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posted August 18, 2008 at 8:01 pm

This has already blown up in the faces of the people peddling this line… One of the POW’s in the Hanoi Hilton with McCain at the time has confirmed that McCain had related this story to them after they had all been placed in a common cell.
Unless the Obama supporters want to accuse all of the POWs of lying about this, they should probably let the issue die a quick death. For most undecided voters, the are going to hear “McCain”, “cross”, “POW”, and it will just remind them of what John McCain has endured for his country. Not especially helpful to Obama.

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posted August 18, 2008 at 8:16 pm

No, the person who is “verifying” the story is Orson Swindle, someone who is CAMPAIGNING for McCain and who was not at Hao Lo when McCain had this experience. Swindle says he vaguely remembers McCain telling stories, but can’t remember specifics. If anything, the fact that they need to defend against this and the fact that McCain doesn’t have a crystal clear explanation leads to more doubts about McCain’s honesty in this story.

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Brian Horan

posted August 18, 2008 at 8:52 pm

If this gets bigger, it’s because of THE ATLANTIC; not the OBAMA campaign.
If McCain lied, it’s the perfect example of another Republican prostituting Jesus to get votes.

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posted August 18, 2008 at 9:46 pm

McCain is not above borrowing from other sources as evidenced by his theft of Jackson Browne and John Mellencamp songs, and stealing his foreign policy speeches right off the pages of Wikipedia.
Regarding honor among POW, McCain lost his many years ago when he worked to shut down all further investigation of remaining MIA/POW in order to open up trade with Vietnam. His father-in-law immediately opened up a beer industry there.

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posted August 18, 2008 at 10:50 pm

re: swindle he is not telling the truth. he is a paid employee, not a credible witness.
Politco ran a story about McCain’s cross story April the 4th 2008 and Swindle was specifically interviewed on the story.
“I don’t recall us talking specifically about our faith,” says Orson Swindle, one of McCain’s closest friends and a fellow POW. “We talked about our friends, families, our resistance posture, and that our country didn’t seem to have the will to win.”
this is why mccain’s OTHER fellow pows all hate him. he exaggerates endlessly.
like the offers for early release. EVERY pow got those. you just had to publicly condemn th usa and say the vietkong were superior as ‘hosts’. big deal. NO ONE took the deal. mccain won’t include that part though.
google ‘songbird mccain’ if you want to hear what his fellow pows actually thought of him …

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posted August 18, 2008 at 11:12 pm

About twenty years ago Sixty Minutes ran a story comparing Ronald Reagan’s statements about his life experiences and his lines from his movies. The jist of the report was that evidently Reagan, at best, confused life and the movies and maybe he suffered some kind of dementia. Republicans were infuriated and Sixty Minutes did not run the piece again–but we all know President Reagan in fact had Alzheimer’s.
I don’t know the truth of the cross in the dirt story. I doubt there’s anyone around who does. But I am concerned, especially since Senator McCain declined to allow reporters to review his psychiatric records, that maybe McCain is already known to suffer senility.

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posted August 18, 2008 at 11:15 pm

McCain is not above borrowing from other sources as evidenced by
his theft through copyright infringement of Jackson Browne and John Mellencamp songs.
John McCain was also not above stealing his recent foreign policy speeches directly from the pages of Wikipedia as well.

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Deward Bowles

posted August 19, 2008 at 12:07 am

The McCain camapaign released a statement on their website saying Swindle remebered McCain telling him the story in 1971.
Problem is Swindle is not telling the truth.
Get this, Politco ran a story about McCain’s cross story April the 4th 2008 and Swindle was specifically interviewed on the story.
“I don’t recall us talking specifically about our faith,” says Orson Swindle, one of McCain’s closest friends and a fellow POW. “We talked about our friends, families, our resistance posture, and that our country didn’t seem to have the will to win.”
Belief in a higher power helped them survive the routine torture and daily indignities, Swindle says.
“It would help us endure what we had to endure. But we knew God wasn’t going to come down and wave a magic wand.”
McCain is going to have to do better than Swindle on this one.

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John M.

posted August 19, 2008 at 12:23 am

Fr. John McNeill, out gay theologian and Jesuit tells a similar story from when he was in a prison camp in WWII. Someone, not sure if it was a guard or a civilian working there, gave him a potato under threat of punishment or death, and when he silently mouthed “Thank you,” the man genuflected in response.
I agree that this is not something that should be pursued very vigorously.
BTW, I love the blog. The writing is good and compelling. I am a regular reader of Rod Dreher’s, not because I am a conservative (I am not in most things) but because the writing is excellent and challenges my assumptions. I hope the same for this blog.
Thanks for your work! (Oh yeah, and I’ve always thought that Raushenbush is way cute!)

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posted August 19, 2008 at 12:27 am

“I don’t know the truth of the cross in the dirt story. I doubt there’s anyone around who does. But I am concerned, especially since Senator McCain declined to allow reporters to review his psychiatric records, that maybe McCain is already known to suffer senility.”
Given what we later found out about Reagan, this is certainly reason to question McCain’s health. We do not need to elect yet another President with mental issues.

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Reaganite in NYC

posted August 19, 2008 at 5:27 am

Raushenbush: “… but if this turns out to be substantially altered or made up, it will be absolutely devastating to McCain.”
Only in your dreams, pal. Some of the comments posted here (re: McCain’s “health”) really belong in the gutter though they teach a lot about the viciousness of the political left today. So much for Obama’s “new politics” — too bad his followers don’t practice it.
Raushenbush, you shouldn’t push this issue too far. For one thing, the press (Boston Globe, Chicago Tribute, etc.) have dug around Obama’s past and found that the self-portrait Obama paints (beginning with his first book) is at variance with the truth. In addition, the Obama campaign has gone to great lengths to keep the press away from probing into his past or interviewing old friends or family members. Makes you wonder why?
As for John M.’s comment (“Raushenbush is way cute”) it would appear that there’s more going on at this blog than a discussion of religion and politics :-)

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posted August 19, 2008 at 8:48 am

Reaganite, this isn’t about Obama. There have been questions–originating from the right–about the veracity of the cross story. If McCain has manufactured the story or embellished the story or mythologized the story, then it speaks to his honesty and his faith. He is running on his resume and continually refers to his experience as a POW. If, it turns out, one of his most famous stories isn’t true or has been embellished for effect, it is a hit to his credibility and a sad statement about his resume.

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posted August 19, 2008 at 9:34 am

Me, I don’t really care if the story is “true”, “embellished” or whatever. It wouldn’t be the first time any politician on either side of the aisle altered, embellished, borrowed or just plain made up a story for political purposes. For example, Reagan’s “Welfare Queen”–totally fabricated. No, this particular issue means nothing to me when it comes to whom I vote for in November.
And if one wants to point fingers at the left about “viciousness of the political left”, one needs only to read a paragraph or two of an Ann Coulter column–heck, her book titles are nasty enough, e.g. “How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must)”–or a few minutes of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, and see that there is plenty of nastiness on both sides of the aisle.

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posted August 19, 2008 at 9:58 am

I could also care less if the story is true or not. Memory is not a precise instrument. We embellish memories all the time, tell ourselves stories to make sense of our lives.
The point is the double standard. If Obama had weaved some similar story and it turned out to have this many holes, the press would be running with it nonstop, 24/7, on every cable channel, is ability to be president would be questioned, and we would have to listen to talking heads opine about his pandering and the legitimacy of his faith.
Further, there is already evidence that McCain has cribbed other stories from other sources as well.
With McCain? Not so much. He is given the benefit of the doubt, and That. Is. It.

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doug mitchell

posted August 19, 2008 at 4:16 pm

I will believe that mc cain told the truth when those who still believe there were w.m.d’s in iraq and that obama is muslim say there no w.m.d’s and obama is not a muslim

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posted August 19, 2008 at 7:29 pm

The cross in the dirt fabrication will be the least of McCain’s worries when his POW nickname (Songbird) given to him by his fellow POW’s, for telling all he knew so as to avoid torture. He made 32 videos for the North Viet Namese that at least one of them was broadcast in the South. Google McCain Songbird – check it out. His broken arms? Dumba** didn’t pull in his arms when he ejected. I hope Obama is saving this for the stretch.

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A Voice of Reason

posted August 20, 2008 at 11:53 am

It seems crazy that so many people can’t realize that McCain was, in fact, talking about himself in the speech quoted in the NYT. He was telling the story in third person, but any moron can tell that he wasn’t speaking about some completely different person.

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posted August 21, 2008 at 12:27 am

Twenty minutes into McCain’s interview, he asked Pastor Warren “Are we going to get back to the importance of Supreme Court judges or should I….” Warren said “No, we’re going to get back to that.” BUT McCain and Pastor Warren had NOT YET TALKED about Supreme Court judges. ONLY Obama had already talked about it with Pastor Warren.
McCain either knew the questions in advance or heard Pastor Warren’s questions to Obama and Obama’s answers when McCain was in the “cone of silence” – his limo.

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