Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman


The McCain Cross in the Dirt Story — the Plot Thickens

posted by swaldman

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.
UPDATE: Some have suggested that it’s clear from the next sentence in that speech that McCain was talking about himself. The next line of the speech was:

That is my faith; the faith that unites and never divides; the faith that bridges unbridgeable gaps in humanity.

To me, that still sounds like he’s saying his faith is like htat of the other guy in the anecdote. But perhaps I’m not being poetic enough. What do you think?



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richCares

posted August 18, 2008 at 3:27 pm


it seems that the first time this cross story showed up, McCain told it about an American prisoner (not himself) it has since morphed, he is now the prisoner. Is it dementia or lies or just alzheimer’s?
THE 2000 CAMPAIGN; Excerpt From McCain’s Speech:
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.
Story originally came from:
Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago” – 1973 (of whom McCain is a fan)
NY Times 2000 link to McCain’s Nov 2000 speech: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9904EFDE1239F93AA15751C0A9669C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all



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The Crucial Smoking Guns

posted August 18, 2008 at 3:49 pm


There are TWO Smoking Guns that this story is made up.
FIRST SMOKING GUN:
A commenter noticed that McCain has *never* mentioned Solzhenitsyn’s experience in the context of his own. Why?
We know for a fact that McCain was a huge fan of Solzhenitsyn and that he publicly announced this in a NY Sun article. We know for a fact, by McCain’s own words, that he was well versed in Solzhenitsyn’s work.
So, with such an incredible story of his, especially in the context of a campaign centering on his POW experience being his central qualifying attribute, why hasn’t McCain ever mentioned Solzhenitsyn’s experience.
As a Christian and POW story, this would create an incredible bond between all Christians and war prisoners. This would be incredible if two soldiers from two different wars could share such a spiritual experience. We know McCain is not dumb and neither are his campaign staff, who surely would have vetted this story.
Anyone with half a brain would know to bring these stories up together. But he hasn’t… why? The only reasonable answer is that McCain has stolen Solzhenitsyn’s story to use for political gain.
And if you don’t think McCain would do that, watch this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9wwnrxWh3s8
SECOND SMOKING GUN (as noted by Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic):
http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2008/08/the-dirt-in-the.html
“One more thing: McCain’s various stories only talk of one guard – “the only real human being that I ever met over there”. And yet the guard who loosened his ropes in May 1969 could not have been present the following Christmas, as McCain had been transferred to another location (unless the transfer occurred between Christmas and New Year of 1969 and unless the guard was transferred to exactly the same camp at the same time)”
It’s extremely unlikely that both McCain and the Guard were moved at the same time in that short period.



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Sunny

posted August 18, 2008 at 4:38 pm


Do you have the NYT link for that 2000 piece? This is stunning!



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mary

posted August 18, 2008 at 4:40 pm


Obviously McCain was talking of himself in the third person. As to why didn’t McCain talk of this episode earlier in his life, perhaps in the 1970′s? I would guess it was because the guard was/is still alive and doing so would have relegated this guard to a death sentence in Communist North Vietnam…….



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katherine

posted August 18, 2008 at 4:50 pm


As I watched the program Saturday evening, I became increasingly uncomfortable regarding John McCain’s response to the question as to when life begins. McCain, like President Bush, has sold himself as a pro-life candidate but the policies of his party suggest that the interest in life disappears after the baby is born.
Senator Obama’s response regarding Christianity in his life conforms closely to Jesus’ words in the New Testament. If life begins at conception and thus must be protected from all threats, why is that life not protected at every stage of its existence?
What is the responsibility of a Christian toward the millions of Americans, including children, who live below the poverty line? What is the responsibility toward the millions of Americans, including children, who have no health care and who suffer the consequences of this as they struggle to learn? What is the responsibility toward the workers in America who have lost their jobs because the business of business is to make more money? What is the responsibility toward the millions of senior citizens who are forced to choose between food and fuel?
Christians are being encouraged to turn from Senator Obama because he is pro-choice but is he not pro-life as life is defined in the bigger picture? Is Senator McCain pro-life because he says life begins at conception yet his parties policies, which he vows to continue, do not address the sanctity of life at all stages?
It has been reported many times that Mr. McCain is uncomfortable talking about his faith. Perhaps when he was talking about the exchange in the prison camp he was comfortable because he was talking about someone else’s faith.
It is necessary for Christians to look beyond labels and to examine how each man’s faith is accomplished in his words, policies, and commitments. I was actively involved in the Right-to-Life movement when the availabilty of abortion was still determined by each state before Roe v Wade. I am increasingly uncomfortable with the pro-life label since it has come to mean defend the unborn but then leave them to defend themselves.
Senator McCain seems to belong to the pro-life group that is vocal about protecting infants in the womb but does nothing to help the mothers after the birth. Does he borrow his pro-life views as he has seemingly borrowed his faith stories.



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Robert

posted August 18, 2008 at 5:28 pm


Suppose we take McCain’s changing story at face value. In the late 1970′s, the Navy didn’t think McCain was promotable and he retired–so why on earth should the American public think the story makes McCain promotable to the presidency now?



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Nevada AUSA

posted August 18, 2008 at 5:49 pm


“It makes me very uncomfortable questioning someone’s POW camp memories.”
This is exactly the sort of attitude that would let someone exagerate to the point of fabrication without consequence.
Why not question his experiences? If his “cross in the dirt” story meant so much, where was it in 1973 or 1974?
* * * *
“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.”
Misdemeanor? Felony? Look, either McCain is *exaggerating* — a great American euphemism for lying — or he’s not. His own historical recounting of his POW experience suggests he’s not telling the truth.
* * * *
In 1988, Joe Biden ran for president. The media ran him out of the race for plagiarizing a portion of a speech he delivered from a British politician.
Earlier this year, the media trashed Obama for borrowing from a speech one of his own campaign advisors had given, even though Obama had his permission.
* * * *
If journalists and pundits do NOT dig into this story — like they did Swift-Boat and Iran-Contra and Watergate and Biden and Obama — then we’re bound to get another president whose view of the truth is whatever he can get away with.
My goodness. Have we not had enough of this crap?
Ironic,isn’t it, that McCain — whom Bush/Rove so viciously victimized in 2000 with lies about his daughter and his mental balance — now feels so comfortable using the same tactics.
Hmmmm.
We’re in a war built on fabrications.
C’mon.



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Louise

posted August 18, 2008 at 5:52 pm


We have no pro-life candidates in this campaign …. we have some who are anti-abortion, maybe anti-stem embronic stem cell research but then they are gungho war, capital punishment, oppression of women and minorities, indifferent to the poor, all for destroying the enviroment etc
Then we have some candidates who are gungho for justice and peace .. but also believe in a woman’s right to decide for herself …they aren’t allowed to say they are pro-life
The is the biggest lie promoted in this campaign (and previous ones)
No one should be allowed to use the term “pro-life” unless they are 100% pro-life … all of life … and for justice and peace so that life can thrive!
McCain is all for protecting cells in a womb that have no nervous system but can’t wait to drop bombs on innocents in the Middle East



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Lori in Phx

posted August 18, 2008 at 5:57 pm

readerOfTeaLeaves

posted August 18, 2008 at 6:03 pm


Wow, it was strange to land on this post, because I’d just been reviewing and re-reading some articles on the nature of memory (focusing on the neurological processes involved in the development of expertise, which is related to the formation of long term memories).
On Sunday, I’d been able to watch clips of the Rick Warren interview/debates at both msnbc.com and cnn.com clips. When I watched a clip of McCain telling that story, I remember quite clearly thinking, “Wow… how is that memory so clear for him…? It’s so perfectly suited to his audience, that I don’t quite trust it’s accuracy. I think he’s embellished that particular memory over time.”
Now, without accusing Sen McCain of intentional deceitfulness, it’s been well document that we all change our memories over time in certain ways. That leads to important questions — how do memories form? When are they stable? What makes them stable? Why do we recall some things well, others hardly at all? (As you can imagine, these questions are extremely important for legal cases, for legal testimony, and also for daily living.)
I’m not a researcher; however, for my work, I need to rely on current research about learning, memory, the development of expertise, and a variety of related topics. So I’ve read plenty of stuff on ‘revised memories’ — and had a few myself. (As you can imagine, it’s of great interest in the legal field to ensure that false, or ‘revised’ memories don’t result in false accusations or false convictions.)
As near as I can tell, we mostly use memory to preserve our sense of ‘who I am’ and ‘why I matter’. And in that story that Sen McCain told to Rick Warren, it was clear that the story was being told by Sen McCain as central to his personal identity — but if that is the case, then:
(1) why didn’t we hear of it earlier? It’s been a long time since that event.
(2) shouldn’t a man who’s been in the US Senate for over 20 years have more ‘conflict tales’ about passing legislation, about how hard it was to move specific issues forward…?
(3) Why is McCain simply going for the most dramatic, “me vs them” narrative?
(4) Why all the fallback to 1966 or so? That was… 42 years ago. Why aren’t we hearing more about what decisions he’s made, and what obstacles he’s confronted, since the early 1970s?.
However, the most worrying factor to me about that story that McCain told to Rick Warren is this: It was too perfect!
It was exactly what the audience probably wanted to hear.
It had all the elements: a cross, an ‘enemy’, a sacred holy day… it could have occurred, but wouldn’t McCain have shared that story back in the 1970s? Or is his mind ‘reaching for drama’ as he desperately seeks the Presidency? Is his mind ‘telling stories about stories’ that make it hard for him to be clear in his own mind about the accuracy of what occurred?
Other background,
FWIW, I strongly favor Obama, but that doesn’t blind me to thinking about what the research suggests about the way BOTH candidates ‘tell their stories’.
Obama thought before he spoke; McCain was so automatic that it really seemed ‘rehearsed’ as if he’s honed that tale in his own mind to make it as dramatic (and himself as sympathetic) as possible.
That doesn’t necessarily make McCain a bad person — but it absolutely calls into question whether his judgment can be firmly relied upon. And it also calls into question how deeply and widely he is thinking about what it means to be President — who would he appoint? How would he deal with damaged institutions…? The story he tells doesn’t give us any information about how he would mend the structures of government.
In addition, I’ve become deeply disturbed to see Sen McCain adopt the same old venomous, toxic style of negative ads that GWBush used (and GHWBush used), because that STYLE of campaigning provides zero foundation for governing once an election is ‘won’. It’s a “scorched earth” approach to campaigns that, IMHO, profoundly damages the social fabric that all necessary governing activities rely upon. It’s like pouring salt on soil, and then wondering why you can’t grow food — it’s destructive and shortsighted.
So to see McCain adopt that toxic strategy AND ALSO tell a story about his captivity that almost feels as if it’s been refined for maximum drama and crowd appeal is deeply alarming.
FWIW, I’m a fairly secular voter, but I’ve come to like this website very much; it opens me to some great perspectives and I appreciate that very much.
Thanks for highlighting this topic.
————–
FWIW: Relevant articles related to ‘memory’ available online are most easily accessed at the Scientific American website (www.sciam.com) and also the Scientific American MIND website (http://www.sciam.com/sciammind/) should anyone reading this be interested.



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yarrrrrr

posted August 18, 2008 at 6:06 pm


Steve, that NYTimes anecdote is about McCain too…
“”"”"”"”"”
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.
That is my faith; the faith that unites and never divides; the faith that bridges unbridgeable gaps in humanity.
“”"”"”"”"”
http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9904EFDE1239F93AA15751C0A9669C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=2
I have no idea why you wouldn’t have looked that up yourself considering you have accused McCain of taking Obama’s words out of context.



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Paul, seeking wisdom

posted August 18, 2008 at 6:12 pm


Is telling a lie in church any less a lie than telling a lie in the White House? The fact remains, that Obama told the truth and McCain lied.
Here is another tidbit, Edwards commits adultry and he is ostracized and the Democrats are once again demonized, but McCain’s affair is ignored. Even when he says it was his biggest fault. What does Edward’s affair have to do with Obama and why doesn’t McCain have to answer to the same judgmental treatment as Edwards with his own party. It is because Evangelicals will forgive “Their Own” but want to whip the “Heathens”.
There is a double standard when it comes to the sins of others in the political world. I bet that the Religious Right will embrace a pro-choice V.P. on the republican ticket and will reject a pro-live advocate on the Democratic ticket. They already attack Bob Casey Jr. speaking at the convention.
The question I have for McCain is simple; Will you grant Islamic Fundamental the same “Faith Based Right” that you deem as constitutionally protected as Christian Evangelical rights?



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blakestah

posted August 18, 2008 at 6:20 pm


There is no basis in science for memories to EVER get more clear or accurate over time.
However, one of the interesting fallouts from 9-11 is that it is now known that the conviction with which we believe a memory to be accurate is related much more strongly to how emotional that memory was to us, than it is to actual accuracy. In other words, when someone says they can remember an incident 30 years ago as clearly as if it was yesterday, it means that incident was highly emotional for them, but tells you nothing about how accurate it was.
I think this McCain incident has striking parallels to the Hillary Clinton sniper fire accounts, with the exception that Sinbad was not in the same cell to be able to provide a first-hand refutation of the account.



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Jeremy Brown

posted August 18, 2008 at 9:09 pm


It’s amazing that a commenter above mentions the swift boat ad to characterize McCain’s account of this incident, when this creepy campaign to discredit McCain is precisely the same as the swift boat campaign against Kerry. Except that you will probably not be able to assemble a group of Viet Nam vets to lie about this for you. I think you should climb out of this ugly business and apologize now rather than later. It’s not a proud moment for beliefnet.



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kansasgal

posted August 18, 2008 at 10:25 pm


I think its important to talk about this. You know how it is when you tell a story over and over again, little details change. I have no doubt something like this happened to McCain, or one of his friends. I would like to think that his captors also had humanity in them. What I am concerned about, and why this is important to talk about is that it is becoming apparent that the honorable Sen. McCain is having some memory problems. For example that cute little story about earmarks and the testing of bears DNA? I’ve heard him tell this story many times in his stump speeches…but it has been reported tonight that he actually voted for the Bill that contained that earmark! So…This does bother me as does his willingness to engage in war. I think he is making very strong charges against Russia and this disturbs me. Jesus was all about love and lifting others up. I have to believe true power lies with trying to bring people of all faiths together not tearing them apart. I have to believe we are in this world as children of a Greater Force (no matter what we call him) we are all Gods children. War, poverty, apathetic policies are killing Gods children . We are all at our best when we lift each other up, and we all have a voice in this decision.



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Steve

posted August 18, 2008 at 11:05 pm


I recall some years back, about 20 years back, Sixty Minutes dared to compare statements President Reagan made about his life experience to his lines in some of his 1940′s movies. The implication was the President suffered some kind of mental deficiency because he confused his lines in the movies with his real life. Of course, as we no know, President Reagan did have Alzheimer’s. My concern is that Senator McCain might, too. And the fact he didn’t release his psychiatric records for reporter review compounds my concerns.



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readerOfTeaLeaves

posted August 19, 2008 at 2:25 pm


Blakestah — GREAT comment.
Terrific synthesis.
It was clearly emotional for McCain; no question about that.
It’s tough trying to recall accurately, and your explanation summarizes much of what I’ve read.
The reason that I suspect McCain has elaborated this memory is precisely because it is so ‘perfectly suited’ to what he thinks his audience wants to hear, and as you point out, EMOTIONALLY it works. But that doesn’t mean it’s accurate.
We all do it.
But that’s why I tend to take voluminous notes.



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MomsHugs

posted August 19, 2008 at 8:09 pm


Okay, get a clue folks! McCain’s version of this “cross” story given on Warren’s forum referred to the guard using his shoe, but his ad depicts a stick. The same “cross” story with a stick was used by Chuck Colsin & another author from Solzenhitsen’s “Gulag” story. The first time McCain used this story was in his book, “Faith of Our Fathers” – actually written by Mark Salter, his speechwriter. There are other McCain discrepancies about his POW stories that are serious! If he keeps it up, other POWs will come out of hiding with the truth….



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Ron

posted August 20, 2008 at 5:54 pm


News flash: Neither one of these two guys is sincerely religious. It’s all posturing.



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