Donald Trump, I've figured out, is actually right about John McCain.
This is what happened last weekend at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa:
Trump: "He's not a war hero."
Frank Luntz, interjecting: "He IS a war hero."
Trump, chewing on his words, speaking quickly, with annoyance: "He is a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured, OK?"
(Titters in the audience.)
Trump: "I hate to tell you... I believe, perhaps, he's a war hero."
I’m going to go with Trump’s instinct and read into his sarcasm. What he's saying, of course, is that McCain is not a war hero because he was captured.
Well, there's truth in that. John McCain is not a war hero because he was captured. Indeed, McCain himself has acknowledged that he was a less-than-stellar Skyhawk pilot. He was a bit too reckless, and, had he made better decisions, might have avoided his shoot-down in 1967.
John McCain is not a war hero because he was tortured for four days after capture, either.
What turned reckless flyboy McCain into heroic McCain has to do with a decision he made while recuperating from those heinous injuries inside his dank cell at the Hoa Lo prison. Hoa Lo, by the way, translates roughly as "fiery furnace."
McCain refused to leave.
He was given the chance to leave, and he didn't. He was given the chance to escape confinement because his father and grandfather were flag officers in the U.S. Navy, and he did not.
Instead, he spent five years, in agony, in a box, because of his refusal to violate a code. I wish I could take credit for that phrase, but I can't. It's from David Foster Wallace, who noticed himself returning to that mental image every time he ran into evidence that the McCain who ran for president in 2000 had become cynical and craven about politics.
When McCain refused his reprieve, "[t]here was just one guy and whatever in his character sustained him," Wallace wrote. No political consultants. No promise of glory. In all likelihood, death.
McCain chose torture for five years because he would not leave his fellow airmen behind.
A few days later he says his interrogator said, "The senior officer wants to know your answer."
"My answer is no," McCain said.
"Our Code of Conduct says we must not accept parole, amnesty, or special favors."
McCain says his captors said they were anxious to demonstrate their good will. "President Johnson has ordered that you go home."
"Show me the orders."
They couldn't; there were no such orders.
"The doctors say you cannot live if you do not go home."
"The prisoners must be sent home in the order in which they were captured," McCain says he replied.
"What is your final answer?"
"My final answer is No."
Then, he recalls, his captors angrily told him, "It is going to be very bad for you now, McCain." [Newsweek]
That's a form of pure heroism, the way Bob Dylan defined it: the hero as someone who understands the "degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom."
McCain's heroism does not make him right. It does not give him license to claim to speak for every veteran. It does not entitle him to power or privilege.
It does entitle him to hope that Trump, whose allergy to self-awareness is intoxicating to the rest of us, will feel the weight of the responsibility that will one day attend to his own free expression.