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Jewish World Review June 15, 2004 / 25 Sivan, 5764

Roger Simon

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Hangin' with McCain | You can stomp it, you can beat it, you can drive a stake through its hear, but it will not die: The media will not let go of the John McCain for vice president story.

John McCain has said he does not want to be John Kerry's running mate so many times, he probably figures that someday, somebody will believe him.

Maybe, maybe not.

The media love John McCain. We would love him to be on a national ticket so we could ride on his bus again, recount his saga and just hang out with him.

Most candidates will not hang out with reporters. (And can we blame them?) But McCain is different. I went with McCain and a small group of reporters to Vietnam in 2000 after he had lost his presidential primary fight against George W. Bush and McCain hung out with us all the time.

We all flew over together and landed in Hanoi. McCain headed for the lake that he fell into on Oct. 26, 1967 when a SAM missile took off the right wing of his Skyhawk dive bomber.

"It was over there," he said, pointing. "The power plant. That's what we were trying to hit."

McCain and his fellow flyers were carrying out the first U.S. raid on central Hanoi. Hanoi at that time was the most heavily defended city in the world, and you today can still see the SAM missiles in place here and there, crowded by shops selling cellular telephones, sportswear and T-shirts honoring Ho Chi Minh.

When the wing came off, McCain ejected from his plane, breaking both arms in the process. He fell into a lake, was captured and spent the next five and a half years in prison.

The story is, by now, well known and on this trip McCain would visit the prison, the Hanoi Hilton — again — visit the lake he fell into — again — and talk to reporters almost endlessly as Vietnam got ready to celebrate "Reunification Day", the day 25 years before when Saigon fell to the invading forces of the North.

McCain had made this trip no less than seven times before. This time NBC was picking up the tab for him, his wife, Cindy, and his 13-year-old son, Jack, so that McCain could do the "Today" show live from Ho Chi Minh City, which just about everybody still calls Saigon.

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Some 53 percent of the Vietnamese population and 35 percent of the U.S. population were born after the war ended. Yet the war remains a defining moment in American history and one reason that John McCain remains an appealing figure is because of his war-time experience.

McCain's story is a powerful one and one he has used very effectively throughout his career. When John McCain goes to Vietnam, he is going back to his future.

"I miss the (presidential) campaign, I really do," he said. "I miss the excitement. It was great. And then it just...stopped."

Primary campaigns are usually meat grinders, turning the losers (and often the winners) into hamburger. McCain came out as prime filet.

One hundred Republican candidates asked him to come campaign for them, and his best-selling book — "People waved it at me from the crowds like the Chinese holding up Mao's Little Red Book," McCain joked — is being turned into a movie.

"We struck a chord," McCain said. "It surprised all of us, including me. We struck a very deep chord, it lingers on and it continues to resonate."

Not since Ronald Reagan lost to Gerald Ford in 1976 has a losing candidate so enhanced his personal image. Reagan made 75 speeches the following year, never stopped campaigning and won the presidency four years later when he was 69.

Now McCain is trailing reporters around the world, as on this day when he went to Hanoi's Truc Bach Lake, which he fell into after his plane was shot down.

Today it is a peaceful setting in a city filled with motorcyclists madly honking their horns and filling the air with gray exhaust fumes. McCain stood next to the bizarre memorial to his capture, a tan concrete slab that pictures him falling from an Air Force jet.

"That is the greatest insult of all," McCain, a Naval aviator, says. "But it looks better than last time I was here. It was all overgrown with grass and there was bird crap everywhere."

He points to burnt sticks arrayed around the memorial and says he has been told that people are now coming and lighting incense to him.

I asked him if people are now worshipping him as a god.

"Damned if I know," he replied.

Next came a visit to the infamous "Hanoi Hilton", most of which has been torn down to make room for an office and hotel complex. McCain lead reporters through the small, dank cells, where his captors tortured him and killed some of his fellow POWs.

"I still bear them ill will," he said. "Not because of me, but what they did to my friends."

I asked him if searches for the faces of his captors on the streets when he comes to visit and if he contemplates taking any revenge.

"No," he said quietly. "I don't want to see them. Would I do something to them?" He paused. "I don't know."

Then his face split into a grin. "I mean, after the war, I went on to a great life! And they're in Vietnam!" he said.

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