A Daily Kos diarist named rickrocket has determined that a story John McCain tells repeatedly, about a prison guard in Hanoi who drew a cross in the dirt one Christmas, bears a striking resemblance to an anecdote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's writings. (UPDATE: It isn't from Solzhenitsyn, although it's been regularly ascribed to him for years.) It's been noted that McCain made no mention of this incident in a detailed account of his POW years that U.S. News published in 1973, and no one, so far, has found evidence of McCain telling the story before 1999 -- when his most formidable opponent for the GOP presidential nomination was a man who was making a concerted effort to court religious voters.
I just want to point out that there's a chapter specifically devoted to three Christmases of McCain's captivity in The Nightingale's Song, Robert Timberg's critically acclaimed 1995 book, which helped put McCain on the map as a political celebrity -- and the cross story does not appear. Nor does it appear anywhere else in the book.
The chapter is titled "'Tis the Season to Be Jolly." It says that on Christmas Eve 1968, a guard tried to compel McCain to attend a church service that was being staged for the benefit of visiting photographers. McCain decided "to ruin the picture," letting out a series of curses ("'Fu-u-u-u-ck you, you son of a bitch!' shouted McCain, hoisting a one-finger salute whenever a camera pointed in his direction"). There's certainly no mention of a cross in the sand in this account.
On Christmas Eve 1969, we're then told, McCain had a civil conversation with
On Christmas 1970, Timberg writes, McCain was transferred to a cell with his friend Bud Day -- "the perfect Christmas present" because he'd just spent two and a half years in solitary. Again, no cross.
(The chapter also includes an account of the car accident in which McCain's first wife, whom he later divorced, was seriously injured. The accident took place on Christmas Eve 1969.)
The book, which is about McCain and four other prominent graduates of the Naval Academy (including James Webb and Oliver North), is based in part, the author says, on "a long series of interviews" with McCain and other principals.
It's clear that McCain told Timberg a lot of dramatic stories. Timberg chose to construct an entire chapter around stories about the Christmases of McCain's captive years.
So isn't it odd that the cross in the dirt -- which McCain has since described as a life-altering incident -- never came up?
UPDATE: Whoops! Sorry -- according to "Dave" at AOL's Political Machine blog, I'm engaged in "Swiftboating."
Er, no. I'm not backed by billionaire contributors and I actually believe what I'm saying is the truth. So how can it be Swiftboating?
AND: Via Steve Benen, I see that the first people to note the McCain/Solzhenitsyn connection were fellow right-wingers at Free Republic.
AND ALSO: I'm just going to point this out and let you decide what it means. Mark Salter -- McCain speechwriter and coauthor of his books, one of which includes a tribute to Solzhenitsyn -- had a father who fought in the Korean War. Pete Salter appears in the McCain/Salter book Why Courage Matters; he fought alongside a Medal of Honor winner named Mitchell Red Cloud. The New Republic's Michael Crowley summarizes the story as it appears in the book:
During a brutal battle with Chinese soldiers near Chonghyon, Korea, Red Cloud was severely injured but insisted on staying behind to give his retreating comrades cover. At his urging, Pete Salter tied his wounded comrade to a tree so he could continue firing while others escaped.
But according to the U.S. Army's version of the incident, that's not quite what happened:
With utter fearlessness [Red Cloud] maintained his firing position until severely wounded by enemy fire. Refusing assistance he pulled himself to his feet and wrapping his arm around a tree continued his deadly fire again, until he was fatally wounded.
Why does Salter say his father tied Red Cloud to a tree while the Army says Red Cloud refused assistance? You tell me. Fog of war, maybe, or maybe not.
(Hat tip: nepat in comments.)