SAN DIEGO – Donald Trump should apologize for saying that John McCain is considered a hero only “because he was captured” during the Vietnam War.
But while we’re on the subject of atoning for mistakes, the Arizona senator owes an apology to a group of voters for something that has not been particularly heroic: his rightward lurch on a hot-button issue.
The reason McCain is a war hero has nothing to do with the fact that the former naval aviator was captured by the North Vietnamese, after being shot down in 1967. The heroism came in how McCain conducted himself as a prisoner of war. His captors repeatedly tortured him, even placing him in solitary confinement for two years. They beat him and broke his bones, leaving him disabled. Because he was the son of the U.S. Navy commander in the Pacific at the time, McCain knew that offers of an early release were propaganda gestures, and so he refused to leave the “Hanoi Hilton” – that’s right, refused to leave – until other Americans captured before him were set free. His reward: more torture until he was released in 1973.
Trump seems to think that the fact that McCain fell into enemy hands is some sort of character flaw.
This argument is especially, well, rich coming from someone who stayed out of Vietnam by receiving four student deferments as well as a medical deferment. The 2016 GOP presidential candidate recently told reporters that he didn’t miss participating because “I was not a big fan of the Vietnam War.”
Not a big fan, eh? No doubt, the same was true for thousands of brave young men and women who went to Southeast Asia, many of whom never came home.
McCain said that he doesn’t want a personal apology from Trump, but that American veterans are due one.
I think the real estate tycoon should apologize to McCain – man to man, or, in this case, mouth to man.
Having said that, McCain should also apologize to Hispanics – especially those in his home state of Arizona – for his ham-handed and regrettable treatment in recent years of another issue that figures into the current presidential campaign: immigration.
McCain never caved into the goons who tortured him in North Vietnam. But he showed considerably less character by giving in to the nativists who have bullied him in the last decade.
I first met McCain in the late 1990s, when I worked for The Arizona Republic. Back then, McCain often referred to his level of Hispanic support – which was north of 50 percent in his re-election campaigns – as an “honor.” I wrote a column saying that someone who spent five and a half years as a POW probably does not take such a word lightly.
But in 2010, after losing the Hispanic vote two years earlier to Barack Obama – who had a much thinner record of serving Latino constituents – and abandoning his own immigration bill, the senator was in a tight re-election campaign against J.D. Hayworth, a former congressman turned right-wing radio host. McCain enthusiastically voiced support for Arizona’s heavy-handed immigration law. The statute, many provisions of which were later struck down by the Supreme Court, required the profiling of Hispanics – more than 70 percent of whom opposed the law.
Even after McCain won re-election, he couldn’t shake the nativist virus that had infected him. In June 2011, McCain blamed some Arizona wildfires on illegal immigrants. The culprits turned out to be U.S. citizens who had gone camping.
Just last year, McCain – echoing the words of Hillary Clinton, among others – demanded that the United States send back tens of thousands of women and children from Central America. This, despite the fact that many of them feared that they would be killed if they returned home. Calling the influx a “humanitarian and security crisis on our southern border,” McCain proposed revising or repealing a 2008 law that made it more difficult to remove refugees from Central America without putting them before a judge.
As far as many Hispanics are concerned, the old John McCain is gone. The straight-talking maverick who boldly stood up to the extremists is now a political opportunist who is short on compassion and long on cynicism. That may be the nature of politics. But it’s certainly not heroic.
Regardless of Trump’s comments about what happened in Vietnam, McCain owes Hispanics an apology for what happened in Arizona. Let’s hear it.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.