Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona wrote last week about his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, marking the 40th anniversary of his release along with his fellow captives.
In recalling how he and his fellow POWs survived the longest period of captivity of any Americans in uniform, McCain wrote eloquently in The Wall Street Journal of his own trips back to Vietnam and how he “made friendships with people who were once my enemies.”
What McCain did not mention was a dynamic development over the past four decades that he himself played a big part in: the role of Vietnam POWs in American politics and public life since they came home four decades ago. It is quite a saga.
A year after the POWs returned, three ran for the U.S. House of Representatives — Republicans David Rehmann of California and Quincy Collins of Georgia and Democrat Markham Gartley of Maine — and one ran for the U.S. Senate — Republican Leo K. Thorsness.
Thorsness was a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor whose challenge against anti-war Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota was watched nationwide and attracted donations from all 50 states for the POW-turned-politician.
All four were defeated, leading some in the media to conclude that heroism in a war most Americans came to oppose could not be translated into votes at the ballot box. Actually, the three Republicans all lost close contests in the so-called “Watergate Year,” in which Democrats won their biggest post-World War II ranks in Congress.
The lone Democrat, Gartley, was trounced because he was running against one of Maine’s most popular politicians, Republican Rep. William Cohen, who went on to become U.S. senator and secretary of defense.
However, six years later the political climate changed. Navy Adm. Jeremiah Denton, who brought tears to American eyes when he stepped off the plane in the Philippines to declare “God Bless America,” was elected as the first Republican senator from Alabama since Reconstruction.
Denton, whose period in captivity was portrayed in the film “When Hell Was in Session” starring Hal Holbrook, was the first former POW elected to Congress and actually ran ahead of Ronald Reagan in his state.
Two years later in 1982, McCain won a four-candidate Republican primary for the U.S. House from Arizona — despite having lived in the state for barely a year. He went on to the Senate in 1986, was his party’s presidential candidate in 2008, and remains a major figure in the Senate.
Other former POWs distinguished themselves in politics.
Democrat Pete Peterson served three terms in the House from Florida, and later served as the first U.S. ambassador to Communist Vietnam where he was once a prisoner.
Sam Johnson of Texas won a heated special election for Congress in 1991 and today is a senior GOP member of the House. McCain’s fellow POW and Arizonan, Larry Chesley, won a state senate seat from the Grand Canyon State.
Gartley never made it to Congress but did serve as Maine’s secretary of state. Another Democrat, Joe Kernan, served as governor of Indiana.
After losing bids for the U.S. Senate and later the House from South Dakota, Leo Thorsness moved to Washington State and won election to the state Senate.
In each and every case, the men who once wore the prison garb in Hanoi put on pinstripes in Congress or state capitols and were immediately deferred to on issues related to national defense, veterans care, and mental health.
Other former POWs served with distinction in appointive office. Navy Commander Ev Alvarez, second-longest serving POW, was deputy director of the Peace Corps and the Veterans Administration under President Reagan. Tom Collins was assistant secretary of labor under President George H.W. Bush.
For men who were tortured almost to the breaking point — some for as long as nine years — that’s quite a comeback.
“You’ve got to remember we were all made incapable of accomplishing anything during our years as prisoners,” said Orson Swindle, Marine, POW, and later assistant secretary of commerce and member of the Federal Trade Commission. “So a lot of us made a commitment that when we got out, we were never going to be complacent. And while we might have disagreed with one another, and still do in some cases, we haven’t been complacent. And, we’ve made a difference.”
Fight Brewing over Perez Nomination:
A fight is brewing in the Senate over President Obama’s choice to be secretary of labor, Thomas Perez, currently assistant attorney general for civil rights. Some members are concerned about Perez’s background as a vigorous opponent of voter ID laws while a Montgomery County, Md., councilman and his leadership of Casa de Maryland, an advocacy group for illegal aliens funded in part by George Soros. In addition, long-standing criticism of the civil rights division of the Justice Department for the harassment of conservative career employees by liberal superiors is expected to be brought up at what are sure to be stormy hearings for the Harvard Law graduate.
Latham Out of Iowa Senate Race, King ‘50-50’:
Less than a week after Iowa's five-term Republican Gov. Terry Branstad told me flatly that he wanted 20-year Rep. Tom Latham as their party’s nominee for the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, Latham announced he’s not running. Rep. Steve King, of whom Branstad said “he needs to nail down his new congressional district and run for the Senate at a later date,” says he’s “50-50” about running for Harkin’s seat. A hero of the tea party movement best known for his opposition to illegal immigration, King got a hero’s welcome at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
Renewed Interest in Mr. Smith’s Classic Filibuster:
Nearly 80 years after it became the first motion picture filmed in Washington, D.C., “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” is enjoying a revival. Not only did author Mike Canning profile the Jimmy Stewart classic in his new book “Hollywood on the Potomac,” but journalist Lorraine Millot took a look back at “Mr. Smith” in the French daily newspaper “Liberacion.” And Sen. Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster against the nomination of CIA Director John Brennan invited widespread press comparisons to the fictional filibuster carried on by Sen. Smith in the movie. Paul told me that Illinois GOP Sen. “Mark Kirk, at one point, brought me a thermos of tea and an apple—the same two items Sen. Smith’s colleague brought him during his filibuster in the movie. I had forgotten that part of the movie, but Mark sure jogged my memory.”
John Gizzi is the former political editor for Human Events, working for the conservative weekly from 1979 to 2013. Gizzi is a recipient of the William A. Rusher Award for Journalistic Excellence, was named Journalist of the Year by the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2002, and has appeared on hundreds of radio and TV talk shows.
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