The news that Jeremiah A. Denton died Friday at age 89 immediately brought back images that once moved Americans to tears.
Denton, then a Navy commander, was shot down during a bombing mission over North Vietnam in July 1965 and held as a POW for nearly eight years. In 1966 he was forced to participate in a televised press conference during which he stated that whatever the position of his government in Vietnam, "I support it" — all the while repeatedly blinking out "T-O-R-T-U-R-E" with his eyes in Morse code.
The action gave his U.S. military superiors the first evidence they had of the dastardly treatment of Americans by Hanoi.
Given the larger-than-life heroism of Denton — who retired from the Navy with the rank of Rear Admiral — it is easy to forget that he was also Sen. Denton, someone who made political history with his election as U.S. senator from Alabama in 1980.
It is also easy to simply chalk up Denton's election 34 years ago to his reputation as a war hero and to the Republican tide that swept in Ronald Reagan as president.
But it took much more than that for Denton, a first-time political candidate, to win. At the time he ran, heroism in an unpopular war was not necessarily a guarantee of success at the polls.
In 1974, a year after returning home from captivity, four former Vietnam POWs ran for election — three for the U.S. House and one for the Senate.
All four were defeated, leading some in the media to conclude that being a hero in a war most Americans came to oppose could not be translated into votes at the ballot box.
Denton, whose exploits were dramatized in the made-for-TV film "When Hell Was in Session," with Hal Holbrook playing the war hero, was the first former POW to win elective office.
Many leaders of the growing religious right embraced Denton, a candidate who denounced pornography and adultery. The support of the Rev. Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority and Paul Weyrich of the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress in mobilizing cultural conservatives behind Denton was pivotal to his winning a larger-than-expected victory in the Republican primary.
What made such support particularly interesting was that Denton was a devout Roman Catholic, who cited his pre-Vatican II training as a factor in his surviving captivity.
As much as the religious right backed Denton, he would later tell The Wall Street Journal: "I don't see black people on the board of the Moral Majority. I don't see the Moral Majority supporting the commandment 'Love Thy Neighbor.' Prove you are Christians. What's the essence of Christianity? It is love the Lord thy God, love thy neighbor. Get some blacks in this group because they are more interested in saving the family structure in this country than anyone else."
In a state that had not elected a Republican senator since Reconstruction, Denton faced an uphill battle against Democrat Jim Folsom Jr., namesake-son of a former governor.
But Denton quickly demonstrated he could articulate domestic issues as well as those dealing with foreign policy.
"You have to meet Jerry Denton," John T. Sheehan, top political operative for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told this reporter in 1980. "We talk about taxes, right-to-work, campaign finance, and prevailing wage. He knows all the business issues and he's right on them."
When Richard Nixon made his first political donation since leaving the White House, he wrote a $1,000 check to Denton's Senate campaign, leading to stories in the national press about the president who resigned amid scandal blessing a Republican candidate.
"I wish he was president today," Denton said of Nixon, proud of their friendship and making a not-too-disguised whack at his 1946 classmate at the U.S. Naval Academy, President Jimmy Carter, whose handling of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iran hostage crisis disgusted Denton.
In November 1980, Denton actually ran ahead of Reagan in Alabama and defeated Folsom to become the first former Vietnam POW in Congress and the highest-ranked Navy veteran to serve in the Senate.
Following Denton's election, the joke among Alabama politicians was "we thought we'd never see someone win statewide office who was a Republican, a Catholic, or from Mobile. Now we have all three."
Denton narrowly lost re-election in 1986, one of many victims of a nationwide Democratic tide. But in making his one and only winning race, he paved the way for Alabama to become solidly Republican, with the governorship, both U.S. Senate seats, and majorities in both the state House and Senate firmly in GOP hands today.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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