August 18, 2008

During the 2004 election, John Kerry had a bit of an embarrassment when it turned out that a story he had told years before about listening to Richard Nixon lie about Americans not fighting in Cambodia, when he happened to be in Cambodia at the time, turned out to have some discrepancies. In what was supposedly "seared" into his memory, he claimed to be on the border on Christmas, 1968, listening to South Vietnamese shooting off rockets to celebrate the holiday, when his own diary placed him hundreds of miles away that day, and it's as likely that the disproportionately Buddhist demography of the Vietnamese would have permitted a raucous Yuletide celebration as it would be for an American unit in Iraq to go overboard celebrating Purim. Also, Nixon wasn't President, yet, in December 1968.

It turns out the candidate had confused his big holidays. He was in Cambodia, but six weeks after Christmas, during the Tet Holiday, when it is common for celebrants to shoot off rockets and go crazy. By then, Nixon had already been President for about a month, so the story rang true in most of its particulars. But the damage had been done. No matter how many times the addled memories of the "Swift Boaters" were shown to be false or fabricated about other aspects of Kerry's wartime accomplishments, the Right could always point to this and proclaim that Kerry could not be trusted, since he wasn't in Cambodia at Christmas.

I wonder how much slack the American people will give John McCain about his likely-aprocryphal "Cross Story." Making up an anecdote about faith, like George Bush pretending to have been brought to Jesus by Billy Graham, isn't really judged harshly by the true believers; what's important is the Pander, and secondarily the possibility that the candidate might be one of the them. In McCain's case, stealing an anecdote from Alexander Solzhenitzen Charles Colsen has the added benefit of tying his experience with that of one of the most famous prisoners of the 20th Century; even if the story was false (and I wouldn't be surprised if the late Russian writer and virulent anti-Semite had copped the story himself; it sounds like something that might have appeared in one of the stories of the early Christian martyrs), the important thing is that McCain was still in a POW camp for five years, and suffered brutal torture almost every day.

But it's still embarassing to have been caught embellishing one's past with a clearly plagiarized anecdote. The human memory is a tricky and unreliable thing, geared mainly towards validating our own importance. We tend to place ourself more in the center of things than the facts can justify, and it's not hard to catch us out when it turns our memories are faulty, as any good criminal lawyer will tell you.

For most of my life, I had a vivid memory of meeting Robert Kennedy when I was four years old. It was in San Francisco, and he was already putting out feelers for his crusade for the Presidency in 1968. My father, who worked for RFK's major backer in the state, Jesse Unruh, was in town to strategize, and my mother and I went up to the Bay Area to be with him. One afternoon, my nanny, Mary Jane, came in and excitedly told me that we could go meet the Senator, who was already my hero. I felt like I was meeting a god; I even told him that his brother was my favorite President, because he had died in 1963, the year I was born. He smiled at what must have been a very painful and callous thing to say, and said something nice to me.

It was, as I said, a very vivid and powerful memory for me, and most of the particulars are true, especially my father's role in the California campaign, and the fact that I went with him and my mother to San Francisco when I was four. What wasn't true, though, was the fact that I ever met Robert Kennedy. It never happened. I had picked up enough details over the years, from my parents, the aforementioned nanny, and from what little I remembered of my early childhood, to piece together an incident that I thought had actually happened, and even now the incident is still quite vivid and real. But it wasn't.

So I'm going to be a bit hesitant about calling John McCain a "liar" about this story. He may not have started using this story until after reading The Gulag Archipelago, and the exact details may not be true, but it wouldn't surprise me if he thought that an incident like that had happened to him at the Hanoi Hilton, even if he wasn't simply confusing some other random act of kindness by a prison guard with SolzhenitzenColsen's religious story.

UPDATE [8/18]: The story originated with Charles Colsen, Nixon's former hatchet-man, who had erroneously attributed it to Solzhenitzen years ago. In fact, McCain isn't even the first ex-POW U.S. Senator to have told a similar tale. Apparently, the "guard drawing a cross in the dirt" is a hardy chestnut that probably predates the Crucifixion.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don't know if splitting hairs about veterans stories is fair (on my part here, that is), but it seems like the gestalt of McCain's story is a bit more hardcore than Kerry's. That'd probably be the biggest factor in how something like this plays out. That is, if Kerry had been a POW and recalled his Christmas story wrong, I think he'd of been given considerably more slack. Sucks for him to have not been a POW I guess.

Parsons said...

I liked the update.