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Mark Shields: Cheney or McCain on CIA Torture Report? Consider the Source

On election night in 1986, when John McCain won the U.S. Senate seat in Arizona long held by Republican incumbent and 1964 GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, who had served as McCain’s campaign chairman, the two men had a private chat.

Goldwater, McCain recalled, got “a little nostalgic” and said: “You know, John, if I had beaten Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and been elected president, you would not have spent all those years in that North Vietnamese prison camp.” McCain, mindful of Goldwater’s hawkish positions, answered: “You’re right, Barry. If you had been elected president in 1964, I wouldn’t have spent all those years in a prison camp in Hanoi. I would have spent them in a prison camp in China.”

It was in the 2000 New Hampshire presidential primary when McCain’s campaign taught this occasionally cynical observer what an American political campaign at its best might be. Vastly outspent by the money machine of the prohibitive Republican favorite, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, underdog McCain responded by holding 114 town hall meetings in the Granite State, in which he would stand alone and answer, with rare candor and humor, voters’ questions.

For example, asked when the Senate might pass a so-called “patient’s bill of rights” bill, McCain bluntly explained: “We won’t. Not as long as the insurance companies control my party and the trial lawyers control the Democratic Party. Next question.” It worked. While advocating campaign finance reform, McCain, in a major upset, defeated Bush in New Hampshire by 18 percent.

But what impressed me most about that New Hampshire campaign was the willingness of the men who, as prisoners of war, had for years endured with McCain unspeakable brutality at the hands of their North Vietnamese captors to work in his behalf. McCain’s Hanoi cellmate — when the Arizonan wasn’t in solitary — Medal of Honor recipient and Air Force pilot Bud Day, Marine aviator Orson Swindle, who was held prisoner for six years, and Navy aviator Everett Alvarez, the longest-held U.S. prisoner of the Vietnam War, were willing to come to New Hampshire, knock on doors and testify to voters about the courage and character of their comrade McCain.

At the same time Navy pilot McCain was being abused in Hanoi, back in Wyoming young Dick Cheney was petitioning for another of his five deferments to avoid the draft call to serve, which the law then required all able-bodied men to do, in the U.S. military and, possibly, to face combat.

Thirty years later, Cheney would publicly explain his conduct: “I had other priorities in the ’​60s than military service.” It’s probably a good bet McCain in that same decade had “other priorities” than being starved, being beaten, having his teeth and bones broken, and being offered food contaminated with human feces.

Cheney, who went on to become one of the nation's toughest-talking draft-evading armchair warriors, has called the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report of the CIA’s disregard of the rule of law and its endorsement of torture as a legitimate policy option “full of crap.”

The United States of America that McCain knows, loves and has served so generously does not chain half-naked prisoners to the floor and then let them freeze to death. To rationalize or excuse the torture documented in the report is, McCain rightly charges, “an insult to the many intelligence officers who have acquired good intelligence without hurting or degrading prisoners.” The ex-POW and American hero provides true moral clarity: “This question isn’​t about our enemies. It’​s about us. It’​s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be.”

Cheney or McCain? Consider the source. I’​ll take the fellow who holds us to a higher standard, thank you.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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