Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Mark Nickolas Headshot

Did McCain Steal His "Cross in the Dirt" Story at the Saddleback Forum From Solzhenitsyn?

Posted: Updated:

The blogosphere is abuzz right now over the discovery that a POW story told by John McCain (R) at Saturday night’s presidential forum is eerily similar to one told by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his famous book The Gulag Archipelago which chronicled his time in a Soviet labor camp in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Here’s what McCain told Saddleback Church’s Pastor Rick Warren last night -- according to the unofficial transcript released by the church:

It was Christmas Day, we were allowed to stand outside of our cell for a few minutes, and those days we were not allowed to see or communicate with each other although we certainly did. And I was standing outside for a few minutes, outside my cell. He came walking up. He stood there for a minute and with his handle [sic] on the dirt in the courtyard he drew a cross and he stood there and a minute later, he rubbed it out and walked away. For a minute there, there was just two Christians worshiping together. I'll never forget that moment.

Now check out how what Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago:

Along with other prisoners, he worked in the fields day after day, in rain and sun, during summer and winter. His life appeared to be nothing more than backbreaking labor and slow starvation. The intense suffering reduced him to a state of despair.



On one particular day, the hopelessness of his situation became too much for him. He saw no reason to continue his struggle, no reason to keep on living. His life made no difference in the world. So he gave up.



Leaving his shovel on the ground, he slowly walked to a crude bench and sat down. He knew that at any moment a guard would order him to stand up, and when he failed to respond, the guard would beat him to death, probably with his own shovel. He had seen it happen to other prisoners.



As he waited, head down, he felt a presence. Slowly he looked up and saw a skinny old prisoner squat down beside him. The man said nothing. Instead, he used a stick to trace in the dirt the sign of the Cross. The man then got back up and returned to his work.




As Solzhenitsyn stared at the Cross drawn in the dirt his entire perspective changed. He knew he was only one man against the all-powerful Soviet empire. Yet he knew there was something greater than the evil he saw in the prison camp, something greater than the Soviet Union.  He knew that hope for all people was represented by that simple Cross. Through the power of the Cross, anything was possible.



Solzhenitsyn slowly rose to his feet, picked up his shovel, and went back to work. Outwardly, nothing had changed. Inside, he had received hope.

Isn't it odd that McCain and Solzhenitsyn would have experienced such nearly identical events during their respective captivities? And note that Solzhenitsyn’s event happened well before McCain’s but wasn’t published until after his release.

But the coincidences get even more troubling.

First, know that McCain is a very big fan of Solzhenitsyn’s and is fond of referencing him.

In McCain's 2007 book Hard Call: Great Decisions and the Extraordinary People Who Made Them McCain devotes an entire chapter to Solzhenitsyn and his experiences as recounted in The Gulag Archipelago.

In June 2005, after Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) found himself apologizing for likened FBI reports of military tactics used at Guantanamo Base to techniques used in Nazi Germany, the Soviet gulag and Pol Pot's Cambodian "killing fields,” it was none other McCain who blasted Durbin publicly, offering this bit of advice during an appearance on Meet the Press:

"Senator Durbin owes not only the Senate an apology -- I don't know if censure would be in order -- but an apology because it does a great disservice to men and women who suffered in the gulag and in Pol Pot's killing fields. Dick Durbin should be required to read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's 'Gulag Archipelago' and I think that he may have a better understanding that there's no comparison whatsoever. And it does a great disservice to the majority of men and women who are serving in Guantanamo who are doing the job that they're told to do and they're doing it in a humane fashion. To tar the American servicemen and women with a brush that applies to the gulag or the killing fields is a great disservice to the men and women in the military who are serving honorably down there."

Also, after Solzhenitsyn passed away a few weeks ago, The New York Sun published an excerpt from McCain’s own book (Hard Call) regarding Solzhenitsyn as an op-ed tribute.

Could these be pure coincidences? I suppose.

But a number of bloggers have pointed out a number of another eyebrow-raising discoveries. Top of that list is the fact that upon his release as a POW, McCain penned a 12,000 word reflection of his experiences for U.S. News & World Report. Yet, as one Daily Kos writer notes "[e]ven though McCain goes into a lot of detail in that story and mentions religion a few times, there is no mention of the cross in the sand story, even though it would have fitted in well with the whole narrative."

The writer also notes that in 1974, McCain spoke at a prayer breakfast with then-Governor Ronald Reagan and tells a stirring story about seeing words about Christ while a POW, but fails to mention the very relevant cross in the sand story.

Even more problematic is that McCain’s own account of that Christmas shows him moving from the prison:

In December of 1969 I was moved from "The Pentagon" [he means "The Plantation" camp] over to "Las Vegas." "Las Vegas" was a small area of Hoala Prison which was built by the French in 1945.

Furthermore, it seems that McCain's own telling of this story has now changed a good deal. Here's what Beliefnet.com’s Steven Waldman wrote:

McCain tells the cross in the sand story in his 1999 memoir, Faith of My Fathers:

"We both stood wordlessly looking at the cross until, after a minute or two, he rubbed it out and walked away. I saw my good Samaritan often after the Christmas when we venerated the cross together."

In his campaign ad in December, he adds mention of "the true light of Christmas":

"We stood wordlessly looking at the cross, remembering the true light of Christmas. I will never forget that no matter where you are, no matter how difficult the circumstances, there will always be someone who will pick you up."

At the Saddleback Civil Forum:

"For a minute there, it was just two Christians worshipping together."

The story has gradually morphed from being about the humanity of the guard to being about the Christian faith of the guard and John McCain.

Finally, be mindful that this isn’t the first time this year that McCain has been called out for playing fast and loose with his POW experience. Recall this effort by McCain to change his POW story last month:

Here's what McCain said on Pittsburgh radio yesterday:

"When I was first interrogated and really had to give some information because of the physical pressures that were on me, I named the starting lineup -- defensive line -- of the Pittsburgh Steelers as my squadron-mates!"

Here's what McCain wrote in his book, Faith of my Fathers:

Pressed for more useful information, I gave the names of the Green Bay Packers' offensive line, and said they were members of my squadron.

I did a Lexis/Nexis search about McCain's captivity and all of them showed-up naming the Green Bay Packers.

What is going on here? Did McCain lie to Pastor Rick Warren in a church this weekend about his POW experience in an attempt to kiss-up to Evangelicals who are already very concerned about his bona fides on faith and religion? Could there have been a worse venue and context for such a lie?

But the big question is whether our feckless national media will even bother following-up on this troubling development as they did with by promoting the GOP-pushed meme of exaggerations by Al Gore in 2000 or John Kerry’s Vietnam War experiences in 2004 as the Swift Boat liars peddled?

I suspect American journalism is in such a sorry state these days that they won’t bother devoting equal time and resources to something so potentially explosive in 2008. I hope I'm wrong...

Mark Nickolas is the Managing Editor of Political Base, and this story was from his original post, "Did McCain Steal His "Cross in the Dirt" Story At Last Night's Forum From Solzhenitsyn? "

Update: Turns out that the first instance of McCain being called out for this was in 2005 by the right wingers over at Free Republic...

Register To Vote