09/28/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Americans Have Never Made Fun of Former Prisoners of War

John McCain has used his status as a former prisoner of war to bolster his resume and to deflect any and all attacks on his character, no matter how tenuous the connection. McCain defended his recent inability to keep track of how many homes he owned by observing that "I spent some years without a kitchen table, without a chair."

But, for better or worse, Americans have never been so gentle with our war heroes. Admiral James Stockdale had a resume far superior in every measure to John McCain's. He was commander of his naval carrier group, held a masters degree in International Relations from Stanford, was the ranking officer in the POW camp that held McCain, mutilated himself rather than be paraded as a trophy, and attempted suicide to protest fatal torture of fellow prisoners. (As a result of his self mutilation, he was never filmed making a confession, as McCain was.) His Medal of Honor citation credited him for leading the American resistance within the prison camp. As a result,

"Rear Adm. Stockdale was singled out for interrogation and attendant torture . . . aware that his earlier efforts at self disfiguration to dissuade his captors from exploiting him for propaganda purposes had resulted in cruel and agonizing punishment, Rear Adm. Stockdale resolved to make himself a symbol of resistance regardless of personaI sacrifice. He deliberately inflicted a near-mortal wound to his person in order to convince his captors of his willingness to give up his life rather than capitulate." As a result, the North Vietnamese . . . abated in their . . . excessive harassment and torture toward all of the Prisoners of War."

Yet this tremendous courage and sacrifice did not prevent Stockdale from becoming a national joke when, as H. Ross Perot's running mate in 1992, he made numerous gaffes in the vice presidential debate. Saturday Night Live mercilessly skewered the war hero:

The far right has merciless accused John McCain of being a Manchurian Candidate, brainwashed by his captors and of having been a "songbird" who sold out his fellow prisoners. Both of these accusations are beneath contempt. The former has the conspiratorial advantage of being impossible to disprove. Admiral Stockdale's actions upon his return to the United States decisively put the lie to the latter. When Stockdale returned to the United States, he named two men as traitors and recommended their court-martial. McCain was not among them. Stockdale was not the sort of man to pull any punches. McCain certainly resisted his torture as well as any of our other brave patriots. But the scurrilous nature of such accusations should not place any criticism of McCain's POW experience out of bounds. Instead, we should ask McCain, what lessons did you learn from your captivity? How would you apply those lessons to the job of President? McCain's dangerous temper and fixation on "honor" lead to the conclusion that he may be unfit.

The contrast between Stockdale and McCain raises the question of whether McCain's experience has left him with a temperament suitable to be President of the United States. I will address that question in my next post.