- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn. | There are 24 of them here, the men who went through hell with John McCain in Vietnamese prison camps four decades ago.

A few are politicking and organizing, but most are here simply to support the man they say represents a choice for America between honor and image.

“There is a waning sense of honor and duty … and that is troubling. And this election may be all about that very thing,” said Orson Swindle, who was a cellmate with Mr. McCain for two years in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp.

“Do we want to have an ‘American Idol’ election, or do we want to elect a man who is capable of doing great things and solving big problems?” said Mr. Swindle, one of several speakers who will formally nominate Mr. McCain for president Wednesday.

Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, is viewed by Mr. McCain’s “band of brothers” with a mixture of paternal condescension and disbelief that the younger man has drawn massive popular support.

“In my mind, there’s no choice. [Mr. McCain is] so well-qualified, better than the opposition,” said Dave Wheat, 68, of Duluth, Minn., who was shot down in October 1965 and imprisoned by the Viet Cong for more than seven years.

“Barack Obama repeatedly scares the hell out of me because of his naivete,” Mr. Swindle said. “He has no qualifications for the job other than that he’s a hell of a nice guy.”

Mr. McCain, a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War, was imprisoned in camps for almost six years after being shot down in his fighter plane on Oct. 26, 1967.

He has not faced the military opposition that helped sink the 2004 presidential campaign of Democrat John Kerry, a fellow Vietnam veteran.

Fellow former prisoners of war said Mr. McCain’s experience of torture and captivity stands as an undeniable testament to his character, toughness and patriotism that Mr. Obama cannot touch.

“John McCain went through a crucible of adversity, and he was there being tested. He came out of it a stronger person, a more focused person, a person who conducted himself with incredible honor,” said Mr. Swindle, 71, who served as assistant secretary of commerce under President Reagan.

“If we’ve got a choice between a person who’s had that, as opposed to someone who’s organized neighborhoods, give me a break. What’s the issue here?”

The Obama campaign continued Tuesday to rebut criticism of their candidate’s experience by redirecting attention to the Bush administration, arguing that Mr. McCain represents no clear difference from the current president.

“We honor and respect Senator McCain’s tremendous and heroic service to the country,” said Obama spokesman Hari Sevugan. “What we disagree on is John McCain’s plan to continue for another four years the same Bush polices that have failed American families for the last eight.”

In his nomination acceptance speech last week in Denver, Mr. Obama indirectly raised the issue of whether Mr. McCain’s years in captivity have made him too emotionally volatile. “If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament and judgment to serve as the next commander in chief, that’s a debate I’m ready to have,” Mr. Obama said.

Capitol Hill insiders have whispered for years about the issue of Mr. McCain’s temper.

Rod Knutson, who was shot down on the same day in 1965 as Mr. Wheat and later was confined in a cell next to Mr. McCain’s, said that experience made him “a better person.”

“I have more courage, I have more patriotism, I have better tolerance for things. I think I’m a better father and a better husband, and I think I did a better job in the Navy. And I think all of those attributes can be carried over to John McCain,” said Mr. Knutson, 69, of Thompson Falls, Mo.

“It’s not a negative experience at all. It was a hardship. It was a sacrifice, and it’s something none of us would ever want to do again, but we’re better off having been through it,” he said.

Mr. Knutson, who retired from the Navy after 38 years of service, paid out of his own pocket to attend the convention with his wife. He has no official capacity here, although he and all other former POWs have been given special seating privileges.

“I’m just here cheering him on,” Mr. Knutson said of Mr. McCain.

Mr. Swindle is an adviser to the McCain campaign on veterans issues and was enveloped Tuesday in a nearly nonstop flurry of phone calls, events and meetings.

“It’s chaos,” he said at the Hilton hotel in Minneapolis, where the McCain campaign has its headquarters this week.

During prime time Tuesday, Mr. Swindle spoke briefly to the crowd inside the Xcel Energy Center and introduced Medal of Honor recipients. He told the crowd that two dozen former POWs were in the crowd, and the audience collectively gasped.

“Gents, we have come a long way and I am honored to be among you,” Mr. Swindle said. “Would you please stand and be recognized.”

The crowd gave a long standing ovation and chanted, “Thank you, thank you.” The theme Tuesday night was “the courage and service of John McCain.”

Mr. Knutson was directly behind Mr. McCain’s wife, Cindy, who stood along with the crowd and applauded him and the other POWs.

The McCain campaign said the senator had no meeting slated with all of the two-dozen former POWs, and the gathering initially scheduled for Monday was postponed because of the national attention to Hurricane Gustav.

Former POWs interviewed by The Washington Times said they were hoping for a few moments in private with Mr. McCain.

“Everyone wants to tug at his coat and tell him, ‘Gee, you ought to do this,’” said John L. Borling, 68, a former POW from Rockford, Ill. “We’ll be respectful and cautious with respect to offering gratuitous ideas.”

“Each of us will carry not only a personal message of support, but we’ve probably got a favorite thought or two that we want to be able to share privately,” he said.

The McCain campaign said their candidate is grateful.

“Their presence and support is a powerful character endorsement that John McCain will stand on principles and fight for better days in America,” said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds.

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