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Jewish World Review May 1, 2000 /26 Nissan, 5760

Roger Simon

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McCain stands on the spot where he first fell -- HANOI -- John McCain is standing by the lake that he fell into on Oct. 26, 1967, when a SAM missile took off the right wing of his Skyhawk dive bomber. "It was over there," he said, pointing. "The power plant. That's what we were trying to hit."

McCain and his fellow flyers were carrying out the first U.S. raid on central Hanoi. At that time, it was the most heavily defended city in the world, and you can still see the SAM missiles in place here and there, crowded by shops selling cellular telephones, sportswear and T-shirts honoring Ho Chi Minh.

When the wing came off, McCain ejected from his plane, breaking both arms in the process. He fell into a lake, was captured and spent the next five and a half years in prison.

The story is, by now, well known, and on this trip McCain will visit the prison, the Hanoi Hilton -- again -- visit the lake he fell into -- again -- and talk to reporters almost endlessly as Vietnam gets ready to celebrate "Reunification Day," the day 25 years ago when Saigon fell to the invading forces of the North.

McCain has made this trip no less than seven times before. This time NBC is picking up the tab for him, his wife, Cindy, and his 13-year-old son, Jack, so that McCain can do the "Today" show live from Ho Chi Minh City, which just about everybody still calls Saigon.

Some 53 percent of the Vietnamese population and 35 percent of the U.S. population were born after the war ended. Yet the war remains a defining moment in American history, and one reason that John McCain remains a hot item -- he is not ruling out a run for the presidency in 2004 -- is because of his wartime experience and how he now represents a healing force. While many hated the war nobody hated the POWs, and supporting McCain allows people to resolve their conflicts about the war. McCain's story is a powerful one, which he has used very effectively throughout his career. When John McCain goes to Vietnam, he is going back to his future.

"I miss the campaign, I really do," he says. "I miss the excitement. It was great. And then it just ... stopped."

Primary campaigns are usually meat grinders, turning the losers (and often the winners) into hamburger. McCain has come out as prime filet. One hundred Republican candidates have asked him to come campaign for them, and his best-selling book -- "People waved it at me from the crowds like the Chinese holding up Mao's Little Red Book," McCain jokes -- is being turned into a movie with rumors that Robert Duvall might play his father and Edward Norton might play McCain. No movie about the life of Bill Bradley is currently being contemplated.

"We struck a chord," McCain says. "It surprised all of us, including me. We struck a very deep chord, it lingers on and it continues to resonate."

Not since Ronald Reagan lost to Gerald Ford in 1976 has a defeated candidate so enhanced his personal image. Reagan made 75 speeches the following year, never stopped campaigning and won the presidency four years later when he was 69. John McCain will be 67 in 2004, and his campaign gives every appearance of not stopping until at least then.

George W. Bush, though he won, might be a little envious of McCain these days. Bush was supposed to make a world tour, until his aides figured it was too risky because reporters would just turn it into a giant game of "Jeopardy" by shouting current events questions at him wherever he went. And now it is McCain who is trailing reporters around the world, as on the day he went to Hanoi's Truc Bach Lake, which he fell into after his plane was shot down.

Today it is a peaceful setting in a city filled with motorcyclists madly honking their horns and filling the air with gray exhaust fumes. McCain stood next to the bizarre memorial to his capture, a tan concrete slab that pictures him falling from an Air Force jet. "That is the greatest insult of all," McCain, a Naval aviator, says. "But it looks better than last time I was here. It was all overgrown with grass, and there was bird crap everywhere."

He points to burnt sticks arrayed around the memorial and says he has been told that people are now coming and lighting incense to him.

I ask him if people are now worshipping him as a god.

"Damned if I know," he replies.

Next comes a visit to the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," most of which has been torn down to make room for an office and hotel complex. McCain leads reporters through the small, dank cells, where his captors tortured him and killed some of his fellow POWs.

"I still bear them ill will," he says. "Not because of me, but what they did to my friends."

I ask him if he searches for the faces of his captors on the streets when he comes to visit and does he contemplate taking his revenge?

"No," he says quietly. "I don't want to see them. Would I do something to them?" He pauses. "I don't know."

Then his face splits into a grin. "I mean, after the war, I went on to a great life! And they're in Vietnam!"

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate