McCain's Movie Tells of a Mission in Life
By Alec MacGillis
CONCORD, N.H. -- Most presidential campaigns warm up the crowd for their candidate with some pop music, some remarks by a local supporter, or instructions by a staffer on how to go about volunteering or getting to the polls on election day.
John McCain has the film. At many of his events, his campaign sets up a screen and plays for the crowd a three-minute film called "Service with Honor," telling the story of McCain's more than five years of captivity in a North Vietnamese prison after his Navy plan was shot down in 1967. As sonorous music plays in the background, McCain's mother Roberta recounts her reaction on hearing of his capture, images of McCain in captivity are flashed on screen, and two fellow POW's describe his comportment. "He was offered early release and he told 'em to shove it," says one, Paul Galanti. "He has been there, he's done that, he's been miserable he's been tortured, beaten to a pulp and yet he still comes up with that patented McCain smile."
McCain himself concludes the film with these words: "The only reason I am here today is because I believe a higher being has a mission for me and my life."
It is an affecting production. It is also something McCain did not play for crowds when he ran for president in late 1999 and 2000, when his unique biography was mostly left to others to draw attention to. That McCain is now placing so much more explicit emphasis on his courage under captivity is one of the biggest differences between his two campaigns. In addition to the film, the campaign features McCain's Vietnam story prominently in its mailings to voters, and, instead of the standard sitting-before-hearth ad run on television before Christmas by other candidates, it produced an eye-catching ad telling the story about the North Vietnamese prison guard who would secretly loosen McCain's bonds and who signaled his sympathy to him by surreptitiously drawing a cross in the dirt on Christmas.
McCain's advisers in New Hampshire, where his campaign has focused its primary efforts, say it took some persuading to get McCain to agree to rely more heavily on his biography. The move toward a more explicit evocation of his Vietnam service came as the campaign foundered earlier this year amid weak fund-raising and widespread opposition to the immigration reform legislation McCain was advocating.
"We just said, 'Look, you're the only candidate running who's ever been under hostile fire, who understands how the defense budget is put together and how war is strategized,'" said Steve Duprey, a former New Hampshire Republican Party chairman who is co-chairman of McCain's campaign here. "Like most military people, he was reluctant to wear that service on his sleeve, but he understood the importance of talking about his experiences this year because national security and defense issues are at the fore."
Walter Peterson, a former New Hampshire governor supporting McCain, said the emphasis on McCain's service was justified simply as a way to inform the many voters who may know very little of the story. He noted a recent study showing that about 230,000 people have become eligible to vote in New Hampshire since 2000, or about 23 percent of all eligible voters in the state, both young people who have turned 18 and new residents who have moved to the state, which has experienced unusually high demographic turnover.
"There's been a lot of passage of time [since 2000] and a lot of people moved into the state who weren't here then and you have to let them know, 'Look, this is a national hero here who suffered greatly for the country and deserves a close look,'" said Peterson. "He may not be everyone's cup of tea, but you ought to at least listen to him and not discount him. You ought to realize that this guy can get right back in the fight because he is a fighter. He is a person who understands war."
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