Straight talk

Former POW McCain stands by his use of an epithet to describe his former captors.

Published February 17, 2000 9:30AM (EST)

During one of his trademark freewheeling press conferences on the "Straight Talk Express" Thursday morning, Arizona Sen. John McCain -- a 5 1/2-year prisoner of war in Hanoi -- stood by a remark he made last year in which he referred to his North Vietnamese captors as "gooks."

"I'll call right now my interrogator that tortured me and my friends a gook," McCain said in response to a question about a magazine story in which he is quoted referring to his prison guards by the epithet. "You can quote me," he said.

"Anybody that does not believe that these interrogators and these prison guards were not cruel and sadistic people that deserve worse appellations than 'gooks,' they received appellations that were four-letter words," he said.

The use of the epithet doesn't quite square with the fact that McCain has been repeatedly lauded by observers for his ability to move beyond the unbearable torture he withstood at the hands of his Vietnamese captors. He provided political cover for the Clinton administration when it pushed to normalize relations with Vietnam, and also pushed for a resolution of the POW/MIA controversy.

McCain aide Mike Murphy noted that the Arizona senator has "been criticized for not holding enough of a grudge."

Just a couple of weeks ago, McCain was quoted in the Boston Globe as saying, "There are individual Vietnamese who, if I saw them again, I am sure I would attempt to inflict some physical punishment. But the South Vietnamese were our allies and friends, and they are now part of overall Vietnam. And my job ... was to help the healing and reconciliation process, so we could give help to those Vietnam veterans who had not come all the way home, to continue that journey."

When asked if the term "gook" was appropriate, McCain insisted that he only used it when referring to "our prison guards. I will continue to refer to them in, probably, language that might offend some, some people here, because of their beating and torturing and killing of my friends."

As well as himself. In his bestselling "Faith of My Fathers," McCain describes the "incredibly painful" torture he survived. One guard, nicknamed "the Bug," was a "sadist." Another, called "the Prick," smashed "his fist into the side of my head ... knocking me down ... every morning for nearly two years." Plenty of other guards, McCain writes, "seemed to enjoy their work."

"On occasions when he [the Bug] was particularly determined, I would find myself trussed up and left for hours in ropes, my biceps wound tightly with several loops to cut off my circulation and the end of the rope cinched behind my back, pulling my shoulders and elbows unnaturally together."

To this day, McCain cannot raise his arms to his head because of the injuries he suffered. Aides have to comb his hair for him. There were times the torture was so severe he attempted suicide.

McCain writes that "perhaps ... the most important lesson" he ever learned was that "faith in myself alone, separate from other, more important allegiances, was ultimately no match for the cruelty that human beings could devise when they were entirely unencumbered by respect for the God-given dignity of man."

"Look, the guy was brutally mistreated as a POW," explained Murphy. McCain doesn't intend the term to refer to all Asians, Murphy maintained, but rather to "a couple hundred really bad Vietnamese, a very narrow slice of people he had a personal experience with in a POW camp. I can understand the anger in his using that word."

Indeed, the word "gook" is fairly commonplace among former Vietnam POWs. In a 1992 hearing before the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, former Adm. James Stockdale -- the 1992 Reform Party nominee for vice president and a McCain backer -- used the word when recalling how imprisoned POWs were able to differentiate between the Morse-code tappings of their fellow prisoners and that of the enemy guards.

"You can identify them, of course," Stockdale testified. "You know, you'd think a Vietnamese could tap on the wall. They often tried it, but we'd mainly stay away from that. 'That's a gook, you know, no question about it.'" According to the official transcript, the room then erupted in laughter.

In a 1996 story about McCain in the New Republic, his former cellmate, Maj. George "Bud" Day, recalled the moment the North Vietnamese deposited McCain in his cell. "His eyes, I'll never forget, were just burning bright," Day said. "They were bug-eyed like you see in those pictures from the Jewish concentration camps. His eyes were real pop-eyed like that. I said, 'The gooks have dumped this guy on us so they can blame us for killing him,' because I didn't think he was going to live out the day."

But McCain has occasionally been criticized for his blunt tongue in matters that have nothing to do with his POW experiences. He has joked that "the nice thing about Alzheimer's is you get to hide your own Easter eggs," referred to the retirement community Leisure World as "Seizure World" and yukked it up before an audience, saying that Chelsea Clinton was unattractive because Attorney General Janet Reno is her father. For most of these gaffes, McCain has apologized. But he holds firm to "gooks."

Other Asians have used the term to describe North Vietnamese as well, McCain maintained. "Those South Vietnamese that were in re-education camps, their guards they referred to as 'gooks,' too."

Pressed again on whether the term was an appropriate one to use, McCain said "there's no appellation that could be bad enough" to use against his prison guards. "'Gook' is the kindest, the kindest description I can give them. The most printable."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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John Mccain R-ariz.