McCain's crazy last days in Vietnam

He goes out with a bang, while a reporter is left to whimper.

Published April 29, 2000 10:15AM (EDT)

As if Sen. John
R-Ariz., wasn't already
convinced the hard-line communists were
back in charge in the Vietnam Politburo,
one of the six members of his traveling
press corps was detained at the border
and not allowed on a Lufthansa flight
out from behind this iron curtain.

the confusion of our arrival in Hanoi on
Tuesday morning, where McCain
participated in a "repatriation"
ceremony honoring the remains of what
are suspected to be six U.S. soldiers
missing in action since the Vietnam War,
Tucker Carlson, 30, the talented bon
vivant who writes for the Weekly
Standard and Talk, didn't get his
passport stamped. Thus, when Tucker and
three other journalists -- Time's Jay
Carney, U.S. News & World Reports Roger
Simon and me -- proceeded to the border
for checkout, Carlson's papers weren't in order.

It's Carlson's story, so I'll leave him
to write the rest of it. But suffice to
say that when we met up with McCain and
his staffers, who did all they could to
help get Tucker out, it seemed pretty
clear that the insane bureaucratic cogs
and wheels of communism were already in
play. By the time we got on the plane,
leaving Tucker with a U.S. Embassy
official and a translator, it seemed a
fitting end to a trip where McCain
expressed dismay about the hard-line
direction of Vietnam's Politboru,
Vietnamese officials raised a fuss about
a few minor, salty comments from McCain
and the media jumped on the easier

"Yeah, the hard-liners are back in
power," McCain muttered. When we arrived
in Frankfurt, Germany, and checked up on
Carlson's status, McCain was glad to hear
Carlson had refused to sign a statement
stating he had been in the country
illegally. At the airport, McCain was
concerned that his personal appeal for
Carlson's freedom might have actually
made matters worse. (As of Saturday
afternoon, Carlson had extricated himself
from the tentacles of communist
bureaucracy and was expected back in
Washington by Sunday.)

More odd news came when we dove into
copies of the International Herald
Tribune and saw a story about McCain's
week here, a New York Times report
including a spin seemingly pulled from
the front page of the government-run
Vietnam News. McCain "launched a harsh
attack on Vietnam's Communist government
for everything from its ideology to its
economy to its sincerity to its
corruption to the fact that it displays
the hammer and sickle on its banners."
McCain's Wednesday visit to the Hanoi
Hilton -- where he was imprisoned by the
North Vietnamese for much of his five
and a half years as a prisoner or war --
was, according to this account, a time
when McCain "found it appropriate to get
angry once again at the guards who had
held him."

He didn't seem angry to me, or to the
other reporters in the pool who followed
him. His criticisms were usually focused on trade,
and his harshest rebukes turned toward the
war and couched in the calming
qualifier: "But thats in the past." As
he walked through the Hanoi Hilton, now
converted to a ridiculously censored
museum some of which honors the "humane"
treatment of American P.O.W.s, his mood
seemed just fine. He laughed. He pointed
out that in one Vietnamese propaganda
photo an American prisoner was
scratching his chin with his middle
finger. After reading a plaque
describing the North Vietnamese army's
wonderful treatment of P.O.W.s, he
joked, "thats entertainment."

He was asked about any lingering anger
toward the guards who tortured him and
his fellow P.O.W.s. And, as he has said
millions of times before, when it came
to the guards, "I still bear them ill
will, not because of what they did to me
but because of what they did to some of
my friends, including killing some of
them." On Thursday, the Vietnam News
quoted Vietnamese Foreign Ministry
spokeswoman Phan Thuy Thanh saying
McCain's comments had run "counter to
the norms of morality that those people
who brought bombs and shells to sow
death among our people and wreak havoc
with a country now pass themselves off
as having the right to criticize their

Phan went on to say McCain's comments
flew in the face of remarks he had made
in 1994, in which he praised his captors
for their exemplary hospitality. There
is no record of McCain ever making such
comments, of course, which is why they
never appeared in the Vietnam News

Maybe this shouldn't have been a huge
surprise in the context of this trip.
After McCains Wednesday visit with
National Assembly Speaker Nong Duc Manh
-- in which McCain strongly urged the
Vietnamese government to sign the
U.S.-Vietnam trade agreement, and Nong
said that he hoped the United States
would help pay for the "consequences" of
the war, a vague allusion to the
effects of U.S. use of Agent Orange,
the Vietnam News reported that Nong had
given McCain a stern lecture about Agent
Orange. But, at least according to what
the translator had said, such was not
the case. The words "Agent" and
"Orange" hadn't even been uttered.

To McCain, the tone of the coverage
in the Vietnam News this week has,
indeed, been unsettling and significant.
"They never reacted like that before,"
he said in Frankfurt. "It's another
indicator that youve got the
hard-liners in charge."

During McCain's previous seven trips
here -- according to his chief of
staff, Mark Salter -- McCain has always
been that frank when discussing his
prison guards, or any other issue. And,
as with this trip, his comments have
always been within the context that,
with the possible exception of Sen. John
Kerry, D-Mass., himself a Vietnam
veteran, there is no American elected
official who has done more to help
smooth relations with Vietnam.

Rightly or wrongly, McCain has led the
charge on lifting the embargo against
Vietnam, on establishing diplomatic
relations, on trying to bring about a
resolution to the P.O.W./M.I.A.
controversy. Of course, McCain is not
always diplomatic; he is not a diplomat.
So, on Friday, in the lobby of the Rex
Hotel when a reporter asked him what he
thought about the outcome of the war, he
said, rather nonchalantly, "Well, I
think the wrong guys won." When pressed
as to why McCain -- a former Navy flier,
avowed anti-Communist and former P.O.W.
-- felt it was bad that the North
Vietnamese won, he said, "Well, I think
they lost millions of their best people
who left by boat, thousands by execution
and hundreds of thousands who went to
re-education camps."

McCain went on to say that "the object
of my relationship with Vietnam has been
to heal the wounds that exist,
particularly among our veterans, and to
move forward with a positive

That a spokeswoman for the Vietnamese
Foreign Ministry would talk about "bombs
and shells" and "sow[ing] death" is fine
with him, McCain said, but that's not what
he was here to talk about. "Apparently
some in the Vietnamese government don't
want to do that [moving forward] and
that's their decision."

Another eruption from the Foreign
Ministry followed, one repeated in the
New York Times with the leap that McCain
was "accusing Vietnamese officials of
only pretending to want to improve
relations." But what McCain did focus on
during this trip is that things here seem to
be worsening. "The fact that they for
years negotiated a trade agreement,
initiated it and then went back on it,
clearly there's been a change in who's
running things," McCain said.

But stories seem to focus on that salty
curmudgeon McCain screwing things up
with his big mouth. Additionally, McCain
notes, "All they let me see [on this
trip] was the foreign minister" and a
couple of members of the National
Assembly. The big three running the show
are the Communist Party secretary, the
president and the prime minister. "Of
all the visits I made before this, there
wasn't one when I didn't see one of the
top three." And he was denied visits to
any of the three this time long before
we arrived.

"That was before I said a word," McCain

By Jake Tapper

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

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

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John Mccain