“Hero Because He Was Captured.”

Alberto A. Martinez

Senator John McCain at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona in 2013. Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

Media Meme:

Trump attacked veterans by saying that those who were captured in war, such as John McCain, are not heroes.

What Really Happened:

John McCain criticized Trump’s rhetoric about Hispanics as “offensive.” Days later, Trump held a campaign rally in Arizona and retorted that Senator McCain might lose the next election. Afterward, McCain said that Trump’s rally was “very bad,” “very hurtful” and ridiculed Trump’s Arizona audience calling them “the crazies.” Next, Trump demanded an apology for them, and called McCain a “dummy.” Two days later, a moderator at a conference defended McCain by repeatedly calling him a war hero, to which Trump replied: “He’s not a war hero. He is a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, OK? I hate to tell you. . . . and I believe: perhaps he’s a war hero. But right now he said some very bad things about a lot of people.” Right after the conference, Trump again retracted his snide insult, by saying that McCain really was a hero and that veterans are heroes. Regardless, many news commentators interpreted Trump to mean that he disrespects all veterans and all people who serve in the military and thinks that they’re not heroes.


When the Arizona Senator John McCain ran for U.S. President, in 2008, Donald Trump warmly supported him. Speaking with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Trump said that McCain is “a good man, I know him very well. He’s a very smart guy. He’s a tough guy. I think he’d be a great president.”

Eight years later, McCain didn’t return the compliments when Trump ran for president.

On July 9, MSNBC interviewed McCain. Andrea Mitchel asked McCain about Trump’s “rhetoric” toward Hispanics. McCain replied that “it is offensive to not only Hispanic citizenry but other citizenry…”

Andrea Mitchell Reports, 7/9/15 video

Nonetheless, Trump’s team invited McCain to attend a campaign rally on July 16, in Phoenix, Arizona. McCain declined the invitation.

On July 16, Donald Trump held his rally in Phoenix. There was a crowd of thousands of people. Trump shared the stage with a personal guest and supporter: Jamiel Shaw, the African American father of a young man who was brutally murdered in 2008. His 17-year-old son was a kind and promising high school athlete who was arbitrarily killed in Los Angeles by a Mexican gang member: an unauthorized immigrant who had been imprisoned for four months but released early despite a deportation hold. The day after he was released, he killed Shaw’s son. (The murderer had been arrested originally for assaulting a police officer and for gun charges. Plus, after killing Jamiel Jr., the murderer cut the face of another prisoner, incited a riot, and fought with two other inmates.)

Now Trump used the tragic murder to urge Arizona voters to support his plan to enforce immigration laws, build a wall along the border, and thus reduce crimes committed by “illegal immigrants.” In the rally, Trump also briefly tried to undermine McCain: he said that “If the right person runs against John McCain, he will lose.” (John McCain too had sought to improve border security. However, McCain had also sought to expand guest worker programs and offer legal status and citizenship to undocumented immigrants in the U.S.)

That day, Ryan Lizza interviewed McCain for the New Yorker. McCain complained about Trump’s Phoenix rally, saying: “it’s very bad,” and “very hurtful to me.” McCain explained: “Because what he did was he fired up the crazies.”

McCain also complained that over the years Trump had donated more money to Democrat politicians than to Republicans. And, he said that if the Republican party didn’t reject Trump’s “demagoguery,” the party would lose the presidential election.

Right then, Trump became annoyed because McCain insulted the people at his rally. So, that afternoon Trump tweeted: “The thousands of people that showed up for me in Phoenix were amazing Americans. @SenJohnMcCain called them “crazies”… must apologize!

One minute later, Trump mocked McCain in a tweet: “@SenJohnMcCain should be defeated in the primaries. Graduated last in his class at Annapolis–dummy!

Trump was actually mistaken about McCain’s record at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Actually, as McCain himself sometimes admitted, he graduated fifth from last. Some reports further specify that his graduation rank was 894th in a class of 899, what one writer described as “a record of mediocrity.”

Two days later, on Saturday July 18, Trump attended the “Family Leadership Summit,” a Christian conservative conference, in Ames, Iowa. The moderator, pollster Frank Luntz, asked Trump about having insulted John McCain:

Luntz:  “John McCain—a war hero, five and a half years as a P.O.W.—you called him ‘dummy,’ is that appropriate in running for president?”

Trump:  “You gotta let me speak though Frank, because you interrupt all the time, OK? [People in the audience laugh] …. we move it to the convention center, we had 15,000 people …. A beautiful day with incredible people that were wonderful great Americans, I will tell you. John McCain goes: ‘Uh, boy, Trump makes my life difficult, he had 15,000 crazies show up,’— crazies, he called them all crazy. I said: ‘They weren’t crazy, they were great Americans.’ These people, if you would’ve seen these people, you—I know what a crazy is. I know all about crazies. [People laugh.] These weren’t crazy. So he insulted me, and he insulted everybody in that room. And I said: somebody should run against John McCain, who, has been, you know, in my opinion, not so hot. [Applause.] And I supported him, I supported him for President. I raised a million dollars for him. It’s a lot of money. I supported him. He lost; he let us down. But you know, he lost. So I never liked him as much after that ‘cuz I don’t like losers. But, but Frank, let me get to it—

Luntz:   He’s a war hero.

Trump:  He hit me—

Luntz:   He’s a war hero.

Trump:  He’s not a war hero.

Luntz:   He’s a war hero.

Trump:   He is a war hero.

Luntz:   Five and a half years

Trump:   He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, OK? I hate to tell you. [People laugh.] He’s a war hero, because he was captured, OK? You can have—and I believe: perhaps he’s a war hero. But, but right now he said some very bad things about a lot of people. So what I said is: John McCain, I disagree with him, that these people aren’t crazy, and, very importantly, I speak the truth, he graduated last in his class at Annapolis. So I said, nobody knows that, I said: he graduated last, or second to last in his class at Annapolis. And he was upset. Why, for telling the truth? Folks, I want to make America great again.

Right after the conference, Trump spoke to reporters. He retracted his insult by saying again that McCain was a hero. Trump also said that any American veterans who were prisoners of war were heroic. He added: “I’m with the veterans all the time. I consider them heroes.”

Subsequently, countless thousands of people wrote comments online debating whether or not Trump was right that McCain was a hero. Nearly all news pundits agreed that McCain was a war hero, but a numerous laypersons and veterans wrote comments online under news articles, arguing that McCain was not a hero. Others insisted that he was.

For completeness, I should briefly summarize how McCain became a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.

On October 26, 1967, he was flying a combat mission to drop bombs on a power plant in downtown Hanoi. However, his plane was shot down, so he ejected, and when he landed he broke a knee and both arms. The North Vietnamese captured him. While imprisoned, they occasionally beat him. Using a bayonet, they stabbed his groin and an ankle. They also smashed his shoulder with a rifle butt. While in pain, McCain told his captors: “I’ll give you military information if you will take me to a hospital.” He also told them that his father was a Navy admiral, so that they would give him medical aid. Two weeks after being captured, the North Vietnamese quoted McCain in a war report, which was echoed by the New York Times, in which McCain allegedly said that the U.S. was losing its advantage in the war. He provided the North Vietnamese with other military information: about his Navy ship and bombing flights. In July 1968, McCain rejected an offer to be released early because he refused to say that the U.S. was criminal and the North Vietnamese were humane. Then in August 1968 they tortured him for four days, which led him to sign a statement claiming to be a criminal and a pirate. Under torture, McCain also wrote a “confession” saying that he was guilty of war crimes against the Vietnamese and that “I intentionally bombed women and children.” (He recalled this in 1997 in an interview with 60 Minutes, as an example of a serious mistake: breaking under torture.) After prolonged imprisonment, McCain was finally freed in March 1973.

In his diatribe with Luntz, Trump said four times that McCain was a war hero. But two of those times, the second and third, Trump said that it’s because McCain was captured. Two days earlier, McCain had criticized Trump’s rhetoric as “offensive,” accused him of “demagoguery,” and he had derided Trump’s crowd in Phoenix as “the crazies.” Now, Trump tried to cut down McCain by belittling his military record.

Promptly, the New York Times reported that: “Mr. Trump’s comments on Saturday drew condemnation from his rivals and senior officials in the [Republican] party at a scale far greater than the response to his portrayal of Mexican immigrants as rapists.” (Note that this tendentious line seems to insinuate that Republicans care more about veterans than about horribly insulting Mexicans.) The reporter said that this was “their best opening yet to marginalize Mr. Trump.”

Now, as with the previous incident about what Trump said about “rapists,” reporters had several options: try to fairly summarize what Trump actually said, or, claim that he said it about a large group of people, or, say that he said it about an immense group of people.

There are splitters and lumpers.

“Splitters” are people who tend to specify things narrowly, split groups on the basis of distinctions, avoid broad generalizations. “Lumpers” are people who tend to ignore distinctions, lump things together as if they’re all basically the same, and generalize broadly. Lumpers ridicule splitters by saying that they’re splitting hairs, and stop them from “getting into semantics.” Splitters ridicule lumpers by saying that they’re making a mountain out of a mole hill.

Thus, some reporters and pundits were splitters: they said that Trump disrespected John McCain. Other writers were lumpers: they said that Trump insulted prisoners of war, POWs. Still, other commentators were even bigger lumpers: they said that Trump had disrespected and offended all veterans.

For example, the former Texas governor Rick Perry, a retired officer of the Air Force, said that “Donald Trump owes every American veteran and in particular John McCain an apology.” He said that Trump’s words showed that he was unfit to be President.

Similarly, Representative Todd Young, another Republican, said that Trump’s comments “are an insult to everyone who ever has served their country in uniform.” Like McCain, Todd Young is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

At a campaign stop in Sioux City, Iowa, the governor of Wisconsin, presidential candidate Scott Walker said “I unequivocally denounce him.” Meanwhile, Senator Ted Cruz also agreed that McCain is a war hero, but Cruz refused to “say something bad about Donald Trump.” (For months, Cruz effectively tried to behave as a gentleman and a dutiful party man, by abstaining from insulting Trump or other Republicans, a strategy that paid off for him as he gradually moved higher in the polls.)

Although many Republican party leaders expressed utter disgust at Trump’s words, the New York Times reported that at the conference where Trump made his comments some attendees “were not nearly as offended, a reminder of the chasm between the Republican power structure and its grass roots.” For example, an attendee, Rose Kendall, said: “It was not important to me.” She explained that Trump just “said that because John McCain talked him down.”

Similarly, in a clear illustration of how the media diverges from the public, it is immensely easier to find comments by laypersons online supporting what Trump said than any such arguments in articles written by reporters or political pundits.

Moreover, what many readers wrote as online comments were far, far worse than anything Trump had said. It was brutal. Thousands of readers commented that McCain was not a hero, that he was a drunk, a traitor, a war monger, “living proof of vote rigging,” a weasel, scum, a piece of shit, insane, evil, an SOB, etc. One commenter wrote: “The only thing saving McCain is the fact that the media is so lazy and uninformed.”

Readers also spread many myths about McCain; such as that after the Vietnam War he was one of 33 POWs pending execution for treason against the United States until President Nixon pardoned them all. This was entirely false.

In any case, Trump’s habit of verbally hitting back when someone hits you was working against both Trump and McCain: Trump was being verbally pummeled by politicians, the media, and many veterans and laypersons, while McCain was being pummeled by a portion of the readers and veterans writing comments.

In the Washington Times, Donald Lambro wrote an op-ed titled “Trump’s Reckless Rhetoric.” He criticized Trump: “It was a stupid, ignorant, senseless, insensitive and thoughtless remark. It was unbecoming for any candidate for the presidency…

By then, surprisingly, Trump had jumped to the top of the polls in the Republican primary. Why? People nowadays give many knee-jerk answers, one-liners.

But actually, it’s really complicated because elections involve countless factors and millions of voters’ opinions. But I can say that it’d be difficult to find the answer in the articles by reporters and pundits at the time, in July 2015. Instead, it’s much easier to get a sense of why some people actually liked Trump by reading the comments under the articles.

For example, under Lambro’s article in the Washington Times, one reader praised Trump: “I love his reckless speech—I am SICK of political correctness. Tell it like it IS!!!!” Another reader wrote: “Reckless rhetoric? When it comes to John McCain there is no such thing as reckless rhetoric! McCain’s Navy record should be released to see how single handedly McCain crashed 5-6 navy jets. …” Another commenter wrote: “The GOP ‘Good old boy club’ is why the USA is bankrupt, and the Middle East is a destabilized region in Nuclear development!” Another one wrote: “Trump has all the right enemies, and he adds to his collection daily. That’s his appeal, and the more he is attacked by RINOs and presstitutes and Hillary Clinton, the more support he is going to garner.” Another one wrote: “If I had to choose right now, Trump – he at least speaks his mind– goes overboard, but speaks his mind– truth.  GOP = lies and hot air– promises based on Corporate CEO lobbyist money.”

Another commenter wrote: “In the same statement Trump said insane McCain was a war hero 4 times. Cannot believe TWT [The Washington Times] is towing the enemy GOP Establishment lie.” Another commenter wrote: “Mr. Lambro – please back away from the keyboard. This is a shill piece and should be beneath you. … McCain is unstable, and should be incarcerated at a VA facility, as punishment for the ignoring of real military men and women. McCain forced soldiers to be lost and manipulated material ignoring known MIA’s & POW’s. Why?”

Under a different article, published on TheBlaze, one veteran, writing as PastorSteve, commented: “I’m a vet of 22-years. And I’m not offended by Trumps Truth… However, I am deeply offended by a man like McCain who saw first hand what the cost of war is. Yet he has done nothing but play politics with veterans lives. If John McCain was never captured… No one would even know who John McCain was. And that’s what Trump meant in his speech. VETS STAND WITH TRUMP!!!”

Another commenter wrote: “I agree. The GOP, DNC and media are the only ones squealing and they are trying to make it look as if the people are doing the same but so far I just don’t see it. Actually I have been seeing just the opposite. How many people on here have never said something out of anger that came out wrong?

Another reader, writing as anotheroldjarhead, said: “WAS a Hero – MAYBE. NOW a politician…and a BAD one at that. Screw him.” And another: “there is no need to apologize. Though I was offended by Trump’s remark, I did hear him say, in the next sentence that McCain is a hero. As a retired Army Veteran at 53…”

Thus, countless many people agreed with Trump. Many others disagreed with him. Here’s one example, also in TheBlaze: “He will spout out some outlandish comment unfiltered from brain to mouth, realize how stupid it was to say such a thing, and then try to walk it back immediately by adding tempering comments. He did it with the illegal immigrants comment, and he did it with the McCain comment. In his mind, he can drop these “bombs”, as long as he sweeps up afterwards. But that isn’t the way it works in politics. You have to measure your words carefully, and when you do misspeak, you had best apologize immediately and not try to explain it away or whine about how the press hates you.”

On ABC News “This Week” program, Martha Raddatz interviewed Trump who insisted on not apologizing to McCain. And again, he called McCain “a dummy.” Trump argued: “Look, when people attack me, I let them have it back.”

Also, Matt Lauer interviewed Trump on NBC. But again, Trump refused to apologize. He said that McCain had done “a horrible job for the vets.” Then Trump criticized the media:

“If you saw what I said and you saw the press conference afterwards… the media just has done such a false number as usual. … I said it at the news conference. I said it on the stage. The next sentence was: ‘He is a war hero.’ I said that, but they never want to play it, and you [Matt Lauer] don’t want to play it. If you would’ve let it run just another three seconds, you would’ve said that I said very clearly: He is a war hero.”

Trump further said: “Frankly, illegal immigrants get treated better than many of our vets. It’s a disgrace: what’s happening in this country and John McCain is doing nothing about it but talk.”

On July 20 McCain was interviewed on the MSNBC show Morning Joe. McCain said “in the case of many of our veterans, when Mr. Trump said that he prefers to be with people who were not captured, well, the great honor of my life was to serve in the company of heroes—I’m not a hero,” saying that Trump owed an apology instead to other veterans, heroes such as Colonel Bud Day, who earned a Congressional Medal of Honor. Day was also imprisoned and tortured in Viet Nam, and shared a cell with McCain in late 1967.

Ryan Lizza had interviewed McCain when McCain ridiculed Trump’s large Phoenix crowd as “the crazies.” So, on the same day as Trump punched back against McCain, Ryan Lizza commented, at 2:59 pm, that perhaps McCain had intentionally goaded Trump. Lizza tweeted: “McCain may have started this fight knowing it would push Trump over the edge. He made the ‘crazies’ remark w/o any prompting.”

Similarly, at MSNBC, Steven Benen wrote an article arguing that whereas Trump was perhaps trying to fire up the more extreme side of the Republican party, “the crazies,” McCain was laughably hypocritical because he too had tried to do the same thing when, in 2008, he ran for President and chose Governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate for Vice President, precisely to appeal to such Republicans.

On August 12, 2015, John McCain spoke to a group of workers in Tucson, Arizona, at an aircraft maintenance facility. Someone asked him again to respond to Trump’s attacks. McCain replied: “I don’t like to respond to Mr. Trump because there’s an old line about: you don’t want to get into a wrestling match with a pig; you both get dirty and the pig likes it.”


Alberto A. Martinez is a professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.

Next, Chapter 6:   “The Ugly Words of Megyn, Donald, and Rosie”

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.