Posted by AzBlueMeanie:


Note: The original post was intended to be saved in draft form while I completed more research before posting it.  I inadvertently did not not notice that it was in publish mode (it was the end of a long, stressful day). The corrections and updates to this post are included below.  I apologize for my error and misinforming readers with an incomplete draft.  Today’s post has been revised.


I have previously written that John McCain just makes sh*t up when he modified his Green Bay Packers war story to a Pittsburgh Steelers war story when he was in – you guessed it – Pittsburgh.  One has to question whether the story was ever true or just made up.

Well, it’s happened again.  McCain, whom we are constantly told by the McMedia has too much humility to talk about his POW experience, EXCEPT WHEN HE DOES – all the time! – told another one of his war stories at the Saddleback Civil Forum hosted by Pastor Rick Warren on Saturday. – Transcripts:

MCCAIN: Can I tell you another story real quick?


MCCAIN: The Vietnamese kept us in prison in conditions of solitary confinement, or two or three to a cell. They did that because they knew they could break down our resistance. One of the techniques that they used to get information was to take ropes and tie them around your biceps, loop the rope around your head and pull it down beneath your knees and leave you in that position. You can imagine it’s very uncomfortable.

One night, I was being punished in that fashion. All of sudden the door of the cell opened and the guard came in. The guy who was just — what we call the gun guard — just walked around the camp with the gun on his shoulder. He went like this and loosened the ropes. He came back about four hours later and tightened them up again and left.

The following Christmas, because it was Christmas day, we were allowed to stand outside of our cell for a few minutes. In those days we were not allowed to see or communicate with each other, although we certainly did. And I was standing outside, for my few minutes outside at my cell. He came walking up. He stood there for a minute, and with his sandal on the dirt in the courtyard, he drew a cross and he stood there. And a minute later, he rubbed it out, and walked away.

For a minute there, there was just two Christians worshiping together. I’ll never forget that moment.

Several bloggers have noted that the earliest record of McCain telling this story is in 1999, some 25 years after returning home from captivity, when he was preparing to run for president.  Taegan Goddard at CQ Politics | Political Insider – Is McCain Now Copying Solzhenitsyn? ; rickrocket at Daily Kos: "Cross in the Dirt" story stolen from Solzhenitsyn ; Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan (McCain’s cross in the dirt story); hubris sonic at Group News Blog: McCain’s Story "Cross in the Dirt" Appears to be Bullshit.

In this first-person contemporaneous account of his experience as a POW John McCain, Prisoner of War: A First-Person Account – US News and World Report (This story originally appeared in the May 14, 1973, issue of U.S.News & World Report) we were assured that "Here, in his own words, based on almost total recall, is Commander McCain’s narrative of 5½ years in the hands of the North Vietnamese."  You will not find any mention of the story McCain told Pastor Warren that "I’ll never forget that moment."

Update: It turns out that a nearly identical story of an experience as a prisoner in a concentration camp was attributed to Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Gulag Archipelago:

Along with other prisoners, he worked in the fields day after day, in rain and sun, during summer and winter. His life appeared to be nothing more than backbreaking labor and slow starvation. The intense suffering reduced him to a state of despair.

On one particular day, the hopelessness of his situation became too much for him. He saw no reason to continue his struggle, no reason to keep on living. His life made no difference in the world. So he gave up.

Leaving his shovel on the ground, he slowly walked to a crude bench and sat down. He knew that at any moment a guard would order him to stand up, and when he failed to respond, the guard would beat him to death, probably with his own shovel. He had seen it happen to other prisoners.

As he waited, head down, he felt a presence. Slowly he looked up and saw a skinny old prisoner squat down beside him. The man said nothing. Instead, he used a stick to trace in the dirt the sign of the Cross. The man then got back up and returned to his work.

As Solzhenitsyn stared at the Cross drawn in the dirt his entire perspective changed. He knew he was only one man against the all-powerful Soviet empire. Yet he knew there was something greater than the evil he saw in the prison camp, something greater than the Soviet Union.  He knew that hope for all people was represented by that simple Cross. Through the power of the Cross, anything was possible.

Solzhenitsyn slowly rose to his feet, picked up his shovel, and went back to work. Outwardly, nothing had changed. Inside, he had received hope.

Update:  Excerpt from Luke Veronis, in "The Sign of the Cross"; Communion, issue 8, Pascha 1997. The Sign of the Cross | In Communion

Greg Sargent explains Solzhenitsyn Biographer: Cross-In-Dirt Gulag Story Never Happened, it turns out that this Solzhenitsyn story does not appear in Gulag Archipelago, but was first recounted by convicted Watergate felon Chuck Colson in his 1983 book Loving God.  This "skewers once and for all the cherished right-wing falsehood that this happened to Solzhenitsyn at all."

"Of course, it’s still possible that McCain or Salter picked this up from the sort of right-wing circles that it first originated in. After all, this tale was bandied about by Chuck Colson and many other wingnuts for years; McCain or Salter could have picked it up from such circles…"

Andrew Sullivan explains The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan (The Dirt In The Cross Story, Ctd):

The anecdote appears in Colson’s 1983 book, "Loving God." Here’s the relevant passage:

Like other prisoners, Solzhenitsen worked in the fields, his days a pattern of backbreaking labor and slow starvation. One day the hopelessness became too much to bear. Solzhenitsen felt no purpose in fighting on, his life would make no ultimate difference. Laying his shovel down, he walked slowly to a crude work-site bench. He knew at any moment a guard would order him up and, when he failed tro respond, bludgeon him to death, probably with his own shovel. He’d seen it happen many times.

As he sat waiting, head down, he felt a presence. Slowly he lifted his eyes. Next to him sat an old man with a wrinkled, utterly expressionless face. Hunched over, the man drew a stick through the sand and Solzhenitsen’s feet, deliberately tracing out the sign of the cross.

As Solzhenitsen started at that rough outline, his entire perspective shifted. He knew he was merely one man against the all-powerful Soviet empire. Yet in that moment, he also knew that the hope of all mankind was represented by that simple cross – and through its power, anything was possible. Solzhenitsen slowly got up, picked up his shovel, and went back to work – not know that his writings on truth and freedom would one day enflame the whole world.

This passage became popularized inn the 1970s by, among others, Jesse Helms, as the notes in "Loving God" explain:

"The story about Alexander Solzhenitsen and the old man who made the sign of the cross was first told by Solzhenitsyn to a group of Christian leaders and later recounted by Billy Graham in his New Year’s telecast, 1977. It has been retold subsequently, most publicly by Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC)."

In McCain’s Faith of my Father’s (1999) the story took on a Christmas message:

One Christmas, a few months after the gun guard had inexplicably come to my assistance during my long night in the interrogation room, I was standing in the dirt courtyard when I saw him approach me. He walked up and stood silently next to me. Again, he didn’t smile or look at me. He just stared at the ground in front of us. After a few moments had passed he rather nonchalantly used his sandaled foot to draw a cross in the dirt. We both stood wordlessly looking at the cross until, after a minute or two, he rubbed it out and walked away. I saw my good Samaritan often after the Christmas when we venerated the cross together. But he never said a word to me nor gave the slightest signal that he acknowledged my humanity.

Steven Waldman at notes that "McCain’s recounting of this story has changed over the years and "has gradually morphed from being about the humanity of the guard to being about the Christian faith of the guard and John McCain."

"One more thing: McCain’s various stories only talk of one guard – ‘the only real human being that I ever met over there.’ And yet the guard who loosened his ropes in May 1969 could not have been present the following Christmas, as McCain had been transferred to another location (unless the transfer occurred between Christmas and New Year of 1969 and unless the guard was transferred to exactly the same camp at the same time)."  The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

As Greg Sargent notes, "This only solves a piece of the mystery, but it’s a key piece. It doesn’t necessarily rule out the possibility that McCain or his biographer, Mark Salter, picked up the tale that this happened to Solzhenitsyn elsewhere and embellished it for their own purposes."  Solzhenitsyn Biographer: Cross-In-Dirt Gulag Story Never Happened

It may be that the story is just an urban legend. Oh, and for you wingnuts out there, Karmic Spirit points out that this story was first discounted by Freepers at Free Republic — –in 2005! Daily Kos: State of the Nation (see links).

There are three possibilities here: a remarkably similar coincidence; McCain has internalized the "Solzhenitsyn" urban legend recounted by conservative Christians for years and confused them with his own memories; or he plagiarized the story, like he plagiarized his speech on Georgia from Wikipedia earlier this week.

I tend to believe it has to be one of the latter two choices.  My recollection of Vietnam is that it was largely a Buddhist country, with a Christian community in the South where the French colonial and U.S. missionaries had some religious influence. North Vietnam was Communist, and presumably "godless atheists."  At least that is what we were told.  It would be a truly remarkable coincidence indeed if McCain’s guard turned out to be a Christian.

Update:  I agree with Andrew Sullivan: "There is no way to know for sure what happened between two people in a prison camp in an incident to which no one else was a witness more than a quarter century ago. And it’s perfectly possible that all of it is true, if muddled. But when a candidate tells a story that doesn’t really add up with his previous accounts, and when he runs a campaign ad based on that story whose imagery is closer to someone else’s account than his own, when a life changing moment is forgotten for a quarter of a century until a critical campaign when an appeal to conservative Christians was vital, the question is worth fleshing out."  The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan