James Stockdale

Reluctant US vice-presidential candidate

Saturday 09 July 2005 00:40

James Stockdale was a Vietnam war hero, a man of extraordinary personal courage who become one of the US Navy's most decorated officers ever. But he may be best remembered for his spell as a reluctant political candidate, when the man who withstood every brutality inflicted by the Vietcong proved no match for the very different pressures of a political campaign.

As his quixotic presidential bid gained unexpected momentum in the summer of 1992, the billionaire Texas businessman H. Ross Perot asked Stockdale - an old friend from their days together at the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland - to join him on the ticket.

The decision was initially seen as a stop-gap, to allow Perot to meet ballot requirements in several states. The expectation was that Stockdale, then a senior research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, would be replaced by a more experienced candidate for the climax of the campaign.

Instead, Perot stuck with his man - and, on 13 October 1992, Stockdale squared up to the Democrat Al Gore and the Republican Dan Quayle in that year's only vice-presidential debate. His opening lines were two rhetorical questions that have entered US political folklore: "Who am I? Why am I here?"

Such ruminations might have been perfectly natural on the part of a retired military officer, a highly regarded thinker and teacher, whose philosophical inspiration was the Stoic Epictetus. However, they were not the expected sales pitch of a man vying to stand the proverbial heartbeat away from the presidency.

Late-night comedians went to town on the remarks, and another layer of credibility was stripped from Perot's bid. In the end, he won a highly respectable 19 per cent of the vote, and eventually ran again for the White House in 1996. But Stockdale's brief flirtation with big-time politics was over.

But if stoicism was not an ideal preparation for political debate, it most certainly was for Stockdale's ordeal in Vietnam a quarter of a century earlier. On 9 September 1965, his A-4 Skyraider was shot down over North Vietnam during a mission to attack Hanoi's oil refineries.

Stockdale ejected and landed in a village near the coast. He was seized and savagely beaten, suffering a broken leg and paralysed arm, before being taken off to Hoa Lo prison, the infamous "Hanoi Hilton". There he would spend seven and a half years, four of them in solitary confinement. He was kept in leg irons for two years and repeatedly tortured.

But to his fellow prisoners (among them the past and probably future Republican presidential candidate, Senator John McCain of Arizona), Stockdale was an inspiration, as he organised an intricate culture of quiet resistance, complete with its own communications code, and refused to make the slightest concession to his captors.

In 1969, learning that he was scheduled to appear in propaganda photographs for the foreign press, he deliberately mutilated himself, slashing his wrists and smashing himself on the face with a stool. Stockdale calculated, correctly, that the Vietnamese would not dare put on show a prisoner who appeared to have been beaten.

In early 1973, he was finally released. Over his career, he won 28 combat awards, including four silver stars and two purple hearts, as well as two Distinguished Flying Crosses. In America's bicentennial year of 1976, he received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism.

Rupert Cornwell

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