Last month, the nation paid virtually no attention on the anniversary of the passing of a true American hero – U.S. Navy Vice Admiral James Stockdale. Sadly, many of those who may remember Stockdale will only recall his serving as Ross Perot’s running mate in Perot’s independent run for the presidency in 1992. More sadly, even fewer may remember Stockdale’s experience as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.
In 1965, after his plane was shot down over North Vietnam; Stockdale spent over seven years as a prisoner of war; four of them in solitary confinement. His windowless cell was three feet by nine feet and had a light bulb that was on around the clock. Every night his captors shackled Stockdale with leg irons despite his having nowhere to go. Throughout his captivity he was beaten and tortured on a regular basis. Despite that torture he never divulged military secrets. His enduring that torture ultimately led to less torture of his fellow POWs as their captors realized it was not working. Released from captivity in 1973, Stockdale was unable to stand upright and was barely able to walk. Following his release, he was asked how he survived. He replied stoically — “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Three years after his release Stockdale received a Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military honor for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.” It solidified Stockdale’s position as one of the most highly decorated officers in Navy history. In addition to the Medal of Honor, he received two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Distinguished Service Medals, four Silver Stars and two Purple Hearts.
Fast forward to Stockdale’s post POW experience as Perot’s running mate. It was then and remains today a very ugly blemish in American political history. The mainstream media and entertainment world attacked Stockdale without mercy. Their thinly disguised contempt of him intensified after his performance in a Vice-Presidential candidate debate. Unprepared and woefully inexperienced as a public speaker, Stockdale’s opening remarks were “Who am I and why am I here?” He never answered those questions. At one point he asked the debate moderator to repeat a question because he did not have his hearing aid turned on. His entire debate performance was, in a word, dreadful.
Following that debate, Stockdale was widely parodied by the mainstream media as a buffoon, a portrayal from which he never fully recovered.
The low point of his sordid treatment was a post-debate Saturday Night Live skit. It was intended to be funny. It was not. It was cruel, demeaning, and shameful.
It was not until 1994, when comedian Dennis Miller put Stockdale’s unmerited and unrelenting criticism in the proper perspective. Miller said “Now I know (Stockdale’s name has) become a buzzword in this culture for doddering old man, but let’s look at the record, folks. The guy was the first guy in and the last guy out of Vietnam, a war that many Americans, including your new President [Bill Clinton], chose not to dirty their hands with. Stockdale had to turn his hearing aid on at that debate because those expletive animals knocked his eardrums out when he wouldn’t spill his guts. He now teaches philosophy at Stanford University, he’s a brilliant, sensitive, courageous man. And yet he committed the one unpardonable sin in our culture: he was bad on television.”
Miller did not mention Stockdale’s teaching at Stanford was a homecoming of sorts. A graduate of the Naval Academy, Stockdale also earned a master’s degree from Stanford in International Relations.
I am not suggesting Stockdale would have performed well had he served as vice president. I will say he certainly would have brought more gravitas and leadership skills to that position than at least three others who were or are one heartbeat away from the presidency — Spiro Agnew, Dan Quayle, and Kamala Harris.
I will suggest we should never forget his experiences in North Vietnam and never forget his experiences in the American political arena. As a society grappling with maintaining some semblance of civility in public discourse we must disavow, reject, and rebuff any effort by any candidate, elected official, political party, the media, and the entertainment world to engage in character assassination to score political points and win elections.
David Reel is a public affairs/public relations consultant who serves as a trusted advisor on strategy, advocacy, and media matters who resides in Easton.