Surely A Large Human
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McCain Criticized for Slur
He says he'll keep using term for ex-captors in Vietnam
C.W. Nevius, Marc Sandalow, John Wildermuth, Chronicle Political Writers
Friday, February 18, 2000
(02-18) 04:00 PST Greenville, S.C. -- Arizona Sen. John McCain refused to apologize yesterday for his use of a racial slur to condemn the North Vietnamese prison guards who tortured and held him captive during the war.
``I hate the gooks,'' McCain said yesterday in response to a question from reporters aboard his campaign bus. ``I will hate them as long as I live.''
McCain, a former Navy pilot who spent five years in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp, was questioned about the language because of a story last month in the Nation magazine reporting his continued use of the slur.
Since then, reports of McCain's language have been circulating on Internet chat sites and e-mails among Asian Americans, many of whom find the the term offensive and inappropriate for an elected official.
McCain's appeal to voters has been as a wartime hero and a feisty politician who speaks his mind and damns the consequences. But his comments on the eve of the key South Carolina primary show the candidate's vaunted `'straight talk'' in another light.
``The use of a racist slur can't be acceptable for any national leader, regardless of his background,'' said Diane Chin, executive director of the San Francisco-based Chinese for Affirmative Action. ``For someone running for president not to recognize the power of words is a problem.''
While McCain's words may have little effect in conservative South Carolina, where few Asian Americans live, they could come back to haunt him in other states.
``Historically, straight talkers who say things off the top of their heads eventually hang themselves with those sorts of remarks,'' said Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley.
``While it might not hurt him now, Democrats are not going to have any hesitation about using this stuff to string him up later.''
TERM FOR HIS CAPTORS
McCain made no apologies yesterday.
``I was referring to my prison guards,'' McCain said, ``and I will continue to refer to them in language that might offend some people because of the beating and torture of my friends.''
McCain made it clear that his anger extends only toward his captors. As a senator, he was one of the leaders of the postwar effort to normalize U.S. relations with Vietnam.
Campaign officials do not expect the controversy to hurt McCain, either in tomorrow's South Carolina primary or later in the campaign.
``If people understood the context, they wouldn't be upset,'' Mike Murphy, a senior adviser to the campaign, said last night.
But the racial slur used by the senator has a long, painful history that is felt by many Asian Americans.
The word ``gook'' was first used in 1899 by American soldiers fighting Filipino insurgents. During the Korean War, the term was aimed at Koreans and Chinese. It was directed at the Vietnamese when Americans were fighting in Vietnam. It is now used as a slur toward any Asian or Pacific Islander.
The Arizona senator prides himself on running an open campaign. He is surrounded by reporters, television cameras and tape recorders perhaps more than any presidential candidate in history. Reporters are given full access to the candidate between each campaign stop on a customized bus purposefully dubbed the ``Straight Talk Express.''
The bus, which also carries his top staff and often his wife, Cindy, is crammed with network anchors and local newspaper reporters, who endlessly engage McCain in what amounts to a news conference on wheels.
The comments are usually recorded and always on the record.
Sometimes the questions are pointed and serious. Sometimes they are not.
McCain has declared on his bus, ``I hate the French.'' He often begins meetings with Californians joking, ``I hate Californians,'' noting that they steal Arizona's water and lure his constituents away in the summer.
But those comments are clearly in jest. Yesterday's were not.
McCain was captured after his A-4 Skyhawk was shot down over Hanoi on Oct. 26, 1967. During the time he was held, he was brutally tortured by his captors, finally reaching the point where he was unable to resist signing a ``confession.''
McCain and his fellow prisoners suffered terribly in the prison camp. In the crowd at yesterday's rally in Greenville was retired Adm. Robert Fuller, who was in prison with McCain at the infamous ``Hanoi Hilton.''
Fuller, who lives in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., spoke informally of the despair of living in single cells, where the only form of contact was by an ingenious code devised by the prisoners. Fuller said prisoners were sometimes tortured for as many as six days. When they returned, he said, the others would send messages of support by tapping on the wall.
``They would be put in ropes for six days, and they would confess,'' Fuller said. ``When they came back to their cell, guys would tap on the wall, `We love you. I wish we could give you a hug.' ''
The horrors of the past cannot be an excuse for hurting people in the present, said Guy Aoki, president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, an anti-defamation group.
``If Sen. McCain had been captured by Nigerians, could he call those people `niggers' and think he wasn't going to offend everyone who is black?'' Akoi asked. ``We can all feel for what he went through, but if that's his level of sensitivity, I'm very disappointed.''
McCain usually treats his experience as a prisoner of war as a terrible time in his life, but a period he has moved beyond. At times, he even uses it as a punch line for jokes.
At a pancake breakfast recently, he said he had gone with his daughter to the MTV Music Awards, ``and that was the greatest assault on my senses since I was in prison.''
Yesterday's comments made it clear that McCain had neither forgotten, nor forgiven, his captors.
``I will call right now, my interrogator that tortured me, a gook,'' McCain said. ``(I can't believe that) anybody doesn't believe these interrogators and prison guards were cruel and sadistic people who deserve the worst appellations possible.''
McCain said he does not consider the comment an epithet.
``Gook,'' he said, ``is the kindest appellation I can give.''
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