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McCain Camp Denies Any Connection to Solzhenitsyn ‘Cross in the Dirt’ Story « The Washington Independent

Whenever Sen. John McCain is asked about his faith, he usually recounts a moving anecdote from his days as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Here’s the story in a nutshell: McCain was let out of his cell on Christmas Day, along with his fellow prisoners, to observe the holiday. This was an unusual occurrence for the prisoners, usually kept in isolation and prevented from communicating. One of his Vietnamese captors — whom McCain also says had displayed compassion by loosening the ropes binding his arms and legs for the duration of the guard’s shift — came over to McCain and silently drew a cross in the dirt with the toe of his sandal. According to McCain, both men looked at the cross in silence for a few moments before the guard rubbed it out with his foot and walked away. Here’s a McCain campaign ad released just before Christmas last year, telling a version of the story:

Before an audience consisting largely of Evangelical Christians at the Saddleback Church candidate forum Saturday, McCain, when asked what role faith plays in his daily life, again related the story.

A heart-warming tale, no doubt. But is it true? A diarist over at Daily Kos did some digging and found that the late Russian Nobel prize-winning author and dissident Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn tells a similar story in "The Gulag Archipelago*." *Here it is, recounted by Luke Veronis:

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.

[From Luke Veronis, "The Sign of the Cross"; Communion, issue 8, Pascha 1997.]

The Jed Report has compiled a small mountain of circumstantial evidence that seems to raise questions about the veracity of the story. Among the findings: McCain apparently began telling the story in 1999, when he first decided to run for president; in the past, McCain told it in the third-person; and, his thorough 12,000-word account detailing his experiences as a POW, published by U.S. News and World Report in 1973, contains no mention of the story.

Also, tangentially-related, is the op-ed article McCain published in the New York Sun after Solzhenitsyn’s death, in which McCain heaped praise upon the author:

He was a writer with unusual gifts, utterly devoted to his art, brilliant and exacting, producing work that would stun not just literary worlds but the entire Cold War political world[.]

A McCain campaign spokesman denied there is any truth to this story. Michael Goldfarb compared the controversy to recent smears against Sen. Barack Obama and said any similarities between the two stories are a coincidence:

"There’s no connection. I imagine people have drawn crosses in the dirt before, after and since."

Goldfarb said he recently spoke to a former POW who was imprisoned with the presumed Republican nominee, who said McCain had told the story as early as the summer of 1971 — well before "The Gulag Archipelago" was published in 1973.

The way McCain tells the story, it is impossible to disprove — because McCain was the only American present, no other POWs would be able to corroborate the story. It is possible that McCain, in an amazing coincidence, had a very similar experience to that of an author he admires. The only people who know for sure are McCain and possibly the Vietnamese guard. It is also a fact that his POW experience has been more or less off-limits to any examination by the media. What is perhaps most amazing is that it took this long for anyone to notice the similarities between the two stories. Maybe we all need to read more.

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