It takes a rare type of strength to survive as a Prisoner of War. It takes physical strength and endurance, but it takes a type of mental toughness that is simply hard to come by. A person must have an unshakeable faith in themselves and, when that has exhausted itself, they must be sure of their mission and have an immutable belief in the rightness of their cause. Bodies break down and fail. But a spirit is unbreakable if it is tempered with the right stuff.
If that sounds like an endorsement for John McCain's candidacy, it isn't meant to be. It is, however, an acknowledgement that he has withstood what most of us, thankfully, will never be called upon to shudder through in our nightmares. But the same qualities that allowed him to survive that harsh treatment - the qualities that allowed him to develop his reputation as an individual in a party too often beset by a herd mentality - may also be the qualities that make him unfit to be the President of our country.
Historians tell us that our best Presidents have been, in no specific order, Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. While each of these men had to bear up the strength of their convictions during the challenging times in which they lived, biographers have reported that the strength of each man came from their willingness to yield, to seek wise counsel from others, and to doubt the rightness of their own actions.
Washington wrote to his wife that being named Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army was "a trust too great for my capacity". In his first exchange with the British Army, Washington was saved from being overrun only by a sudden fog descending on Long Island. The Continental Army withdrew across New Jersey and the British hounded every step. Washington wrote New York Governor Clinton expressing his doubts as to whether he could see the troops through their winter in Valley Forge - it was Washington's willingness to give authority to Baron Friedrich von Steuben that saved his men and instilled the discipline necessary to face the British again.
Lincoln's despair in office has been well-documented, to the point where many historians have diagnosed him with Major Depression. It is easily forgotten by Americans today that Lincoln's War was unpopular and denounced as illegal to pursue. When he imposed a draft, riots ensued in New York City. In the first battle of the Civil War, Washington, D.C. itself was overrun by Confederate forces. Lincoln had the humility to allow himself to be berated by the members of his cabinet, yet the strength of conviction to appoint General Grant in charge of the Union Army when every one of his military advisors protested the change.
Roosevelt is remembered as a liberal ideologue, but the truth of history is that he was simply trying and discarding programs until he found what worked. That his actions took on the veneer of a Keynesian revolution was largely unintentional and never publicly acknowledged by Roosevelt himself. This was the President who wrote, "All that is within me cries out to go back to my home on the Hudson River." This was a man whose need for approval led his own father to liken him to a golden retriever.
It was not a willingness to endure and stand firm in their convictions that led these men to greatness. It was the doubts that haunted them and forced them to seek counsel greater than their own. It was a willingness to accept mistakes as a fact of nature and to move ahead with a different plan when it seemed more likely to succeed.
A POW must deal with mind-numbing nothingness, living in a world where time is measured by hunger pains and physical torment. A President lives in a world where time is exaggerated and information overload is a very real threat. A POW wins by surviving and enduring and forcing the body to obey the unbreakable spirit that inhabits it. A President loses if they merely endure their time in office, and, just as importantly, so do the American people.
There is much to respect about the strength of character it takes to survive as a Prisoner of War. But there is little reason to expect that the traits required to live as a prisoner of an unfriendly power would well serve a man who sits at the pinnacle of the world's greatest democracy. A great President needs more than mere strength of conviction and an unwillingness to bend.