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McCain’s Anecdote


Q: Did McCain lift his cross-in-the-sand anecdote from Solzhenitsyn’s "Gulag Archipelago"?

A: There’s no such story in "Archipelago." There is a somewhat similar story attributed to Solzhenitsyn, which we’ve traced back to Rev. Billy Graham by way of former Richard Nixon aide Charles Colson. But that’s not proof that McCain’s story isn’t true.

FULL QUESTION

John McCain told a story about a Vietnamese guard who made a sign of the cross in the dirt while he was a POW.

 

 The story is very similar to a story about Alexander Solzhenitsyn from his times in the Soviet Gulags.

Did John McCain steal this story?

FULL ANSWER

The stories aren’t exactly the same. In McCain’s telling, a Vietnamese prison guard shows him kindness one night by secretly loosening his cruelly tight bonds, then draws a cross in the sand with his foot to indicate that he is a fellow Christian. In the various versions attributed to Solzhenitsyn, the cross is drawn by a fellow prisoner, not a guard, and with a stick, not his foot. The story certainly does not appear in the place that some of McCain’s detractors are suggesting that he got it.

The Controversy

The Internet controversy was touched off when McCain repeated his often-told story during an August 16 question and answer session at Saddleback Church in California:

McCain: …because it was Christmas day, we were allowed to stand outside of our cell for a few minutes. In those days we were not allowed to see or communicate with each other, although we certainly did. And I was standing outside, for my few minutes outside at my cell. He came walking up. He stood there for a minute, and with his sandal on the dirt in the courtyard, he drew a cross and he stood there. And a minute later, he rubbed it out, and walked away. For a minute there, there was just two Christians worshipping together. I’ll never forget that moment.

Within hours the Internet was littered with blog entries hinting at the possibility Sen. McCain had lifted the anecdote from Nobel Prize-winning Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s "The Gulag Archipelago" and lied about it.

Solzhenitsyn’s "Archipelago" was originally published in 1973 — the same year McCain returned from Vietnam. But "The Gulag Archipelago" contains no such story. We searched all three volumes of the work through an online version for several key words, and we found nothing remotely similar. It’s just not there.

Just to be safe, we also checked the author’s novel, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch." It’s not there, either.

Tracing a Story

Many earlier blog entires don’t quote Solzhenitsyn’s "Archipelago" directly. Instead they quote a story told about Solzhenitsyn in a 1997 sermon from Fr. Luke Veronis, a Greek Orthodox priest:

Veronis: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author who spent many years in the gulag of Siberia, bears witness to the power of the cross. … Laying his shovel on the ground, he slowly walked to a crude work-site bench and sat down. … Slowly, he lifted his eyes and saw a skinny, old prisoner squat down next to him. The man said nothing. Instead, he drew a stick through the ground at Solzhenitsyn’s feet, tracing the sign of the Cross. The man then got back up and returned to his work. As Solzhenitsyn stared at the sign of the Cross, his entire perspective changed. He knew that he was only one man against the all-powerful Soviet empire. … Solzhenitsyn slowly got up, picked up his shovel, and went back to work. Nothing outward had changed, but inside, he received hope.

So we asked Veronis where he had acquired the anecdote. At first he said he had gotten it from Solzhenitsyn’s "Archipelago," but later corrected himself. “I know I’ve read that story before. But I thought I had read it from Solzhenitsyn directly.” Eventually, Veronis told us, “I don’t know where I got it from.”

We also noticed that the anecdote attributed to Solzhenitsyn was repeated by former Nixon aide and now-famous evangelist Charles W. Colson in his 1983 book "Loving God." In the acknowledgments of the 1996 edition, Colson wrote:

Colson ("Loving God," pg. 254): The story about Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the old man who made the sign of the cross was first told by Solzhenitsyn to a small group of Christian leaders and later recounted by Billy Graham in his New Year’s telecast, 1977 [sic] It has been retold subsequently, most publicly by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC).

The Billy Graham Center Archives show that in 1974 Graham met with Solzhenitsyn in Stockholm, where he might have told Graham the anecdote. But when we spoke with Billy Graham spokeswoman Melany Ethridge, she said the archives contain no records of what was said during the private meeting in 1974.

Contrary to Colson’s account, neither Graham’s 1976 nor 1977 New Years’ telecasts made any mention of Solzhenitsyn. But Ethridge provided FactCheck.org with documents that show Graham did tell the anecdote on September 3, 1975, and August 18, 1976. The 1975 telling was broadcast nationwide on November 24 of that year:

Graham (Texas Tech, University, Sept. 3, 1975): Alexander Solzhenitsyn was over here recently, remember? And he toured around the country. And he told a little story that everybody ought to hear, if you didn’t hear it. He said when he was in that prison for so long there came one time, and one time only, when he thought of suicide. He said he was not allowed ever to speak to his cell-mate. For weeks on end, they could not speak to each other. And he said that his cell-mate saw him growing weaker and weaker and more depressed and more discouraged all the time. And he said his cell-mate took a little stick and in the sand, or the dirt, in the cell, he drew a picture of the Cross. And Solzhenitsyn said, “At that moment, the whole purpose of my existence dawned upon me. Because,” he said, “I realized that Jesus Christ shed His blood for me on that Cross.” And he said, “That gave me the courage to live through my imprisonment.

The story changed slightly when Graham told it again in 1976:

Graham (San Diego Stadium, Aug. 18, 1976): Remember that story that Solzhenitsyn told when he was over here in this country some time ago? And he said that he was in the Russian prison camp. And he’d been there for several years. And he was very discouraged. And he said he thought of suicide only once. And he said that at one time a man came and sat by him. He didn’t know who he was—never had said hi before. And he said he didn’t say anything. They weren’t allowed to say anything to each other. He said he took a stick and he drew a picture of the Cross in the sand. And Solzhenitsyn looked at that Cross and then the man took his hand and wiped it out so the prison guards wouldn’t see it. And Solzhenitsyn said, “At that moment I knew that that was the most important thing in all the world; and that God loved me And he said, “It gave me the courage to go on an face the future.” “Be of good cheer; it is I, be not afraid.”

There is no way to ask Solzhenitsyn about this. The author died Aug. 2 in Moscow at the age of 89. So we spoke with Columbia University professor Michael Scammell, author of "Solzhenitsyn, A Biography" and editor of "The Solzhenitsyn Files," who told us:

Scammell: I’ve been consulting with other Solzhenitsyn experts on the Colson story and nobody seems to know if it happened or not. Certainly no one I know can confirm it.

Did McCain Plagiarize?

As dubious and garbled as the various Solzhenitsyn versions might be, it is clear enough that the story was being publicly told as early as 1975, shortly after McCain’s return to the U.S. from captivity. It is theoretically possible for McCain to have heard it or read it, perhaps in Colson’s book or during Graham’s telecasts, before using it himself. The earliest mention that we have found of McCain’s story of the Vietnamese guard appears in his book "Faith of My Fathers," published in 1999:

McCain ("Faith of My Fathers" pg. 228): On Christmas Day, we were always treated to a better-than-usual dinner. We were also allowed to stand outside our cells for five minutes to exercise or to just look at the trees in the sky. One Christmas, a few months after the gun guard had inexplicably come to my assistance during my long night in the interrogation room, I was standing in the dirt courtyard when I saw him approach me. He walked up and stood silently next to me. Again he didn’t smile or look at me. He just stared at the ground in front of us. After a few moments had passed he rather nonchalantly used his sandaled foot to draw a cross in the dirt. We both stood wordlessly looking at the cross until, after a minute or two, he rubbed it out and walked away. I saw my good Samaritan often after the Christmas when we venerated the cross together. But he never said a word to me nor gave the slightest signal that he acknowledged my humanity.

But we see no evidence that McCain pilfered the quote. The two stories are markedly different, for one thing. In one version, it’s a fellow prisoner drawing with a stick; in the other, it’s a kindly guard drawing a cross with his foot. Furthermore, in Graham’s version, Solzhenitsyn was contemplating suicide at the time. McCain says in his book that he did consider suicide while a prisoner, but that was on an entirely different occasion when he had been beaten for days and was about to sign a false confession to end his torture. It had nothing to do with the cross-in-the-sand story.

We asked the McCain campaign about the accusation, and a spokesman pointed us to a campaign blog entry with quotes attributed to Bud Day, a close friend of McCain. Day said that McCain told him the story prior to the publication of "Faith of My Fathers":

McCain Report: …[Day] did confirm that "not long after we all got back together [in the camp]," McCain told him the story of the prison guard who drew a cross in the dirt one Christmas.

Another blog entry from the McCain camp says that Solzhenitsyn did tell the story but goes on to say: "The only similarity between the two stories is a cross in the dirt, but it is hardly an unlikely coincidence that there were practicing Christians in both Russia and Vietnam, or that in the prisons of those two Communist countries the only crosses to be found were etched in the dirt, as easily disappeared as the Christians who drew them." That entry quotes another former POW, who told the campaign that McCain told him the story sometime around the summer of 1971.

Ultimately, it’s far easier for McCain’s detractors to question his story than it is for McCain to prove it’s true. Only McCain and the long-ago prison guard, if he exists and is still alive, know for sure. But in a world where there are hundreds of millions of Christians, we see no reason to believe that both the McCain story and the one attributed to Solzhenitsyn can’t both be true.

– Emi Kolawole

Sources

Veronis, Fr. Luke. “The Sign of the Cross,” 30 March 1997 sermon, accessed 21 Aug. 2008.

 

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I. “The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956.” Volume 1, Volume 2 and Volume 3, 1973 – 1975.

Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” E.P. Dutton & Co: 1963.

Colson, Charles W. “Loving God.” Zondervan: 1996.

“Select Chronology Listing of Events in the History of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.” Billy Graham Center Archives, updated 17 July 2008, accessed 21 Aug. 2008.

Interview with Melany Ethridge, spokeswoman, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, 20 Aug. 2008.

Interview with Fr. Luke Veronis, 20 Aug. 2008.

McCain, John with Mark Salter. “Faith of my Fathers.” Random House: 1999.

McCain, John. “Building a New Republican Majority.” Speech in Virginia Beach, Va., 28 Feb. 2000.

Cohen, Ben. “John McCain Is Lying About the Cross in the Dirt, and He Needs to Be Called Out.” Huffingtonpost.com, 19 Aug. 2008.