“John,” said Obama, “the North Koreans have seized the U.S.S. John McCain. They’ve hit it with a missile, caused a massive fire, and produced what we’re sure are heavy casualties. It’s in danger of sinking and is at the moment ringed by several North Korean vessels.”
McCain said nothing and tried to hide his surprise. The ship named for his father and grandfather had spent the early summer “shadowing” a North Korean vessel thought to be delivering weaponry to the Burmese junta. And that, of course, had been it, under this crowd—no boarding of the Korean ship, no inspection. And then two months later Clinton had gone off to Pyongyang to sit down with Kim Jong-il, all to rescue a couple of girls working for Gore’s cable-news channel—just like Carter had dropped in on Kim’s old man in ’94.
“There has also been,” Barack Obama continued, “considerable movement of North Korean units toward the border with the South. News of what’s happened to the McCain will be all over the air within another half-hour or so.”
“Well, I’ve been screaming about North Korea for seventeen years, and we haven’t done a damned thing except send over food that’s gone straight into the bellies of their soldiers. I guess we’ll now at last find out the whereabouts of all the plutonium that’s been missing for all that time—when they drop the bomb on Pusan or someplace else. My guess is they’ll try to keep Seoul intact, so they can march the victory parade through it.”
His Coolness ignored all this, wouldn’t engage, as if they were back at Hofstra debating last fall and all he had to do whenever things took an inconvenient turn was look into the camera and change the subject. “The North Koreans,” Obama calmly continued, “will try to make an awful situation worse, exploiting the ship’s connection to you and your family, if it appears that you’re out of step with what we propose— ”
“Mr. President, I’ve played in this movie before,” said McCain, who knew that Obama remembered enough of last year’s opposition research to understand what his old foe was referring to: how, in June of ’68, McCain had refused an offer of early release by the North Vietnamese, after they found out his father had been made commander of U. S. operations in the Pacific.
Obama continued: “I don’t want the North Koreans to think that they can assault a symbol of your family’s proud service and then get people thinking there’s daylight between me and the opposition party’s greatest military expert and hero.”
Daylight? thought McCain. There’s a whole goddamned picture window between this guy and me. And service! Christ, the way the word rolled off his silver tongue. Last year nothing had stuck lower down McCain’s craw than the speech Obama gave to all those lefty kids graduating from Wesleyan. He must have exhorted them to six different kinds of national “service”—every variety except the military one.
So what did he want from him? Why had he yanked him up here? Presumably to request that he keep the morons of his own party in line, stop them from coming out against the administration’s response just because they saw a chance to drive Obama toward one more supposed “Waterloo.”
“When we get back to Washington, an hour or so from now,” the president explained, “I’d like you out in front of the cameras with me, so that North Korea will know there’s no disagreement between us.”
“That would more or less depend on what your policy is, sir.”
Obama nodded: “Our troops have been put on the highest alert— ”
McCain snorted. “That’s a condition, not a policy.”
Obama, with no hint of exasperation, continued: “A rapid movement of naval forces toward the McCain is taking place. The U.N. Security Council will be convened tomorrow morning, and Hillary is talking to the Chinese from where she is in Brazil, getting assurances that they will not oppose any reasonable retaliation on our— ”
“Do you know where the Pueblo is sitting today? Forty years after the North Koreans seized it?” McCain hoped to rattle him with something like one of those questions they’d been terrified of in the debates last year—having Schieffer or Brokaw ask who the head of Sri Lanka was.
Obama wouldn’t say yes, wouldn’t say no—wouldn’t even nod. McCain looked around and saw that Gates, maybe the only one in the room who knew the answer, didn’t like his tone.
“I’ll tell you,” said McCain. “It’s still docked in North Korea. And it’s still a commissioned ship in the United States Navy.”
“Senator,” said Gates, “as events unfold, actions can be ramped up.”