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Perot's running mate will improve tone of debates

At last the promise of a hero for the debates. Ross Perot's running mate, Vice Adm. James Stockdale, is a patriot, a philosopher, and a veteran of epic battles with barbarians in the hell of a North Vietnamese prison and in a redneck military school in the American South.

Stockdale, a white-haired sea dog who doesn't bluster or blow hard, wrote a book with his wife, Sybil, called In Love and War. In alternate chapters, they describe their war: his there, hers here. He tells in exhaustive and dismaying detail of his 7{ years in Hanoi's prisons, several in solitary confinement. Shot down on Sept. 9, 1965, he was tortured, starved, frozen and beaten. His wife tells of her efforts to let the country know.

Stockdale says he thinks that people "don't understand about Ross' spontaneity and instinct."

"He really doesn't think the shortest distance between two lines is necessarily a straight line _ he has a non-Euclidean mind," says the admiral, a reader of the classics and a devotee of Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher, who, like himself in prison, was a slave and a cripple. (When Stockdale was hit in 1965, his leg was broken and never properly fixed by his captors.)

Sybil Stockdale knew Perot first, when she was raising the alarm about prisoners of war. She thinks he's "lovable." The admiral blesses him for the fuss he raised in 1969 trying to get Christmas presents to the POWs.

Stockdale seems bemused that Vietnam in various forms has become an issue in the campaign, made so by George Bush, who believes that Clinton's refusal to serve constitutes a character flaw _ a suspicion Clinton inadvertently fans by failing to tell all.

"It reverberates," says Stockdale laconically.

How does Stockdale feel about the demonstrators _ among them Bill Clinton, who with millions of his contemporaries thought he was hastening peace? Stockdale says he and the other fliers were sure they would "lead to another year of war." But he is not mad at anyone, and plans no attacks in the debate.

He is prepping for the debates with the help of Sybil and Jim, the oldest of his four sons, an elementary-school teacher "who's good at calming me down and a good drama coach." A fellow at the Hoover Institute, Stockdale has the Stanford faculty to draw on, and right now he is buttonholing economists because "I have never taken to economics" and he has a lot of boning up to do. But he thinks his man is on the right track with his focus on the federal deficit.

Debate holds no terrors for someone who for seven years played mind games with Communist cadres, who would rope him up in agony or clap him in leg irons if he slipped. Words mean more to him than to most men. In the grimness and squalor, it was a great moment when one of the Americans remembered a poem. William Ernest Henley's Invictus heartened them. It was tapped out in their special code on the wall for circulation. Gunga Din, too.

What would he like to accomplish? "I would like to demonstrate the validity of non-politicians in government," he says promptly. His special contribution to the campaign? Here is the kind of understatement you hardly ever hear in politics: "Ross is talking about fair-share sacrifice, and there is a place for people like me with credentials to talk about it."

He is keen about the campaign. And it certainly beats one of his postwar jobs, the presidency of the Citadel, a famous military school. He shocked some alumni by talking to the students about Aristotle, and "terrified" others with proposals to cut out vicious hazing practices. He finally went too far when he expelled a pistol-packing senior. The Bubba board vetoed the decision; the Stockdales quit.

The admiral should lend tone to the vice presidential debate. The others would do well to read his book before they meet. It will leave them little to say, but it would do them a great deal of good.

Universal Press Syndicate