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Stockdale's war experience at root of his convictions

James Bond Stockdale, Ross Perot's running mate, won the Medal of Honor in Vietnam for his actions while a prisoner of war for 7{ years.

Everything about him _ the way he treats people, his views on politics and even his study of ancient Greek philosophy _ are tied to the leg irons, torture and solitary confinement he suffered.

His speeches and writings deal not with the nitty-gritty of public policy but with more ethereal questions of duty, devotion and loyalty.

Stockdale has given few clues about his political views. He said he had been "a knee-jerk Republican" but has become more "pragmatic."

In an interview with USA Today, he declared himself in favor of abortion rights, limited gun control and the death penalty and against gays in the military and women in combat.

Stockdale's record, which includes a book written with his wife, Sybil, In Love and War, about his imprisonment in Hanoi, reflects a man who believes deeply in duty, devotion and loyalty to his fellow man and is supremely confident about his beliefs and values.

Such convictions are not uncommon in career military men, especially former fighter pilots such as Stockdale. But they appear to have been bolstered by his ordeal in Hanoi.

Stockdale grew up in Abingdon, Ill., the only child of a school teacher and World War I Navy enlisted man. One day, he heard a speech by Adm. Richard Byrd, the Antarctic explorer, and was hooked.

He went to Annapolis, eventually was assigned to a destroyer and later became a fighter pilot and test pilot. He led the first air strike against North Vietnam in August 1964.

The next year he was shot down over North Vietnam and captured. A village mob beat him and broke his left leg.

It was broken again in one of many torture sessions, and he still can't bend it at the knee. He also can't raise his left arm above his shoulder, the result of an injury while ejecting from his plane.

He was the senior military man in prison and organized a clandestine resistance leadership.

During those years, Stockdale says, he devoted himself to the stoic philosophy he had studied earlier as a naval graduate student at Stanford. He often focused on Epictetus, a slave-turned-philosopher, and says his memories helped him endure.

Beaten and interrogated by his captors, Stockdale recalled lessons from philosophers on how to please oneself rather than those in control. "Resolve worthy of laying your own life on the line in the torture room or putting your country's soldiers into combat should be founded on a rock and ingrained in your heart," he said in the speech. "Nothing less."

He retired from the Navy in 1979 with the rank of vice admiral.

Some of his reflections on those years could apply to his current quest. Just as Perot says he is running to serve volunteers in his organization, for instance, Stockdale has written that, in prison, organization among the inmates came from the bottom up.

"In a political prison, being the boss means you're the first guy down the torture chute when the inevitable purge starts. In that place, the drive for discipline and organization starts at the bottom and works its way up," he said in a 1987 commencement speech at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "Maybe it always does when lives and reputations are at stake."

That experience gave Stockdale what he calls "moral leverage." In a 1987 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, he defined that as "a gut feeling that you develop that tells you that you are clean and you are right and that you are ready to carry your mission to the ends of the Earth."

After retirement, he became an intense critic of the U.S. policy in Vietnam, writing in 1989, "So much for the pussyfooters and needle-threaders who wanted to finesse a war with game theory, without disturbing anybody important.

"I say to them what my North Vietnamese jailers frequently said to me: "The blood, the blood, is on your hands.'


John Bunzel, Stockdale's close personal friend and colleague, said Stockdale is not particularly enthusiastic about being in the running for the White House.

"He's not a politician, never wanted to be a politician, never dreamed of being a politician," Bunzel said. "He didn't ask for this. But he's paying back a debt to Ross Perot."

Like Perot, Stockdale chose to read and study rather than rehearse with stand-ins and political consultants for the debate.

"He's been trying to catch up on things that were never really on his radar screen," Bunzel said.

Stockdale is a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think-tank at Stanford University. Perot made Stockdale his interim vice-presidential choice in March to meet state ballot requirements, saying he would announce a final running mate before the November election.

Perot had not named a replacement, however, before suddenly announcing in July that he would not enter the race.

"Legally it would be impossible to substitute somebody now," said Clay Mulford, general counsel to Perot, after Perot resumed his campaign Oct. 1.

Perot has high praise for Stockdale whenever he speaks about him.

"He is a hero's hero," Perot said. "He's been hammered on the forge of brutality and was able to reach outside himself to provide strength to others."

When asked in a post-debate news conference in St. Louis whether he was offering advice to Stockdale, Perot said, "That would be like me, a minor-leaguer, offering advice to a major-leaguer."

Perot also had high praise for Sybil Stockdale, who was leader of prisoner-of-war family groups who, with Perot's financial help, pressured the U.S. government to seek release of Americans held captive in Southeast Asia.

_ Information from the Washington Post, the Associated Press, the Baltimore Sun, the Los Angeles Times and Reuters was used in this report.