PHOENIX, AZ—In what insiders say is an attempt to revitalize his flagging campaign and convince voters that he is still a straight-talking maverick, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) announced Sunday that he will subject himself to the same mental torment and physical abuse he endured nearly 40 years ago at the same Vietnamese camp where he was once held as a prisoner of war.
"On Saturday at approximately 2:40 a.m. I will fly over the capital city of Hanoi and have my plane's right wing blown off by a Russian missile," said McCain, adding that the force of the ejection from an aging A-4 Skyhawk should render him unconscious and break both of his arms and "preferably [his] right leg." "I will then be taken to a bug- and rat-infested cell where, with both nobility and grace, I will suffer the worst forms of human indignities."
McCain, once considered a shoo-in for the Republican presidential nomination, insisted that his upcoming stay at the Hanoi torture facility was simply a late addition to a previously planned trip to Southeast Asia, and has nothing to do with his faltering campaign.
But a source close to the campaign said the senator's decision to revisit his indescribable degradation at the hands of the Viet Cong was prompted by a desire to "get back to his roots," and "reconnect with the struggles that defined him as a leader."
"The fact is, Sen. McCain feels that he's changed somehow from the independent, eternally haunted outsider that he once was," the source said. "He hopes that revisiting the extraordinary horrors he endured so many years ago will reinstill in him the sense of purpose and commitment he is so respected for. And what better way to reignite the political fire within than by having sharpened rods of bamboo jammed under his fingernails?"
According to campaign documents released to the media, the visit will cost more than $10 million, most of which will go toward acquiring a Grushin S-75 surface-to-air missile, renovating McCain's cell to its exact 1970s-era condition, paying medical personnel to provide inefficient and cruel treatment, and hiring Vietnamese citizens to act as the Viet Cong.
"Just when you think McCain is down and out, he announces the most brilliant move we've seen in American politics in a generation," ABC political correspondent George Stephanopoulos said. "With [Rudolph] Giuliani beating him in the polls and [Mitt] Romney outpacing him in fundraising, McCain's only remaining advantage is that he successfully withstood atrocities beyond our comprehension. And to subject himself to those same unspeakable acts of physical violence at the age of 68 should dispel any doubt among voters that he's too old to be in the White House."
Stephanopoulos added that McCain must be careful not to return from Southeast Asia too soon before the primaries, or his act of courage, integrity, and determination may fade from the memory of American voters.
"This trip is a huge political gamble," Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. wrote Tuesday. "Still, being forced to stay awake for six days as your captors douse you with water and feed you rotting food sounds a lot more convincing than John Kerry's campaign strategy of simply talking about his military experience."
According to recent polls, a majority of Americans say McCain's announcement has made them reconsider his candidacy.
"I've always admired McCain, but he's disappointed me in recent months," Cincinnati resident Ben Krepps, 33, said. "After so many years in the political mainstream, he's gone soft. Maybe some long, cruel nights are exactly what he needs to get his head back into this race."
Others, however, including unaffiliated Republican consultant David Winston, argue that McCain's trip will only hurt his presidential chances.
"In John McCain's attempt to find the old John McCain, he is actually just solidifying his position as the new, more pandering John McCain," Winston said. "Yes, the old John McCain withstood seemingly endless torture, and people respected that. But a second time around? It just looks desperate."
With McCain's drastic move sending shock waves through the political world, Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Barack Obama (D-IL) both announced plans to send themselves back to their respective Ivy League law schools to reenroll in their most challenging courses.