He represented the people of Alabama.
His path to distinguished service in the United States Senate led through the Naval Academy, aerial combat over hostile territory, and long years of confinement, beatings, and torture in the Hanoi Hilton.
He was a man worth remembering.
No, his name was not John McCain.
Six years before McCain’s election to the Senate, Alabama voters sent retired Rear Admiral Jeremiah Denton to Washington’s upper chamber.
Both the parallels and the divergences in Denton and McCain’s lives tell something about the last few decades of our political history.
Twelve years older than McCain, Denton was born in Mobile in 1924, the same year as George Herbert Walker Bush. After studies at the Jesuits’ Spring Hill College, Denton transferred to Annapolis where in 1946 he graduated in a class that included a young man from Americus, Georgia, named Jimmy Carter. Denton excelled academically, earning a master’s in international relations from George Washington University and winning the Naval War College’s award for best thesis. Diligent in his study of philosophy and history, he was respected as a strategic thinker.
Denton, at 41, was one of the oldest active American pilots in Vietnam when his A6A Intruder, leading a squadron of 27 other aircraft, was shot down over North Vietnam in 1965. (His friend and contemporary, George H.W. Bush, meanwhile was one of the youngest American pilots in the Second World War.)
McCain, the son and grandson of four-star admirals, was erratic as a student at Annapolis. He graduated number 894 out of 899 members of his class. When he was shot down in 1967 he was 31 years old.
Denton suffered imprisonment for nearly eight years, McCain for nearly six. Both men gained national and international attention for defiant courage during their ordeals. As son of the admiral commanding the U.S. Pacific fleet, McCain spurned Communist Vietnamese efforts to manipulate him for propaganda purposes. Denton, as one of the top-ranking officers, outwitted the enemy when they featured him in a televised propaganda news conference. Unbeknownst to his captors, he blinked his eyes with the Morse Code letters T-O-R-T-U-R-E as he answered questions.
After their release in 1973, Denton and McCain continued naval service. Denton was promoted to rear admiral and served as commandant of the Armed Services Staff College before retiring in 1977. McCain overcame catastrophic injuries and torture to return to the air pilot’s seat. In 1977, the Navy assigned him to Capitol Hill as its liaison (de facto lobbyist) to the Senate.
In civilian life, Denton found a place as one of the first Catholic intellectuals to make common cause with the populist, largely Evangelical Protestant “religious right” of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s movement. He moved to his native Mobile, where he turned down suggestions to run for the Senate in 1978 for the seat won that year by Democrat Howell Heflin.
Two years later, Denton decided to run for the Senate as a Republican. Despite a huge disadvantage in fundraising, he stunned the GOP establishment by winning the primary against its anointed favorite, a former Democratic congressman who had switched parties after leaving office and as the conservative state gravitated towards the Republican column.
He campaigned effectively on his pro-life, pro-family issues platform as well as his well-informed critique of the national security record of his Annapolis classmate Carter. When Reagan defeated Carter in November, Denton squeaked into office as the first Alabama Republican in history to win direct popular election to the Senate.
The national mainstream media welcomed Senator Denton to the capital with the same sort of respect and affection they always have shown to other Alabama social-issues conservatives such as Roy Moore or the pre-recusant Jeff Sessions.
Big Media mocked his first signature effort at legislation, the Adolescent Family Life Act. His proposal was an adaptation of existing legislation enacted under sponsorship of Democratic icon Ted Kennedy. Denton’s bill modified the Kennedy program to increase emphasis on reaching teenagers before they had sexual experience with the message that abstinence is not to be devalued as a means of preventing pregnancy and disease.
Denton shrewdly enlisted support from Kennedy’s sister, Eunice Shriver. Kennedy cooperated with Denton in passage of the bill. Ignoring the overwhelming support Denton negotiated, the cultural left had a raucous good time lampooning his efforts. No clearer sign of the times was that Garry Trudeau devoted an entire Sunday “Doonesbury” ridiculing Denton’s “chastity bill.”
In this and other instances, Denton worked carefully and discreetly to bring about success for conservative policies through sincere bipartisan negotiation.