Jim Stockdale died at the age of 89 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
Back in the 80s, Jim was an new and not yet famous author, together with his wife, of a book about his experiences in the Hanoi Hilton, the North Vietnamese prison camp He endured a lot of brutal treatment, yet came home, along with John McCain to the welcoming arms of his wife and a not-so-grateful country. President Nixon awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for bravery in combat, and he was promoted to Vice Admiral before retiring to run the Citadel and later, as VP in the first presidential campaign of Ross Perot.
I spoke with him by phone from the Pentagon. His voice was weak, crackling, and I could tell that his wife was listening on the extension, her rhythmic breathing in my ear as he spoke.
Using an intermediary, the Secretary of Defense, to get to talk with him in the first place, I implored him to reconsider his choice of having his book made into a movie. I told him that I hated to use national security as a crutch, but some things, including things in his book, were better left unsaid.
He paused, considered what I had said, and was about to speak when his wife interjected, “You idiots, first you let him rot in prison, and now you tell him that he can’t talk about it. You are scum! Jim, hang up!”
The phone went dead. The Assistant Secretary of Defense gave me a look suggesting that I was in deeper trouble than normal. “Well?” was all he said.
“Guess I am Coronado bound,” I said, assuming I’d be on the first flight to San Diego to get to the man himself, make my plea in person.
“Better idea, go to Hollywood, speak to the producer of the movie, I forget his name but I have it here somewhere.” He rummaged through a ream of papers on his desk. “Yep, here it is, call this guy and tell him you need to see him ASAP.”
I made that call. I hopped the redeye and met with others from other places who, in their earnestness decided that I should be the spokesman for the United States Government, not just my little corner of the Intelligence Community.
“So what will you all do while I am invoking the name of President Reagan?” I asked sarcastically.
“We thought we’d do some sightseeing,” one of them said, and he smiled broadly.
“So this is a one man show, just me and the producer?”
“Well, we certainly can’t tell him who WE are!” One of the short men in the group said.
“And I can?”
“You have to. We can always back you up by phone or be waiting in the car, whatever.”
I drove to the movie producer’s office the next day, armed with a litany of things that I would like to have deleted from the screenplay. No real notes, just redlines.
He took me into his cluttered office and waited patiently as I described my role as a word eliminator. He raised his hand as I took my first breath.
“Stockdale agree to these changes?”
“Actually,” I started to say.
“Look,” he said looking sadly at me, “movies are what I do, and I am not sure what you do, but I cannot and will not allow you to remove whole lines of dialog without giving me a replacement that makes sense. Clear?”
“Perfectly,” I said and excused myself.
The rest of the gang was not waiting at the LAX Marriott hotel as they had promised, but left me a note that they were touring Figueroa Street since the weather was so nice. I found them later that night at the bar, slightly smashed, laughing about their day and their purchases. We met in my room and did a line by line rewrite, making changes that seemed OK to us and solved our problem.
I took these changes back to the producer and he accepted all of them with minor editorial changes.
Four years later I was on a plane from Washington Dulles to San Francisco. Jim Stockdale shuffled past me on his way to a crowded seat near the last row. I stood up, told him that I wanted to give him my seat in First Class.
His eyes twinkled; he put his hand on my shoulder. “Son,” he said, “There are worse things than coach airplane seats.”