Jeremiah Denton was the greatest American I ever personally knew. When the former admiral, prisoner of war, and U.S. senator died on Friday at 89, America lost not just a profoundly brave man but a profoundly good one.
Most readers know the basics of his story as a POW: shot down and badly wounded; tortured mercilessly; leader within the prison camp in keeping up discipline and morale among his mistreated fellow POWs; ordered by his captors to testify on camera against his own nation, but instead defended America while using his eyes to blink the word t-o-r-t-u-r-e in Morse code; eloquent in word and gesture when finally released after seven-and-a-half years in captivity.
If you haven’t already, please do read his memoir of that experience, When Hell Was in Session. It will make you weep — and it also will make you rejoice at the human capacity for endurance, faith, and especially redemption.
We drifted through the chilly days and cold nights of December toward Christmas, going through the daily routine: arise at 6; leave cell with guard to go to the latrine; use shower; eat; pray; try to communicate [with other POWs]; pray; eat; try to communicate. Finally, blessed sleep in the cold night.
Those were the good days. The bad days featured torture for days on end. At one point, as he described it, “I held my hands in front of me. The fingers were black and swollen to twice their normal size….I began to hallucinate. Unfamiliar faces appeared and reappeared, floating along in the darkness and disappearing through the door.… I prayed. God became more than faith. He became knowledge, and I appealed to him. Then I became ashamed. Why hadn’t I embraced him so thoroughly before?” Days later: “I thought fondly of the teachers who had supported me and given me a sense of my own values during my formative years: Brother Claver, Sister Mary Dorothy, Sister Benigna, Sister Mary Gerard, Sister Marcella, Brother Charles, Brother Gerald, Sister Carmella, and especially Sister Mary Josephine, who had first given me a sense of self-confidence.”
Jeremiah Denton also had confidence in his convictions. If you read his obituary in most papers, you also will read about his bedrock conservatism and dedication to his principles, both religious and political — and also of a certain ornery refusal to do the things most politicians find necessary to stay in office: attend ceremonial events in one’s home state; hold town meetings; kiss real and proverbial babies. Even so, he barely lost re-election in 1986, a terrible Republican year in general, by less than 7,000 votes. Frankly, considering the political headwinds and his own lack of political niceties, the fact that he kept it that close was either a near-miracle or it was testament to his heroic status — or both.
That unwillingness to act a politician’s part might explain why, despite his heroic biography, it took a late boost from Ronald Reagan for Denton to get elected to the Senate in the first place. I remember it well, at age 16, watching with my Dad as Reagan aired a nearly half-hour long Election Eve speech, hoping both to capitalize on last-minute momentum in his own challenge to President Jimmy Carter and to help the whole Republican ticket, up and down the ballot. Woven seamlessly into his speech (at the 12:45 mark), Reagan provided an answer to those who questioned if Americans still had the fortitude and heroism to overcome the tremendous obstacles facing the country that year:
The door [of the airplane] opened, and we had our answer. Admiral Jeremiah Denton came down the ramp, saluted our country’s flag, thanked us for bringing [the POWs] home, and said, “God Bless America.”
I have always been convinced that Reagan’s mention of Denton pushed the ex-admiral over the top to victory, with just 50.2 percent of the vote. And it’s a good thing, too. If retail politics weren’t really Denton’s forte, policy was.
“He was probably one of the most industrious senators that God ever put on the Earth,” said Joel Lisker, who served as chief counsel and staff director for the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism, which Denton chaired. (Lisker first earned fame as the guy who led the investigation that developed the case against presidential brother Billy Carter, for nefarious dealings with Libya.) Lisker told me Monday about several signal successes the Denton-led subcommittee achieved, including developing the evidence about the Nicaraguan Sandinistas’ brutal treatment of Miskito Indians that helped turn then-Archbishop (now Cardinal) Miguel Obando Bravo against the Sandinistas — thus seriously undercutting the Communists’ claims of moral superiority in that struggle. It was a key switch in momentum, against the leftist rebels and towards what became a mostly peaceful and stable republic.
“He could be mercurial,” Lisker said. “He was impatient to get things done. He didn’t suffer fools gladly. But he generally was gracious and tolerant to his staff. He also was a very thoughtful person. He could do an analysis and take it from the theoretical realm to put it in current terms, practical terms.”
Denton also had a tremendously empathetic and generous side. He helped numerous Vietnamese children emigrate to the United States, and he established the “Denton program” that provides for charities to send farm equipment and medical supplies overseas for free on U.S. military planes and ships that have unused cargo space. Established in 1985, the year before he lost his re-election bid, it was a cause he continued to boost, devotedly, for the next quarter-century. Indeed, it was through that cause that I first made his acquaintance.
When I served on the editorial board of the Mobile Register, Denton came in several times to pitch us to support this cause, typically with a rambling but heartfelt story, very moving, about the good Americans could do for poor and dispossessed foreigners — and, in the process, bolstering the popularity of the United States in places where it might otherwise suffer. Retired and in his late seventies at the time, Denton had not lost his enthusiasm for trying to “do good.” As he wrote in the epilogue to When Hell Was in Session, “Indeed, we must vow to love our neighbor. We must do what we can to spread among the deprived of the world the fruits of our labor, as any good neighbor would, and share with them our own spiritual light.”
Mobile was Denton’s hometown, the place where he has served as a multi-sport star and class president at McGill [Catholic] Institute, before attending the U.S. Naval Academy. And, until the last few years of his life, it was where he lived in retirement. Occasionally I would see him around town, and sometimes he seemed a little distracted — but always courtly and gracious and kind.
But the best conversations I had with him came on the phone, purely by happenstance. It happened three times. Apparently my former home phone number was the exact same, with the exception of a single transposed digit, as a golfing buddy of Denton’s named Bob. About once a year for three years I’d go to pick up a ringing phone and see “J Denton” on the caller ID. “No, Admiral Denton, this isn’t Bob; it’s Quin Hillyer,” I’d say when he would ask for his friend. “That’s funny, I was calling Bob,” he’d say. “But I’m glad I got you. I liked that column you wrote the other day; I think it was about the Constitution or something.”
And then Denton would say something like: “… speaking of which, it reminds me…” And we’d be off on a 10-15 minute conversation, with him doing most of the talking — always a mixture of highly incisive observations with a few random meanderings before he would suddenly snap back to a well-made point.
Eventually (and always too soon for my taste, because I would gladly have listened all day), Denton would end his verbal perambulation with the same line: “Well, I guess I better try to get Bob now. Is he 3145 or 3415? Anyway, it was great talking to you.”
The listening, good sir, was by far the greater pleasure. If only Denton could have seen me, and if only I actually knew Morse code, I would gladly have blinked out a heartfelt “T-h-a-n-k-s.” Thanks only least for an unexpected conversation; thanks, with awe, for a life of great consequence and great good.
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