THE AMERICAN prisoner of war was drawn and haggard and he clenched his hands tightly between his knees throughout a Hanoi television interview in 1966. What viewers found most peculiar was the POW's eyes. Millions around the world saw him after Hanoi released the interview with a Japanese reporter. "He spoke slowly and rolled his eyes continuously, at times staring blankly at the ceiling. He would occasionally close his eyes tightly when asked to answer a question," wrote Reuters. The POW's wife, watching tensely in Norfolk, Va., stared as her husband blinked over and over. "What's wrong with him?" she murmured.
The prisoner, Navy pilot Jeremiah A. Denton Jr., knew what he was doing. Years later he wrote: "The blinding floodlights made me blink, and I suddenly realized that they were playing right into my hands. I looked directly into the camera and blinked my eyes once, slowly, then three more times, slowly. A dash, and three more dashes. A quick blink, slow blink, quick blink. T . . . O . . . R . . .
"A slow blink . . . pause; two quick ones and a slow one; quick, slow, quick; quick.
"T . . . o . . . r . . . t . . . u . . . r . . . e . . .
"I blinked out the desperate message over and over."
Naval intelligence did not miss Denton's signals. It was the first clear message U.S. intelligence had received that American POW's in Hanoi were being tortured.
Cut to a Hyatt Regency hotel room on Capitol Hill. It is 14 years later. POW Denton, a retired admiral, is now Alabama's Senator-elect Denton. At 56, Denton's face -- with its penetrating eyes, bushy brows, quick smile -- bears no scars of the pain or anguish of torture. His is the settled look of a prosperous businessman who knew, instead, perhaps a life of Saturday golf; dressed for success in navy pin-stripe, black wing tips, in the shirt of palest blue with the smallest of D monograms on the pocket.The room is thick with aides new to Capitol Hill but already versed in the obsequiousness that comes with the territory; they waver between the verbal genuflection of "The Admiral," as Denton is now addressed, and "The Senator" he soon will be. Denton's tennis racket tops the opened suitcase; Jack Daniels and Beefeaters Gin top the desk -- next to hand-engraved invitations and the scrawled private New York phone number of former president Richard Nixon, who contributed $1,000 to Denton's campaign.
Denton's wife, Jane with dark wide eyes and patient expression, staggers through the shock treatment of checking out Washington's inflated real estate market. She also fields knocks on the door from reporters, stacked up like so much cord wood in the hall; his staff has over-programmed Denton to an interview per half hour.
For Denton is not just the first Veitnam veteran to become senator, the POW who blinked t-o-r-t-u-r-e with his eyes, is the first Republican senator from Alabama since Reconstruction. He is a media curiosity because he is also one of the political apostles of 1980's ultraconversatism -- preacher of military might and moral railer against adultery and pre-marital sex among teenagers, the latter two situations, he feels, nigh near nation-destroying.
The snickers and the snorts around Washington these days stem from stories that Denton wants to, well, institute the death penalty for adultery. Denton wades into all the jokes about the tumbrels definitely circling Capitol Hill to take away his cohorts to the guillotine if that indeed were the case. That is not quite what he had in mind, says Denton.
"I am not a nut on the subject but I do believe there is a problem. No nation can survive long unless it can encourage its young to withhold indulgence in their sexual appetites until marriage! There are just two requirements for civilization -- the family and agriculture. There wasn't civilization until some kind of moral code inhibited people sufficiently to stay together as husband and wife and exercise self-discipline to raise children. Now in my speeches I give examples of societies which are extremely primitive. What you might call sustenance-level civilizations such as some of the tribes in Tibet or Afghanistan way out in the hills. They are so aware of that truth about the necessity for agriculture and family life that if you steal it's almost invariable that the penalty is cutting off your hand because what you're doing is taking away a necessity. And adultery is a capital crime without exception. They realize they're right down there where they can't interfere at all in the essence, that distilled synthesis of civilization."
Denton says most reports of his adultery views stop right there and do not add the following: "Now when we get to our development of society we don't have to do that. If I'm unfaithful to my wife, they don't have to kill me because it's not going to disturb the national welfare that much. But were we a tribe of 12 families, it would. And zap."
Short of the death penalty, Denton would like to control adultery and pre-marital sex. "H. G. Wells has some beautiful things to say. For example, he reminds us, 'make men and women only sufficiently jealous, or fearful or angry today and the hot red eyes of the cave man will glare out at us again.' Notice he used the word 'jealous' first, and then take a look at our violent crime rate, highest in our history." His voice moves into an intense whisper. "And almost all of it seems from sexual jealousy." Is that true? "Oh yes. The killing and the attempted killing. That is 90 percent sexually jealous-oriented," he proclaims.
Denton returns to the subject of sex often. "I'm not a damn prude but it [adultery] is not good. That doesn't mean you or I can always behave ourselves if we're deprived of a husband or a wife, or if we're horny teen-agers who went out and did something wrong. But if the peer pressure is 'forget it, kids, everything's cool' . . . they got the contraceptives in the seventh grade, for gosh sakes! It won't work. Unless you regard that sexual intercourse thing as something rather special and associate it with marital partnership and having some relationship with the conception of children . . . " The words tumble fast: "And you won't do that to a sufficient degree if it's like a cup of tea that you're having at 17, 18, investigating all of these creatures, because by the time you do settle down to one you've already developed such a penchant for, uh, sampling that there's nothing that special about it."
At time, Denton puts his head back on the sofa, closes his eyes, then turns to stare, as if returning from some distant place in his mind. He is a man seemingly without arrogance. His sentence are a mix of Southern courtliness ("You read my book? Why you sweet thing"), swear words common to an old Navy hand, and intensely phrased beliefs. He suddenly, for example, introduces the subject of teen-age suicide -- "The number two cause of death [of teen-agers] in the nation. It was not in the top 40 when I was a teen-ager." He then returns to a by now familiar subject, again earnestly whispering, "But most of that suicide has to do with affairs these kids are having," he contends. "That's not happiness that's bulls---. It doesn't make people happy. I'm not trying to impose anything on anybody, I'm just trying to get us all to realize that this 'new morality' that delayed the dawn of civilization; caused us failure whenever it's tried."
" . . . He and another guard began roping one arm from shoulder to elbow. With each loop, one guard would put his foot on my arm and pull, another guard joining him in the effort to draw the rope as tightly as their combined strengths would permit. The other arm was then bound and both were tied together so closely that the elbows touched. The first pains were from the terrible pinching of the flesh. After about 10 minutes, an agonizing pain began to flow through the arms and shoulders as my heart struggled to pump blood through the strangled veins . . . I was too weak to sit up, and when I fell backward, the weight of my body spread my fingers so grotesquely that two of them were dislocated . . . They had cuffed a cement-filled, nine-foot-long iron bar across my ankles, and Pigeye released the bar from the shackles and laid it across my shins. He stood on it, and he and the other guard took turns jumping up and down and rolling it across my legs. Then they lifted my arms behind my back by the cuffs, raising the top part of my body off the floor and dragging me around and around. This went on for hours . . . I began crying hysterically, blood and tears mingling and running down my cheeks . . . Finally I had nothing left. My only thought was the desire to be free of pain." -- Jeremiah A. Denton Jr. in "When Hell Was in Session."
A life of pain and deprivation and starvation; of vermin as cellmates and overlfowing tin cans for toilets, of beatings and concrete bunks, of stench and filth. Denton's world for seven years, seven months. From age 41 to 48. His seven children grew up unknowns. The eldest got married, the middle ones savored Little League victories, the youngest took first steps, spoke first words. All without him. To this day he cannot bear to view those lost years in the scrapbooks his wife carefully compiled for him. Men walked on the moon. Denton learned of it months later. The tumultous '60s raced to their end, anti-war riots blazed on streets back home and Denton was a distant shadow in a cell thousands of miles away.
Denton never got over the sexual revolution, the changes that took place in America while he was imprisoned in Hanoi. His wife says, "that seven years was a testing period. It sharpened all his qualities, sharpened his concerns. It's almost like Vietnam was a preparation for this."
For several years after his return, Denton felt he could help best by pushing morality. "The worst thing I saw [before he left for Vietnam] was Rhett Butler saying, 'Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn,' and then coming back and seeing massage parlors and asking Jane what those were. It was a major change in terms of sociology and morality. It was wild."
Enton was the first returning prisoner to step off an airplane at Clark Field in the Philippines in February 1973. In a halting voice he moved to the microphone and said they were happy to have served their country "under difficult circumstances." And then he ended with "God Bless America." Critics denounced the heroes' welcome as an event staged by Nixon to help salvage his tarnished image, but Denton and the other POWs were among the few Vietnam vets to be honored by their troubled country at the end of that most divisive war.
Although Denton remained in service until 1977, his heart and mind were on "morality." He worked as a consultant for a Christian broadcasting company, then resigned his commission to form, in Alabama, "something called the Coalition for Decency." He waves his hand. "It's not kooky, don't worry." What Denton had in mind was "exerting economic pressure on networks. You can't censor but you can boycott; you express your approval or disapproval by tending to buy or not buy the products of companies who sponsor the programs you like or don't like." One Denton dream is a fourth network "responsible in the moral sense and reasonably responsible in the political sense." (Denton blames the mass media for an anti-Vietnam war bias and feels the media fostered the public outcry that it couldn't be won.)
Denton soon became a voice in anti-immorality circles; an intimate of electronics preacher Jerry Falwell, a speaker at various conferences on "The Family." He became chairman of the Alabama Governor's Commission on Children and the Family. "We went into the sex education thing. For example, there's a course in which it is strongly suggested that not only is masturbation okay but premarital sex is okay and that homosexuality is sorta like preferring orange to green.That offends a number of people because it's viewed as an intrusion in their capacity to pass on their values." A state committee was set up to review school books and courses to pressure for those that "conformed to the Judeo-Christian standards."
Denton's preachments gained him widespread voter support from like-minded groups -- and dirision from other corners. "A Norfolk newspaper ran an editorial saying this was my platform and that Denton's only enemies are homosexuals and adulterers or some such. They wrote that you can't run on a platform like that in Virginia but maybe they're dumb enough in Alabama. I don't mind. I've been maligned enough. I've been in Communist prisons. But it's an insult to my state. That wasn't my platform -- and Alabama is not that crazy."
Campaign ads pushed Denton as a patriotic war hero, and did not overlook his "God Bless America" speech when he returned from Hanoi. God and Country helped beat his primary opponent. There were no George Wallace powerhouses in Alabama this year. Denton -- abetted by Falwell's moral majority vote-getting brigade, a half-million-dollar war chest, and a nationwide conservative sweep -- beat Jim Folsom Jr., the non-flamboyant son of flamboyant ex-governor "Kisin' Jim" Folsom, in a tight race.
Although the Moral Majority played a part in his election, Denton takes pains to imply that he is not a blind creature of their beliefs. "I don't see black people on the board of the Moral Majority.I don't see the Moral Majority supporting the commandment, 'Love Thy Neighbor.' Get some blacks in this group. That's what I say to them. 'Put up or shut up!'"
Jeremiah Denton describes himself as an "average product of Middle America and its values -- the very antithesis of everything my Communist captors stood for. My heart belonged to God, country and family long before the Navy got hold of me." His Roman Catholic mother instilled Denton's religiosity. His father, a Southern Baptist, was a loveable itinerant who liked to drink, play poker and had little desire to settle down. "His father-in-law owned or operated hotels in Mobile, Meridian, Miss., Chattanooga, El Paso and Atlanta," wrote Denton. "My father clerked in all of them at one time or another."
Denton went to at least 13 different grammar schools. In 1932 they moved to Chicago and his father became a bill collector and captain of the National Guard. But his father tired of stability and moved to Houston, made and lost money in real estate ventures, had a brief fling as a bookmaker before finally settling down. By that time the family had broken up. Denton's divorced mother settled in Mobile, Ala., in 1938. This began "one of the happiest periods of my life," wrote Denton. They moved into a real house for the first time, he starred in football, sang in the choir, won tennis championships, was elected senior class president.
Denton was interested in journalism ("I know you are messianic people") but became enamored of the Navy when he saw Robert Young, James Stewart and Lionel Barrymore in "Navy, Blue and Gold" a movie about the Naval Academy. Denton graduated from the Naval Academy in 1946, then received a masters in international relations from George Washington University. He was a "recognized expert in antisubmarine warfare and air defense," wrote Denton. "In fact, I had devised fleet tactics that were regarded within the Navy as revolutionary." He was 41, in top condition, 165 pounds, 5-foot-11, squad commander leading the flight into the best defeated area in North Vietnam about 75 miles south of Hanoi. Then the plane was hit and Denton parachuted into 7 1/2 years of captivity.
When the pain from torture became excruciating, Denton departed from his name-rank-and-serial number litany to give them some snippets of information, often inacurate and harmless. Denton became a leader in prison and through an elaborate covert communications system, such as tapping codes on walls, he directed the others: "We will die before we give them classified military information." Denton and others risked certain torture if caught communicating but he risked it daily to transmit such instructions as: "In the case of bio's [personal biographies] take all you can. When you think you have reached the limit of your endurance, give them harmless and inaccurate information that you can remember and repeat it if tortured again."
Denton lived through six major torture sessions, which lasted days at a time, was starved and beaten visciously in the face for confessions. For seven days he was shackled with rear handcuffs, his legs in heavy iron bars and kept in a totally dark cell, left alone except when the guard made periodic visits to beat him.
". . . He pulled me to my feet and hit me several times with the back of his hand, starting a stream of blood down my face. As he dropped me back in the corner like an old rag, he indicated that I must rise whenever he entered. Bound as I was, that was no easy matter. The next time Smiley entered, I began pushing myself against the wall until I was on my feet. He beat me anyway, slapping me hard across the face and hitting me in the stomach . . . Isolation became a total disoriention. I lost track of what I was, where I was . . . On the seventh day I decided to give them something. I cried for help . . . I blinked and blabbed hysterically that I had to get out. Dried blood streaked my chest. Feces clung to the bottoms of my pajamas, which were completely stained with urine. I had little left . . . Painfully, I wrote a biography. I wrote about every hotel I had ever lived in, and said they had all burned down . . . It mattered little what I wrote, anyway. The Vietnamese wanted just enough to justify discontinuing the torture."
Although some of the POWs could not take the torture or starvation and died, Denton said they early on ascertained that the Vietnamese wanted to keep them alive. "All we had to go with was their desire that we stay alive.But you can't take torture over and over again without giving them something." But why didn't they just give them innacurate information at the beginning without going through all the torture?
"That's a damn good question. If you balk at telling them harmless truths and make them hurt you so badly, they must of necessity move very slowly and don't get very far. Because, remember, they don't want to kill you." So, Denton says, it was necessary to resist from the beginning.
"Their object isn't just to get information. Their object is to break you, degrade you, rob you of your spirit so you'll do anything they want," he said, with a grimace. "Say you, a woman, were a military correspondent and you were captured. So what they would have you do is get a big German police dog and they'd say, okay, get up there and copulate with this animal before television and call it endearing names. In other words, they would find whatever is the common denominator of your feeling that something is revolting and then they'd make you do that." If you sold out easily the first time, says Denton, "they would take you to the point very quickly where you'd be forced into degrading acts."
Denton feels his captors were not sadistic so much as victims themselves of a Communist system of government. "Our governmental policy tends to bring out the best in people." There followed a long and rambling monologue on American society vs. Communism, which pretty much boiled down to, "Compassion came really from the Judao-Christian, mostly Christian, ethic, 'Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself.' Now the individuals in our system are imperfect, but the system is pretty damn good. But the Communists said there can't be a God. So they have no moral drive to anything -- by theory, by system, by governmental decree -- and when this comes down to the society, it means a woman isn't protected. Ho Chi Minh's seven little rules. Do you know what one of them is?" asks Denton through clenched teeth. "That the young ladies will visit the front and give comfort to the men at least four times a year. That's great -- except that you get screwed like 45 times a night and anybody can get tired. That's what it is, see.
"An ERA woman over there was pretty much at the bottom of the heap. Now they would not goose her or grab her in some obscene way. But they would push them around when they wouldn't do men that way. One of the girls who worked around the prison, one night she was gang raped. To protect herself she took up with a married guard. That's the only way she could survive. So it's tough when you get to being equal. Woman isn't equal. She's superior. And you've got to defer to them. She has the ability to bear children, she's got gentility and instincts which are different from men."
Remembrances of the adjustment of coming home seem lost in the passage of time. Neither Denton nor his wife focus on many details. "Jerry was always strong and mature," says his wife, who met him in high school and has been married to him for 34 years. "That's what kept him going." She is still amazed at how physically fit he is after those seven years. He plays tennis toughly and well although his legs bear the scars of months of torture shackles. "He used to have nightmares but that was a long time ago."
Jane Denton seems almost stereo-typically Southern. Gracious, soft-spoken drawl, carefully groomed salt-and-pepper hair, slim despite seven children. She is either cautious by nature or has learned to be cautious around the press; she reveals little and, as her husband's views race in a torrent, her eyes sometimes register a silent terror that the reporter will print it all.
Asked what the children feel about Denton's morality crusade, she stares but a second. "Why of course they believe in it." She firmly holds the same beliefs but was not as galvanized to do something about it. They have taken few vacations while Denton crusaded in speeches around the country.
"What we missed," she says almost wistfully, "because there was so much publicity after Jerry got back and then his book was made into a television drama . . . what we missed was just getting off away from everything."
Denton is staunchly pro-military might and display-of-strength. "He knows you don't get peace by losing respect all over the world," says Denton's wife. "He would have taken steps to block the straits of Hormoz right after they took our hostages."
Denton decided to run for the Senate because "I thought the Afghanistan situation and the seizure of the American hostages provided President Carter with an irresistible opportunity to get the nation back toward reality, back toward a bipartisan foreign policy, which we enjoyed from 1941 to 1965. And when he goofed it up, that's when I decided Washington has a problem and I gotta get up there and try to help out."
Denton puts it this way: "The Russians are committed to busting our butt. And they're planning right this second, in the middle of the night, which it is in Moscow, what they're going to do on day plus-21, after the exchange. We should have started on civil defense in 1945, which is what I told my roommate at the Naval Academy. We should have started putting things underground as we built them and slowly developing shelters, because the Soviets were going to get that bomb."
As for the lessons of Vietnam, for some the message is to go slow; to not get involved in unwinnable conflicts. For others, and many in the military share this view, the message is far different. Denton belongs to the second group. "Sure war is hell, but some things are worse forms of hell. Slavery being one. Our Civil War, for one, was worth it. I felt Vietnam was worth it. No question. We were containing Communism. More particularly, the South Vietnamese people were better off under the regime of Diem, measureably so, than they now are under the Communist regime." Denton holds with the view popular today with hawks that America could have won had we "fought to win" as the phrase goes. Despite opposing historical viewpoints, Denton maintains, "Such a small nation as North Vietnamese realistically could have had its will broken in a matter of three days in the early 60s with about 10 percent of the force applied in December 1972 [the bombing of North Vietnam]. We would have not lost the credibility that our nation has lost in this world. We wouldn't be sitting in this frying pan we are in right now."
So here Denton, product of Hanoi prisons and military life, charging up the Hill, bent on doing something about getting us out of that frying pan and about immorality in the land.
What legislation would he push? You can be sure that strengthening the military budget is high on the list. Denton is obsessed with a fear that America is now powerful enough. He wants to get on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to push his views.
"And the morality thing," his wife says, "although I don't know what bills that would involve." Law and order is also important although Denton does not go as far as Strom Thurmond's cry to restore the death penalty. "I believe there are certain circumstances of first-degree cold-blooded murder -- especially like the fourth time a guy has done it -- where it might be right. But as a general rule, no." Despite penologists who feel that few incarcerated learn any lessons from a tough prison experience, Denton feels "we have been too liberal in our treatment. There are people who aspire to go to federal penitentiaries because it's a pretty good living. It's better than many of our poor and not so poor who are deprived and have to go on welfare and so forth. Having been in somewhat unpleasant penal circumstances myself, I don't think that such and such an amount of cubic feet and air conditioning and television and books, the libraries, all that stuff are necessary. While I wouldn't do anything abrupt or terribly radical about it, I believe prison should be an unpleasant experience."
His own prison years tested, and ultimately, he says, strengthened Denton, but he was an overachiever long before that. Was this in part overcompensation because of his father's wandering ways?
"Well, I think some of this family stuff that I'm preoccupied with is, he was a good guy but he liked to drink and gamble a lot like I do," he laughs. "You'll wreck me with the moral majority. I'm a very modest social drinker. But Dad did it too much. He gambled away Mother's savings. I wouldn't do that. I used to play the horses but I learned enough about them so that I won $3,300 a year as an ensign," Denton chuckles. "I became famous for it.
"My dad," he continues, "he was an honest guy. Everybody loved him. Most likely to succeed in high school and all that. Went off in 1917 to war. Came back with an excess of American pride. But he liked to drink.
And he just couldn't leave the gals alone very much. Women . . . he was just tempted."