John McCain has been consistent about very few things in his political career. But over the span of 20 years he's been consistent in purportedly not wanting to make a big deal about his ordeal as a POW ... but then directly or through proxy he'll tell you about it.
From a 6/11/08 Associated Press report, "McCain doesn't talk about Vietnam, but ads do":
NEW YORK—Prodded on the campaign trail to talk about his compelling personal story, John McCain usually demurs. "I'm very reluctant to do so, as you know," the presumed Republican nominee told a donor at a small fundraiser here this week.
But McCain and his campaign have still found a way to remind voters with some regularity of his 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and his family's long tradition of military service.
For McCain it represents a tension between his attempt to remain humble about his story of courage and survival and the desire by his campaign to turn his experience into a political asset.
There is a tension here, but it's between reporters talking about McCain's "attempt to remain humble" and reality. McCain wants people to think he's humble and reluctant to tell the story because it makes him look like more of a noble badass. But McCain has a long record of talking about his story when expedient. Not the least was his appearance at the 1988 Republican National Convention, where he told the story of his imprisonment in between making fun of Dukakis' height and suggesting Dems were disloyal.
The real tension is between communicating the story without overdoing it and slipping into self parody.
McCain tells the story, directly or through proxies, because it's a powerful one, one few politicians can match. But he also knows that it gave him a degree of celebrity that gave him a boost politically, a point he acknowledged in an old Washington Post interview. In the same story he suggested he was tired of telling the tale -- though he would do exactly that hours later.
From "Working Profile: John S. McCain, Two Years in the Capital, but Already a Rising Star" in the 8/9/88 Washington Post:
The one subject that Mr. McCain does not speak about easily is the time he spent as a prisoner of war. He still bears the marks of his ordeal: a right knee that will not bend and a left shoulder so damaged that he cannot raise it to remove his coat.
Yes, Mr. McCain agreed, certainly his celebrity as a former P.O.W. opened the doors to his political career. But he chafes now at some of the constraints and expectations that status has imposed on him.
''I don't want to be the P.O.W. Senator,'' he said. ''What I've tried to do is position myself so that if opportunities come along, I'm qualified and ready. My job for the next few years is to acquire a reputation as a serious Senator who studies the issues and doesn't try to steal the limelight.''
Having recited the tale of his capture and confinement countless times, he is, he said, simply bored by it.
''Perhaps it has made me more sensitive to the underdog than I otherwise would have been,'' he said. ''I know what it is like to be humiliated and degraded. But I don't think it made any change in my basic character. It's something in my past and I moved on a long time ago. I never had a nightmare, or a flashback. I just don't think about it that often.''