More information is coming out about the “cross in the dirt” story that John McCain uses to illustrate his devotion to Christianity and how it got him through his years of captivity — and the accusation that he cribbed it from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. According to TPM Election Central, the “cross-in-the-dirt” story didn’t happen to Solzhenitsyn, either.
But it turns out that this episode probably never happened to Solzhenitsyn at all, and according to a Solzhenitsyn biographer it appears nowhere in his published writing. Columbia University professor Michael Scammell, the author of Solzhenitsyn: A Biography, says the episode “never happened,” and didn’t appear in Solzhenitsyn’s book, Gulag Archipelago, either.
This only solves a piece of the mystery, but it’s a key piece. It doesn’t necessarily rule out the possibility that McCain or his biographer, Mark Salter, picked up the tale that this happened to Solzhenitsyn elsewhere and embellished it for their own purposes.
The “cross-in-the-dirt” story has been floating around for years in various versions, used by everyone from Billy Graham to Jesse Helms, and all attributing it to Solzhenitsyn. The trail seems to lead to an urban myth cooked up by Watergate felon Chuck Colson. Colson, as you know, has made a living since the 1970’s as a fundamentalist preacher ever since he found God in the Hell of the gulag of minimum-security prison life at Club Fed.
I’m not ruling out the possibility that the story actually did happen to Mr. McCain, but the coincidence of it with the urban myth that’s been out there for years, plus the fact that he or his ghostwriter Mark Salter didn’t come up with it until 1999, leads me to believe that it’s a more fanciful embellishment to a horrific tale than fact. And I guess that if Mr. McCain’s going to borrow a tale from someone, taking it from Nobel laureate Solzhenitsyn is as good a source as anyone. Too bad it turns out to be from a third-rate felon like Chuck Colson.