Alex Massie

McCain’s War Record

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So, General Wesley Clark mouths off about John McCain on TV today, thusly:

CLARK: He has been a voice on the Senate Armed Services Committee. And he has traveled all over the world. But he hasn't held executive responsibility. That large squadron in the Navy that he commanded — that wasn't a wartime squadron. He hasn't been there and ordered the bombs to fall. He hasn't seen what it's like when diplomats come in and say, "I don't know whether we're going to be able to get this point through or not, do you want to take the risk, what about your reputation, how do we handle this publicly? He hasn't made those calls, Bob.

SCHIEFFER: Can I just interrupt you? I have to say, Barack Obama hasn't had any of these experiences either, nor has he ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down.

CLARK: I don’t think getting in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to become president.

Cue muchos outrage on the right and immediate distancing from the Obama campaign. Cue also some wailing and gnashing of teeth from liberal bloggers. To wit, Ezra Klein:

...There's nothing to reject in Clark's remarks. He not only failed to say anything untrue, he didn't even say anything controversial. John McCain would be the first to tell you that getting shot down doesn't prepare you for the presidency. When folks ask him about his war heroism, he's even got a stock reply: "It doesn't take a great deal of effort to get shot down," he laughs. But it does take a lot of effort to constantly remind the media and the voters that you're a WAR HERO. Which is why the McCain campaign is gearing up against Clark's comments. Whether it's relevant to McCain's fitness for office or not, his war heroism is central to his chances in this election.

And Scott Lemieux:

Clark did not question the veracity of his war record; he attacked its relevance. Clark's argument that getting shot down in a plane doesn't constitute executive experience is simply true, and his claim that a history of sound foreign policy judgment is more important than having been a POW is at the very least fair argument (and I think also correct.)

...One would have thought that having already been involved in an election with a candidate claiming that dubiously relevant "experience" was more important than making good judgments, Obama would have understood the need to stand his ground and not pretend that McCain being captured in Vietnam somehow makes him more qualified to be president irrespective of his substantive positions. Alas, he seems to have caved to the hysteria, a move that is both unfair to Clark and extremely bad politics.

One can only assume that Messrs Klein and Lemiux are being deliberately obtuse. Yes, of course they are right in supposing that being a POW is hardly a qualification for President. They are also right to point out that McCain, to perhaps an even greater extent than his opponent, uses his biography as a buoyancy aid. They could have gone further and argued, correctly in my view, that the fact that McCain was tortured in Hanoi hardly establishes his Presidential bona fides either. All that would be true.

But... One may disapprove of the extent to which politics turns on questions of character and biography (though how could matters be otherwise in a country of 300 million people?) but it's pretty pointless to do so. In any case, as Klein and Lemieux must know, the element of McCain's military service that earns - justifiably - the greatest respect, is that he was offered early release from the Hanoi Hilton and refused an early ticket home.

Now, strictly speaking, this doesn't mean he's likely to be a better or worse President than the average politician either. But it does suggest that he was, in this instance, a braver man than you or I would be. And, for voters who like to vote on character, that's the key, indeed the only salient, point about McCain's war-time service. It's silly to pretend otherwise just as it's silly to try and downplay the real sacrifice such a stance took (regardless of the reasons for it or any other consideration). The attacks on John Kerry's service record (which in and of itself did nothing to demonstrate his fitness for office though, of course, Democrats thought differently back then) were reprehensible. It doesn't seem any better when it's liberals ignoring the salient details of McCain's record this time around.

As it happens, I am suspicious of Great Man arguments for supporting a politician, but plenty of real-life, actual voters like 'em. Clark's comments were factually true but stupid, cheap, mean-spirited and willfully misleading. Furthermore they are likely to backfire because they cannot be squared with what the public already knows, or thinks it knows, about John McCain. This doesn't seem a difficult point to grasp...

UPDATE: Commenter Chris suggests I remain afflicted with "McCain hero worship". Not so, my friends! I don't, of course, have a vote but if I did it's far from certain I'd cast it for the Senator from Arizona. But one can respect his fortitude in Vietnam regardless of one's political preferences. And, for the record, I think attacking Iran would, as matters stand, be a lunatic proposition.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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