July 1 , 2008
The Sacred McCow
By Mary Lyon
I guess this is proof, after a fashion, that the war has indeed followed us home. Some of our leading veterans-turned-political-warriors, from John McCain to Wesley Clark and Jim Webb, and even a fresh-outta-mothballs Swiftboater seem to have decided that - never mind "fighting 'em over there" - the order of the day really is to "fight 'em here" after all.
It starts, as it always does anymore, with Republican presidential hopeful John McCain's prisoner-of-war status. It's the single most distinctive thing most Americans know about him. Shot down during the Vietnam War and taken up residence, the hard way, in the so-called "Hanoi Hilton." There isn't a politician, pundit, or voter alive, from liberal to conservative, military or civilian, campaign ally or competitor, who hasn't acknowledged that - in a positive and respectful way. And despite his and his supporters' protestations, nobody is taking its name in vain. Unlike so many other Republican leading lights, McCain actually did wear his country's uniform, see combat, and shed blood and even those many millions of us who won't be voting for him still honor that.
Perhaps that aspect of McCain's back story is so prevalent because neither he nor Barack Obama seems willing to leave it alone. Obama sometimes sounds almost like he'd rather be McCain's PR manager than his Democratic opponent, carrying on at almost every turn, almost rhapsodically, about The War Record. With McCain himself, it's more or less all he has, as far as solid cards to play. Everything else about him involves either evasive maneuvers about where he's stood on any number of issues over the years, or his embrace of so much of Governance-According-to-George-W.-Bush that he's understandably billed by critics as running for Bush's "third term."
Perhaps that's why he's so sensitive about it. Evidently, as all Team McCain members vehemently insist, that's off-limits. It's actually another one of those World's Biggest Republican Entitlement Programs: that John McCain's military background renders him unassailably immune to ANY sort of objection you might raise. He's the MC Hammer of the GOP with his own personalized cover of "You Can't Touch This."
Well, I'm sorry, Senator McCain, but - to borrow another 2008 campaign constant, "Yes We Can."
John McCain has willingly stuck his neck up and out of the foxhole here. Nobody waterboarded him or held him captive to force him against his will to run for president. He may call himself a maverick from dawn til dusk but claiming absolute sacred cow status is asking a bit much. If you put yourself out there to that extreme, in this day and age, fortunately or unfortunately, then everything about you is fair game. According to the rules of this or any other warfare, if you poke your head up into the open in the heat of battle, you risk becoming a target. Since he and his pals all want to make so much of his Vietnam experience, it is not unreasonable for opponents to make what they can of it, too.
It is completely fair for retired General Wesley Clark to observe, aloud, that flying a fighter jet over enemy territory and being shot down doesn't necessarily or automatically mean you're qualified to be president (anymore than how fun you are to go have a beer with means you've got what it takes, either). One would think with a background like his, McCain would want to bring his brothers- and sisters-in-arms home from a wasteful war they - and we - were lied into, rather than wanting to maroon them in Iraq for the sake of some vague, undefined, and distant "victory." One would think, as a veteran - a wounded veteran at that - McCain would be the first and loudest supporter of ANY GI Bill to ease his latter-day comrades' transition back to civilian life, rather than complain that it's too generous and not even show up to vote for it. The ensuing breathless outrage from McCain and his minions further loses credibility and all claims to the moral high ground when he brings back one of John Kerry's Swiftboaters, Bud Day, to join the latest counter-offensive. I guess to McCain and company, it's more than okay to Swiftboat a Democrat, but thou shalt not challenge this year's GOP standard-bearer!
It is also not out-of-bounds for Senator and decorated Vietnam War veteran Jim Webb to take issue with the politicizing of military service. Webb correctly pointed out on MSNBC's "Countdown" that McCain should "calm down" about it, because "people don't serve their country for political issues." Or at least they shouldn't. Calming down is not a bad thing. Cooler heads should prevail in Oval Office, anyway.
I'd like to give the whole issue a rest, but I know better. We're all stuck with it. As long as both McCain and Barack Obama insist on bringing up McCain's background in speech after speech, then all's fair in politics and war. If McCain's own hypocrisy has punched holes in whatever integrity his Vietnam experience originally bought for him, Obama supporters somehow are not allowed to weigh in?
Here's the real straight talk: the letters POW do not spell POTUS. Such voices as those of Wesley Clark and Jim Webb are correct to bring some balance and perspective to the issue and wipe some of the steam off the windows. As long as McCain and Company want to parade it around in public for all to see, and to make it such a big issue in his campaign, they really can't demand that the rest of us keep to a hands-off policy when we want to look closely at it and speak realistically about it. We're being asked to quarter it in our stables for four years. It's not asking too much to want to look a war horse, or a sacred cow, in the mouth.