Friday, September 26: John McCain closed the first presidential debate tonight with yet another reference to his history as a prisoner of war.
It’s difficult (and risky) to criticize him for this. His ordeal was real, extreme, and agonizingly protracted; and his survival as a whole person is admirable, as everyone, right, left, center – republican, democrat, independent, has been scrupulously careful to acknowledge and re- re- re-acknowledge. But while the admiration and respect of other people is entirely appropriate, his own constant political use of his imprisonment – again and again and again – is not.
The difficult truths are, first, that courage and stamina in a soldier are admirable qualities, but they do not by themselves qualify a pilot to be a commander in chief. An effective top military leader needs a breadth and depth of understanding, a quickness and flexibility of mind, and an ability to place military decisions in the large geopolitical context. Assessing these traits in the two candidates (at least as far as we can do so) a thoughtful analysis must rate Obama as least as high as McCain, if not higher.
The second difficult truth is that the constant repetition of the war prisoner story by McCain and his campaign is obviously, crassly political; and this is too bad. By itself, his story commands our sympathy and respect. (Certainly, we are reminded of it every time we see the man gesture with arms unable to rise to shoulder level because of his ordeal as a prisoner.) But the cynical use and re-use of this tale for sympathy has two negative effects: it cheapens his appeal to us to elect him president, and, in the end, it dulls our sympathy for him and our appreciation for the most truly outstanding accomplishment of his long life.
So how can those of us who oppose McCain as a candidate deal with the prostitution of his undeniable accomplishment without placing ourselves in the ranks of those who spit on the flag and kick puppies? First, let’s drop the formula, “Yes, John McCain is a great war hero, but....” by now, more than enough homage has been paid to his courage.
Second, let’s start to publicly ask what his history really has to do with his qualifications for the presidency. John McCain is hardly the only hero of the Viet Nam war or any other – right up to Iraq II – but so far, he’s the only one to capitalize on personal suffering for political gain.