Apparently the kerfluffle over Wesley Clark's comments about John McCain still has some people all hot and bothered. We really are in a slow news environment, aren't we? Where's a good teenybopper starlet mental breakdown when you need it? Aren't we in the middle of two wars? Has the weather done anything seriously weird recently? Isn't there ANYTHING that can distract the press from this?
Barack Obama, fortunately, has his priorities straight:
Actually, I have to make a distinction. The actual comment from Wes Clark was not that big of a deal, and Clark made it clear that he has a great deal of respect for John McCain and his record of military service. But it does touch on a larger issue, which is the relevance of John McCain's personal story for his campaign to be president. That's a serious issue, but it's gotten the rapid-fire "gotcha" treatment from the press.
This is a great reminder of Michael Kinsley's dictum that a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth. John McCain is clearly a courageous man, and in the interview with Bob Scheiffer, Clark made it clear that he considers McCain a personal hero. But what he said is technically true: being shot down is not a qualification for being president. Demonstrating courage while a POW and being tortured is indicative of his bravery, which is relevant for being president. But being shot down in the first place was an accident, and being the victim of an accident, however unfortunate, is not indicative of any personal qualities. You don't do anything when something happens to you.
So: being in an accident: not relevant for presidential aspirations. Surviving said accident with extraordinary courage and dignity: highly relevant.
I actually think McCain missed a great opportunity here. I think he could have said that Clark was right, and that being shot down does not qualify him to be president, and that he's not asking people to vote for him for president because of that, but because of his ideas and his character. I think McCain could have scored major points for honesty with that.
But he didn't, and that speaks to a larger dynamic within this campaign. Talking Points Memo put together a montage of right wing pundits on TV blowing this way the hell out of proportion. You can see it here; I don't want to post it on my blog. All of the right wing commentators rushed to McCain's defense, defending his aggreived sense of honor. Given that they were going to do that, McCain had no other option but to claim to be offended. I think McCain is trapped by his own story. Blowhard conservatives are going to use any excuse to claim that liberals are somehow attacking or dishonoring the troops. McCain just about has to go along. If he doesn't participate in perpetuating the idea that liberals don't support the troops, etc., etc., right wing pundits are going to be either confused or furious at him. I think McCain could have scored points not only for honesty, but also for humility, if he had made the distinction that I made above: that being shot down itself is not an act of heroism. But then no one in the press would have been able to feast on this controversy.
What's gotten lost in all of this is that Wesley Clark is one of the highest ranking military officials on the public scene. The man was Supreme Allied Commander of Europe. He was wounded in Vietnam and waged war in Yugoslavia. He's a Rhodes scholar who was valedictorian of his class at West Point. His comment was, as Obama said, "inartful," but he also went out of his way to praise McCain's record of military service. Anchors at Fox News are not going to get to him. He has an impeccable record of supporting the troops - he WAS one of the troops for most of his life. I don't think he's going to back down, and I don't think he should.
Another part of this that has gotten lost is that this is a dispute between two military men. If Clark had said this within the military, I think everyone would automatically understand that Clark respects McCain's record, but that that does not make him immune to criticism, because everyone in the military is serving their country. Clark's problem is that he did not make this comment in the mess hall at Fort Knox. He made it on national television.
This is one of the great taboo subjects of this race. To what extent does John McCain's unique status as a POW and victim of torture qualify him to be president? He's clearly a man of great personal courage, which, for many people, is reason enough to vote for him. But for others, that is not enough. American voters have the right to decide whether or not to vote for McCain based on his war hero record. They have the right to decide that that is not enough. Which is exactly what Wesley Clark was saying.