The POW Dodge

When John Kerry made his Vietnam heroism a centerpiece of his 2004 presidential campaign, his colleague John McCain thought it unwise. "I said, ‘Look, you shouldn't talk about Vietnam because everybody else will. Let everybody else do it,'" McCain told the Washington Post. "In my [2000] campaign, as you know, I didn't talk about it because I didn't need to."

McCain was half right. It's true that he didn't need to; in that campaign, as in this one, reporters seldom forgot to mention that McCain was a POW in Vietnam. In fact, according to Lexis-Nexis, in the first three months of 2008 over a thousand newspaper articles mentioned that McCain was a prisoner of war. Journalists often use "former POW" in their stories as an identifier on par with "Arizona senator" or "Republican" -- even when his years in Hanoi have nothing to do with the issue or event being discussed. But when McCain asserted that he "didn't talk about it," he was being either strikingly dishonest or simply delusional. The truth is that he brings it up all the time.

The press, though, is happy to echo McCain's claim that "One of the things I've never tried to do is exploit my Vietnam service to my country because it would be totally inappropriate to do so." He is too modest, we are often told, and has too much reverence for that time in his life and the people he suffered alongside. But this claim is belied by what he has done in this campaign -- and what he has done in every campaign he has ever run. When Barack Obama criticized McCain's failure to support Jim Webb's new G.I. Bill, McCain hit back by saying, "I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did." The fact that Obama specifically cited his respect for McCain's service didn't keep him from playing the "I was there, punk!" card.

The truth is that McCain's Vietnam story is the foundation on which his entire career has been built, starting with his first run for Congress in 1982. Accused by his opponent (completely accurately) of being a carpetbagger, McCain responded that people in the military move around a lot, and "the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi." (Dramatic though the moment was, his claim wasn't true; he had lived longer in Virginia). When he got caught in the Keating Five scandal, he responded to reporters' inquiries with, "Even the Vietnamese didn't question my ethics."

As McCain's career proceeded, every key moment was marked by repetitions of the tale of his trials in Vietnam. He became a national figure when he gave a speech at the 1996 Republican convention, discussing his time as a POW. His 2000 presidential campaign aired ads highlighting his war record, and even sold posters of McCain from his time in Vietnam, pictured in his flight suit. His current campaign has featured television ads and web videos telling the story of his time in the "Hanoi Hilton, not to mention gimmicks like the "Service to America Tour," a series of visits to places that highlighted his military history. McCain brings up Vietnam in contexts both serious and lighthearted (one of his favorite jokes is to say of an unpleasant interview, a lost legislative battle, or a game in which his team comes up short, "I haven't had so much fun since my last interrogation").

He also uses his captivity to deflect difficult questions. When George Stephanopoulos confronted him with an argument made by Elizabeth Edwards -- that McCain had benefited from government health insurance nearly his whole life, and perhaps the rest of the public deserves something just as good -- McCain pulled out his trump card. "It's a cheap shot, but I did have a period of time where I didn't have very good healthcare, I had it from another government," he said

And McCain knows how to wield his POW story for its maximum culture war effect. When it was revealed that Hillary Clinton had requested a $1 million earmark for a museum in upstate New York commemorating the Woodstock concert, McCain's response could have been summed up in three words: screw you, hippie! "Senator Clinton tried to spend $1 million on the Woodstock concert museum," he said during a primary debate "Now, my friends, I wasn't there. I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event. I was tied up at the time." Tied up -- get it? His campaign liked the line so much they made an ad out of it, interspersing shots of McCain in the POW camp with scenes of Woodstock and psychedelic graphics.

Of course, McCain has every right to talk about Vietnam as much as he likes. No one disputes that he suffered greatly and demonstrated courage during his ordeal. Politicians since George Washington have used military service to their political advantage. In recent presidential elections, candidates both Democratic and Republican have made their war records central to their campaigns.

But therein lies the problem. In this, as in so much else, McCain is much the same as any politician. Yet that is not the story the news media tell. In their account, McCain is a man of unique authenticity and modesty; not only is he different than other politicians, he's barely a politician at all. McCain is so full of integrity, we have been told countless times, that he would never use his POW history as a political tool. If it turns up in a campaign ad, it must be because he "reluctantly allowed his campaign to spotlight his 5 ½ years in the Hanoi Hilton," as the Politico said in February. In what must have been an attempt to set some sort of record, Fox News reporters and guests repeated the idea that McCain hates talking about Vietnam fifteen times in a single day earlier this month.Of late, Karl Rove has taken to penning absurd columns begging McCain to finally open up and remind people that he was a POW in Vietnam.

For many reporters, what McCain went through forty years ago creates a halo that current transgressions -- like his flip-flopping (on immigration and the Bush tax cuts, for instance), his pandering (to some of the country's most extreme fundamentalists), or the fact that he has stocked his campaign with corporate lobbyists, including some who have represented vicious dictators -- don't seem to dim. When longtime campaign reporter Roger Simon told Chris Matthews on his MSNBC program Hardball that reporters give McCain "a break or two or three or four or five hundred," Matthews replied, "Because he served in Vietnam, and a lot of us didn't."

Well it's long past time for them to get over it. While there is certainly plenty to admire in what McCain endured in Vietnam, it is only one piece of McCain's history, something that tells us about part, but not all, of his character. The self-righteous way McCain so often proclaims that political calculation doesn't figure into his decision-making says something about his character, too. The fact that he was a POW doesn't necessarily make him knowledgeable or wise or principled. The burden ought to be on him to demonstrate that he has those qualities today, no matter what he went through forty years ago.

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