07/09/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Yes We Can Talk About McCain's Service

Wes Clark stood by his criticism of John McCain in a television interview last night, stressing that while he would "never, never dis someone's service," it is legitimate to discuss what types of military experience are relevant to being commander in chief. Republicans have been twisting Clark's mundane observation that McCain's experience "getting shot down" in a fighter plane is not a "qualification to be president." Clark made the point in response to a question from CBS' Bob Schieffer on Sunday, while noting that he "honor[ed]" McCain's service and considered him a "hero."

Of course, the Republican "outrage" to Clark is both hypocritical, as The Nation's Ari Berman noted, and illogical, since McCain's war experience is laudatory but different than running the country. Professor Sandy Levinson explains:

One might say... that John McCain displayed literally incredible valor in responding to many years of torture in Vietnam; I would also add my admiration for McCain's refusing to bear grudges against those who had been anti-War during the 1960s. But why would any person believe that "getting shot down" (which is precisely what happened to McCain) and then being tortured has anything to do with qualifying one to be President of the United States as against, say, receiving an award for displaying incredible grace under maximum pressure?... Isn't it worth thinking about the fact that the three senators who in fact saw ground combat in Vietnam -- James Webb, Chuck Hagel, and John Kerry -- are all dedicated opponents of the Iraq War?

Webb has even made this exact observation regarding McCain -- comparing facts about their service experience, not ranking their valor:

John McCain was a prisoner of war; I respect what he had to go through... He did not see the ground environment, how difficult things really are on the ground. He did not really see how bad this country was torn apart by the war, for the unfortunate reason that he was in prison. ...Chuck Hagel and I both intrinsically understand how difficult it is in an infantry environment to carry out some of these goals and we both experienced what it was like to come back to a pretty hostile peer group.

Webb did not draw any Republican "outrage" for that analysis, offered last February, because there was no presidential campaign at the time. This would all seem unremarkable, if the mainstream and self-declared "objective" political press could see through the charade and report the facts. But today's Times opens an article about "patriotism and service" by falsely alleging that Clark "diminished Senator John McCain's service as a naval aviator in Vietnam." There's just no way to read Clark's logical observation, offered with "honor" for McCain as a "hero," as diminishing the service. Or as the Columbia Journalism Review's Campaign Desk explained yesterday:

Arguing that a person's record of military service is not a qualification for the presidency does not constitute "attacking" their military credentials; nor can it be described as invoking their military service against them, or as denying their record of war heroism. [Handling this basic idea] is not a very high bar for sophistication. But right now it's one the press isn't capable of clearing.

Ari Melber is the Net movement correspondent for The Nation, where this first appeared.

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