08/05/2008 03:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Untouchable Hero McCain

Anyone who really believes the Vietnam War ended in 1975 is, well, dinky-dao (Americanized Vietnamese for "crazy"). That misbegotten conflict, a war we never should have fought and the only war we ever "lost", cost us the respect of much of the world, polluted U.S. policy, spurred a national identity crisis and scarred the American psyche. Vietnam remains unfinished business.

33 years later, that unfinished business is the elephant in the room. It's still poisoning the well of American politics.

The press and the public, the vast majority of whom never served in any war, are seized with a belated paroxysm of Mass Mea Culpa. We're beating our chests, heaping ash on our heads, wallowing in collective guilt; because we failed miserably, decades ago, to "support our troops". We sent them off to an endless war of questionable origin and purpose, then treated them like shit when they came home. We called them war criminals. Baby killers. Neither they nor their families were offered counseling of any kind to ease the difficult transition back into civilian life.

We had not yet learned to hate the war -- not the warrior. Bad government, not a bad military, condemned 2,709,918 Americans to the misery of Vietnam. Bad government, not a bad military, cost us 58,226 American lives, 61% of them under the age of 21.

33 years later, having served in that war and having survived a nightmarish stint in the Hanoi Hilton make John McCain -- no matter what he says or does -- untouchable. He's become America's sacred cow. He's the war hero du jour and, with the tacit approval of a bedazzled press, his honorable war record inoculates him against responsibility for dishonorable actions. Criticism smacks of anti-Americanism; we've got to be damned careful what we say and how we say it when referencing any problems we might have with John McCain's politics.

Or his nasty temper, which includes foul language directed, in public, at his own wife. Another candidate, say, Barack Obama, would have been pilloried by press and public alike for calling his wife a trollop and the C-word (which does not bear repeating). What man of moral character would say such a thing? Obama's political career would have been blighted. Beyond repair.

How about what appears to be McCain's shaky grasp of the difference between Shia and Sunni; between Iraqi insurgents who want us out of their country and Al Qaeda?

Or his deep concern about punitive Russian policy directed toward Czechoslovakia -- when there has been no Czechoslovakia since 1993?

Or his equally deep concern about the "serious problem" our military faces "along the Iraq/Pakistan border" -- when the two nations share not one inch of adjoining territory?

Or his insisting, despite the facts, that Bush's surge predated the Anbar Awakening?.

Mistakes like these have crippled more than one presidential hopeful's campaign. Gerald Ford's 1976 foreign policy gaffe, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe...", was "The Blooper Heard 'Round the World" (Time, October 18, 1976). Echoing worldwide media response, Time said Ford's blooper was an amazing gaffe, "...Especially for one who is running partly on a campaign theme of experience in foreign policy..."

Unlike Ford, John McCain has gotten an "Aw, shucks! We all know that's not what he really meant..." media pass. We can't call a string of foreign policy bloopers serious reason for re-examining a candidacy. Go there and we're attacking a war hero who suffered for his country; we are waging a media campaign without honor.

Let's be clear: There is no doubt Senator McCain's service to his country was both honorable and admirable. There is no doubt he suffered terribly during five and a half years as a POW. No one -- not Senator Barack Obama, not General Wesley Clark, not any other Democratic surrogate -- has questioned the value of McCain's service, his patriotism or his honor during wartime. Everyone conceded, long ago, that John McCain is a hero.

Going to Vietnam made McCain no more heroic than over two million other Americans. By enlistment or by the draft, a member of the military knows that going to war is a matter of duty, not heroism.

Getting shot down while flying a mission is not an act of heroism. It is a tragic consequence of war. Being captured by the enemy is not an act of heroism. It's rotten luck. Time spent as a POW is not an act of heroism; it is certainly time spent in hell, against your will. Surviving it, living by the military Code of Conduct, is not so easy to do. But McCain and over 1,200 other men did it. According to the Code, a POW is to refuse "parole or special favors". McCain was offered his freedom because his father was Navy brass. He declined. He was doing his duty. That was undeniably the tough choice; it undeniably epitomizes honorable military conduct.

Clearly, John McCain had the courage and the determination to do his duty, to survive, and to do it with honor.

Honor is the cornerstone of the McCain campaign. Honor is his brand, his mantra. Honor.

But there is precious little honor in John McCain's strategy to win the White House. His attacks, which include pronouncements like Barack Obama "would rather lose the war than lose the election", his intimation that Obama does not support American troops, are dishonest and are deliberately crafted to brand the Democratic candidate "unpatriotic". The message? Unlike the honorable Vietnam war hero, Barack Obama is unAmerican. He is a coward and a danger to American safety, democracy and values. McCain knows better. Where is the honor in this?

Given the popularity Senator Obama enjoys both here and (especially) abroad, the honorable John McCain approved the Britney/Paris/Obama-as-celebrity video. If he can't compete with the articulate, visionary message or the likeable messenger on equal terms, he'll make something cheap, something suggestive of it. Confronted with the sleazy nature of the ad, McCain dubbed it "campaign humor". It's a joke. He's proud of it and there's more to come. Where's the honor?

And there's "The One". An Obama-as-phony-Moses piece of work. This one, which hints at a messianic complex, hints at the advent of the anti-Christ, hints at mass mania, is an insult to God, to the church, to people of faith, to every American citizen who believes four more years of the Bush Doctrine is a bad idea. This McCain-approved video says a great deal about his contempt for all of us.

There is no honor in this kind of campaign. There is no honor left in the man who would countenance it. There is certainly nothing heroic about smear- and fear-tactics.

The Vietnam War is over. It's time for John McCain to do the honorable thing in 2008. It's time he acts the hero. It's time he stops resting on the laurels of his Vietnam saga and relying on the collective guilt of a nation to shield him from his gaffes, his flaws, his nose-dive into the deep end of the politics-as-usual cesspool. It's John McCain's turn to be "The One". The One courageous enough to pull his own campaign out of the gutter and run for the presidency on nothing more -- or less -- than his own vision, his own proposed policies for the country's future.

It's time for John McCain to be The One. The One who has some honor left.