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McCain's 1968 Heroism Can't Excuse His 2008 McCarthyism

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Pundits on the talks shows say that the '08 election is all about Barack Obama: Can he pass the commander-in-chief test and avoid gaffes and reassure white voters? The burden is always put on him.

But another question is whether John McCain can pass the character test. So far, he's failing.

What? A bona fide war hero and POW survivor is being questioned about character?

Well, yes. It's time that McCain's acolytes and the mainstream media stopped assuming that his
extraordinary military service nearly 40 years ago gives him immunity to questions about being President today in a different century.

First, there is the unpleasant fact that in the past week McCain has sounded more like McCarthy in his patriotism-baiting of Obama. When he repeatedly says that Obama for political reasons "would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign," he's imputing a political motive than he can't know, doesn't know, and is contradicted by the available evidence.

Agree with Obama's Iraq policies or not, surely he's been consistently opposed to our invasion and occupation of a country that didn't attack us, dating from the speech he gave in 2002 -- of course before he was a U.S. Senator or presumptive Democratic nominee.

Bluntly, what McCain is doing is a familiar trope -- from tail gunner Joe to Richard Nixon's "positive polarization" to Bush 41's campaigning in flag factories against a guy with a foreign-sounding last name to Bush 43's "with us or with the terrorists" rhetoric after 9/11. Divide and conquer.

This is especially unconvincing since Obama's policies are essentially the same as those held by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton Commission, nearly all Senate Democrats -- and McCain himself, who told Wolf Blitzer that Obama's 16-month withdrawl timeline might be acceptable.

Do Senators Clinton, Biden, Hagel, Kennedy etc. too want America to lose a war, or do they simply disagree with McCain's judgment?

Second, this line of personal attack is one of numerous examples of McCain's Zig-Zag Express. When it comes to flip-flopping, McCain recently has made John Kerry (falsely accused of this) look like the Rock of Gibraltar.

For years MCain impressively built up his popular "maverick" brand, attacking the far right on a variety of issues. But in frequent 180 degree turns, now he instead supports tax cuts for the rich, panders to the religious right, opposes affirmative action and votes against anti-torture rules for the CIA. Exactly who is shifting positions for political reasons?

McCain said two months ago that he wanted to run a "civil campaign" free of personal attacks. Now he all but accuses Obama of being unpatriotic, nearly treasonous. His recent ad asserting that Obama refused to visit troops because he couldn't bring cameras along and chose to go to the gym instead is, well, a lie. Factcheck.org, the Washington Post and the New York Times have analyzed the facts and said as much. But it plays into McCain's strategy that he's a "real American President," as one of his first ads unsubtly put it.

Normally, when a Republican presidential candidate wants to "swift boat" an opponent, he winks at third party groups to do it for him -- like the ads spotlighting Willie Horton in 1988 (which we now know that Bush 41's Lee Atwater helped coordinate) or those by veterans falsely attacking Kerry's war record, which McCain rightly and courageously condemned. Yet here it's McCain himself who is personally swift-boating Obama in a dishonorable and desperate attempt to trip up the leading candidate. He's engaging in the tactics that he deplored.

But as Ann Coulter knows, sometimes a narrative is too lucrative or compelling not to use even if it's untrue. So a campaign full of Karl Rove proteges will continue the story of McCain as patriotic and Obama as a combination of Lennon and Lenin. Until two things happen.

First, the national media needs to start covering McCain's sleazy tactics and repeated lies as often, say, as they covered Rev. Wright. That shouldn't take the courage of a Murrow, only reporters who won't let McCain continue to hide under his hero halo anymore.

And second, while Obama should and will stay calm in the face of personal, contrived assaults, he can't and won't accept Pat Buchanan's convenient suggestion to me in a Hardball debate and to others -- i.e., just ignore it. Democrats learned from Gore and Kerry, as Mark Twain informed us, that "a lie gets half way around the world before truth puts on her boots." So while Obama himself stays cool, his campaign and surrogates and ads have to bludgeon McCain not on personal attributes but on policy flaws -- on his unpopular plans on Iraq, social security, oil giveaways, global warming, tax fairness, mortgage fraud, on being George Bush's poodle. If McCain insists on telling lies about Obama, the Obama Team should respond by telling the truth about him.

Start with the truth that a maverick has morphed into a McCarthy -- and that the honorable McCain of 2000 wouldn't vote for the angry McCain of 2008.