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McCain's 9-11

Posted: 08/28/08 12:50 PM ET

My favorite one liner in the Democratic primary debate was when Joe Biden, in a feat of succinct genius, zinged Rudy Giuliani with the infamous Giuliani sentence construction - "A noun, a verb, and 9/11." It was concise, true and more than a little acerbic. Well, the door is now open for another attack - on John McCain, who is treading dangerously close to another ignominious verbal trifecta: "A noun, a verb, and POW."

The timing of McCain's latest faux pas couldn't have been better. Just one day after Maureen Dowd excoriated McCain in her New York Times column for overplaying the POW card, he was at it again on Jay Leno. This time it was different though - no longer was he explaining music tastes or justifying why he encouraged his wife to participate in a topless Miss Buffalo Chip contest. This time he was plumbing new depths of shamelessness - by invoking his years as a POW to evade a question about how many houses he owned. When asked by Leno, he replied:

"I spent five and a half years in a prison cell, without - I didn't have a house, I didn't have a kitchen table, I didn't have a table, I didn't have a chair. And I spent those five and a half years, because - not because I wanted to get a house when I got out."

By the end of his tonally inappropriate soliloquy he had his applause line: "And my friends, I'm proud of my record of service to this country, and it has nothing to do with houses. What it has to do with putting Americans in houses and keeping them in their homes." It was an act of deft political maneuvering. It was also, in light of Dowd's column and other criticisms of his overuse of his POW story, the moment the Straight Talk Express jumped the proverbial shark.

His experience as a POW can't possibly, for even the briefest of moments, explain why he has seven houses or why he forgot that he had seven houses. The reason that he has seven houses is that, after cheating on his first wife - who waited for him while he lost a half-decade of his life in Vietnam - he divorced her to marry a deliriously wealthy (and substantially younger) heiress to a beer fortune. Of course, it's understandable that he didn't talk straight about the situation. Retelling the doubling up on his childhood privilege - in grand fashion - does not a likable anecdote make.

In any case, what relevance does his experience as a POW hold? Yes, it was assuredly a character building experience for him. Yes, it tested him in ways that most humans - thankfully - aren't tested. And yes, it does give McCain - the privileged, pleasure-seeking, philandering son and grandson of admirals who, despite graduating in the bottom one percent of his Annapolis class, was able to attain the unlikely honor of becoming an aircraft carrier pilot -- a sympathetic story.

It does not, however, have a lick to do with what he'll be as president, something that Retired Gen. Wesley Clark pointed out, however inartfully. Getting shot down in a tragically pointless war says nothing at all about one's readiness to be Commander-in-Chief.

What it used to say, though, and the only thing it feasibly could ever hope to say, was explain McCain's opposition to torture. As a torture victim, McCain could draw on his personal experience in explaining why he opposes it - and he used to do so, his pillorying of Mitt Romney during the Republican primary debates for equivocating on whether waterboarding was torture or not being just the most memorable example.

Unfortunately, McCain is singing a different tune these days. After leapfrogging the other nominees to become the presumptive nominee, McCain - in a stunningly unprincipled turnaround - voted against a bill that would have banned the CIA from using waterboarding and other torture techniques in their interrogations. It was the politically expedient thing to do, and - though it flew in the face of the only policy decision his status as a former POW could possibly explain - McCain didn't bat an eye.

Apparently the POW story, for all of its consistency of use, has no consistency of message. Topless contests, music taste, seven homes, torture? POW, POW, POW, flop.