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Gen. Clark and That POW Thing McCain Hates Talking About

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The knives sure are out for retired Gen. Wesley Clark.

In case you missed it: Interviewed by CBS' Bob Schieffer on Sunday's Face the Nation, Clark said that for all the national security experience John McCain claims, he never held a position of command during wartime. "I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war," Clark said. "He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands and millions of others in the armed forces as a prisoner of war. He has been a voice on the Senate Armed Services Committee and he has traveled all over the world. But he hasn't held executive responsibility." Clark then continued, "But he hasn't held executive responsibility. That large squadron in Air -- in the Navy that he commanded, it wasn't a wartime squadron. He hasn't been there and ordered the bombs to fall. He hasn't seen what it's like when diplomats come in and say, 'I don't know whether we're going to be able to get this point through or not. Do you want to take the risk? What about your reputation? How do we handle it publicly?' He hasn't made those calls, Bob."

Then came this:

SCHIEFFER: I have to say, Barack Obama has not had any of those experiences, either, nor has he ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down. I mean --

CLARK: Well, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.

From the response of McCain's defenders in the press, you'd think Clark had claimed that John McCain was never really in Vietnam at all. CNN's Rick Sanchez described it with an incredulous expression as "dissing, some might say Swiftboating, John McCain's military record." ABC's Rick Klein accused Clark of "calling into question, in surprisingly sharp language, Sen. John McCain's military record." Over at the Wall Street Journal, Gerald Seib and Sara Murray were aghast: "The one certainty of the 2008 campaign, it might have seemed, was that Sen. John McCain would be acknowledged all around as a war hero for his service in Vietnam -- but apparently not."

Of course, they were just wrong: Clark didn't call McCain's record into question; he didn't say McCain wasn't a hero, and he sure as hell didn't "Swiftboat" McCain. Not only was he responding directly to Schieffer's question, using Schieffer's words, but he explicitly honored McCain's service. Those key pieces of context were left out of the reports that all three networks broadcast the next day, as well as many of the reports in newspapers and on television that followed. In The New York Times, Jeff Zeleny not only removed the context, but he simply repeated the McCain campaign's outrageously disingenuous charge that Clark was "impugning Mr. McCain's heroism."

But to understand why the press is reacting with such outrage, you have to understand what they've been saying about McCain for the last decade.

There's a myth out there that the McCain campaign and the media have cooperated to create. It says that John McCain is reluctant to exploit his Vietnam POW story for political advantage, so modest and full of integrity is he. We've seen this repeated again and again, not just by McCain and his supporters but by reporters who ought to know better.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

From the first time he ran for Congress in 1982 up to the present day, McCain has made his POW story the centerpiece of his entire political career. The key moment of that 1982 campaign was when he responded to his opponent's (absolutely true) accusation that McCain was a carpetbagger by saying, "As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi." At every point since, it has been the deft use of this tool that has brought McCain renewed attention or won him a key victory.

McCain has every right to talk about Vietnam all he wants -- it's his story, and no serious person has ever disputed the details. But don't tell us he's reluctant to use it, because he isn't. He talks about it to voters, he talks about it to contributors, he talks about it to reporters, he talks about it with seriousness, he jokes about it, and his campaign makes every attempt it can to remind people of what happened to him in Vietnam.

As I said, there's nothing wrong with that. But what happened with Gen. Clark reveals the McCain Rules, as he and the press would have us understand them. Here's how things are supposed to work: It's fine for the McCain campaign to run ads touting his time as a POW, create web videos touting his time as a POW, have him mention his time as a POW in speeches, and have him bring it up in debates (remember "I was tied up at the time"?). In other words, it's fine to have John McCain's entire presidential run be presented through the filter of his POW experience. Should, however, someone even ask the question of whether the fact that McCain was a POW really qualifies him to be president, that would be a deeply offensive affront to all that is right and good, and must not be tolerated. Talk about having it both ways.

Let's keep in mind that no one seems to have argued with Clark on the merits of his claim. No one responded by saying, "General Clark is wrong -- in fact, McCain's POW experience does qualify him to be president." I suppose one could make that argument, but I haven't seen anyone actually make it. Instead, what they have said is that Clark was out of bounds to even raise the issue. To even assert that McCain's Vietnam experience isn't in and of itself a qualification for the Oval Office is such an unforgivable transgression that its merits don't need to be addressed.

There is, however, one person who wouldn't disagree with Clark's statement that being a POW doesn't qualify you for the presidency. When asked by the National Journal in 2003, "Do you think that military service inherently makes somebody better equipped to be commander-in-chief?" this politician answered, "Absolutely not. History shows that some of our greatest leaders have had little or no military experience. ... I have advised [a presidential candidate] that I'd be very careful about how much you talk about that, because you don't want it to sound self-serving." The person who said that was John McCain, and the presidential candidate he was talking about was John Kerry.

For years, we've watched as reporters have dropped the fact that McCain was a POW into their stories, apropos of nothing, as if it were merely part of his name... John McCain, who was a POW in Vietnam, visited a farm to discuss the dairy industry. I kid, but it seems that any criticism of McCain's character is greeted with "But he was a POW!" When Howard Dean called McCain an "opportunist" back in April, Chris Wallace of Fox News indignantly asked Sen. John Kerry, "Do you think John McCain was an opportunist when he refused to take early release from a North Vietnamese prison camp?" Just last week, The Washington Post's Richard Cohen wrote that though McCain has flip-flopped on immigration, taxes, and a host of other issues, it's really OK, because "we know his bottom line. As his North Vietnamese captors found out, there is only so far he will go, and then his pride or his sense of honor takes over."

So when Gen. Clark, or anyone else, says that the fact that McCain suffered as a POW forty years ago is really neither here nor there when it comes to what the next president will be faced with, it's no surprise that McCain's fanboys in the media react with such high dudgeon. After all, to suggest that the POW story is only one piece of McCain's biography, and not the be-all-end-all on which the next president should be chosen, is as much an indictment of the press as it is of McCain.

Paul Waldman of Media Matters Action Network is the author or coauthor of four books on politics and media, including his most recent work, Free Ride: John McCain and the Media, coauthored with David Brock.