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Circular Logic Alert! Wes Clark's Critics Are Doing Exactly What He Did

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

You heard me right. McCain's full-throated chorus of defenders has boxed itself into a logical trap: If you buy the idea that Wes Clark's comment about John McCain was outrageous, then it's outrageous to criticize him!

Before I present my argument, a little context. First, we are not wasting our time by continuing to discuss Gen. Clark's simple and irrefutable assertion. The McCain campaign and the media will keep repeating the mantra that McCain is "extraordinarily qualified" on defense issues, despite his lack of executive experience and a series of errors in judgment. Anybody challenging that idea will face the same heat now being directed at Wes Clark.

If you've been in a sensory-deprivation experiment lately (in which case, lucky you!) here's the quick and dirty version: When confronted with Gen. Clark's assertion that McCain's heroism didn't necessarily qualify him for high command, an outraged Bob Schieffer's non sequitur response was that Barack Obama had never been shot down in an airplane. The General responded with the (seemingly irrefutable) statement that having been shot down in a plane does not constitute prima facie evidence of leadership skills. That's been blaring from television screens for 48 hours now -- albeit neatly excised from the question that stimulated it, which makes it look more like an ad hominem attack by some hopped-up partisan.

(Look on the bright side: That's left the networks with no airtime for any new Jeremiah Wright footage!)

The result was a tidal wave of faux outrage (or genuine -- which is worse?) like this, from Andrew Sullivan:

Wesley Clark is now and always has been a Clinton-type (note: talk about ad hominem!), but this is pretty revolting. This kind of personal attack was repulsive coming against Kerry from the far right. And it's repulsive the other way round. Both Kerry and McCain served their country honorably; and their records should be revered, period. You can make an argument against McCain's foreign policy experience and judgment on its merits. Do it and leave this crap out of it.

I would tend to agree, actually -- if it weren't for the fact that Sen. McCain and his supporters (especially in the media) are incessantly trumpeting his wartime experience as a qualification. Without it, he'd be just one more senator who made the wrong call on Iraq. Worse, actually -- he'd be one who gets confused about even the most elementary national defense facts.

Then there's the fact that the Swift Boat attacks on Kerry were outrageous because they were false, whereas Gen. Clark's statement is ... what's that other word? Oh, yeah. True. (Is anybody really arguing otherwise?)

Note that Gen. Clark's statement is not specific to John McCain or any other war hero. It says, plainly and simply, that wartime sacrifices like being shot down -- while they may be admirable and worthy of deep gratitude - do not by themselves prove that one has sound military judgment.

My biggest problem with Sullivan's statement is the word "revere." That's the perfect word to describe the media's treatment of McCain's military past. The dictionary definition of "revere" is "to regard with awe, deference, and devotion." Wes Clark's biggest sin, in their eyes, is that he's not supplicating himself before McCain's heroism. And why not? Maybe because Clark also served in Vietnam and showed extraordinary heroism himself, risking his life many times (and spending many long months immobilized from his injuries.)

But guess what? You didn't hear about his heroism -- or his sacrifice -- when Gen. Clark was running for president. Why not? Because he's consistent. He didn't think it qualified him to be president, any more than it qualifies John McCain. (He's also a little classier than some when it comes to that kind of self-promotion.) Clark honors McCain's sacrifice, and even called McCain one of his heroes on the Schieffer interview (we haven't heard much about that these last couple of days.) But he knows it takes a different set of skills to lead.

Now, back to that logic problem. The basis for the chain of outrage now binding Sen. Obama and the Democrats -- a bright shining chain, one with links named Schieffer and Sullivan -- is this argument: 1) John McCain is a war hero. 2) You can't question a war hero's judgment in military affairs. 3) You must therefore accept his wisdom in these matters. 4) You role is to revere him, demonstrate your devotion, and abstain from criticism.

But wait! Wes Clark is a war hero! He made his McCain comment while he was discussing military affairs! Your criticism of him means you don't accept his judgment in these matters! In other words, you're doing the same thing to Clark that Clark was doing to McCain. Your demonstrated lack of reverence for war hero Clark is a heresy that is equal to or greater than Clark's.

Q.E.D. -- and in your face, outrage contingent. And as for the Democrats, they should learn from Gen. Clark's directness ... and his unwillingness to back down. He has led by example yet again. He has refused to buckle, despite enormous pressure. And what do you call somebody like that?

Oh, yeah. A hero.