10/10/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

POWer Play

You are a military man captured by the enemy. Your bones are snapped, your spirit is crushed, and you are isolated in a cage for years on end. You spend five years of your prime wasting away, abused, tormented, and underfed. You are driven to commit suicide at least once. You survive and are released, but decades later you frequently and unapologetically show signs of rage, prejudice, and uncontrollable temper. And now you want America to entrust you with its nuclear arsenal.

The widely-held assumption about John McCain is that his experience as a prisoner of war somehow qualifies him, by virtue of enduring it, to be the leader of the free world. But the evidence surely points in the other direction. We tend to excuse Senator McCain's irrational outbursts and inappropriate behavior -- including a 1995 scuffle with a 92-year-old Senate colleague (from his own party, no less) -- by referring to their root cause. In doing so we ignore clear symptoms of a deep-seated malaise, in misguided deference to the circumstances that engendered it.

Why? Perhaps because we admire risk-takers -- as all military men and women must be to some extent -- and are grateful for their willingness to sacrifice. But giving John McCain a pass on the lingering psychic effects of his five-year ordeal makes no more sense than giving an unbalanced police recruit a badge and a gun because he only got that way after muggers beat him to a pulp. To put it another way, we probably wouldn't feel comfortable flying on a plane piloted by a blind man. Whether he was born blind or lost his sight in an act of heroism, however, is entirely beside the point.

Dubbed Senator Hothead by Newsweek and others, McCain is notorious in the Beltway for his volcanic anger and bitterness. A Republican colleague who witnessed one such outburst commented "I decided I didn't want this guy anywhere near a trigger." Another, Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, said: "The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine. He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me." As recently as his failed 2000 presidential bid, McCain said unabashedly of his erstwhile captors: "I hated the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live." These are hardly encouraging signs of the proper temperament for a man who aspires to defend American interests against a resurgent China, an emboldened Russia, and a potentially nuclear-armed Iran.

Let us stop behaving as though Senator McCain's stint in the Hanoi Hilton is a qualification for high office. It is not. And while only the most churlish or uncompromising of partisans would fail to give McCain his due for the hardship he endured as a prisoner of war, we should be clear-eyed in acknowledging the inescapable truth: five years of mistreatment, isolation, humiliation, and torture at the hands of dedicated and ideologically-driven sadists qualifies only as a cause for concern about their after-effects on an erratic and irascible would-be president.