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The Politics of Patriotism

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Should John McCain have to "defend" his military record? Of course not. But the fact that he served in the military, with distinction, does not mean he's qualified to be president.

Should Barack Obama have to explain why he didn't serve in the military or somehow apologize for it? Of course not. Most people of his generation did not serve in the military. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Condi Rice did not see any active duty, although all of them are older. So what?

Democrats learned four years ago that choosing a candidate with a record of service in combat is no guarantee of anything. John Kerry's military record became one more piece of ammunition for the supposedly independent mud fight that defined the election. The defenders of the mud fight said it was Kerry's own fault because he interjected his military record front and center into the campaign. (Remember that line at the convention about Lt. Kerry "reporting for duty"?) By that logic, Democrats have a right to question McCain, who makes Kerry look like a piker when it comes to playing the military card, but Republicans have no right to question Obama, who has hewn to the George W. Bush approach of talking about other things.

Dream on.

This week's round of punching and counterpunching began with comments by retired Gen. Wesley Clark, an Obama supporter, that made the very same point I just did: Serving in the military, as honorable as it is, doesn't mean that you're more qualified to be president. "I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president," Clark said.

I think the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth said something very much like that about John Kerry captaining a Swift boat. Actually, what they said was much worse. They questioned John Kerry's record and turned it into an issue of character. No one has done that to McCain, at least no one with any association to Obama. Can you imagine what McCain would say if someone did?

As it was, Sen. McCain and his allies tried to turn Clark's comments into a concerted Obama attack, which then allows them an excuse to attack Obama. Sen. McCain, responding at a news conference, said that remarks such as Clark's are "unnecessary," pointing out that such an attack "doesn't reduce the price of a gallon of gas by one penny." Fair enough. Neither does attacking Obama's lack of military experience. But then he added, "I know that (Gen. Clark's comment) is not an isolated incident, but I have no way of knowing what involvement Sen. Obama has in that issue." Robert McFarlane, who was the national security adviser to President Reagan, went one step further, suggesting that Clark's comments "may be part of a larger gambit." He told the press: "If the opposing candidate doesn't really have the experience or knowledge or depth in international affairs, then one approach can be, I suppose, to try to deny that Sen. McCain does."

Take that, Sen. Obama!

In fact, in a speech Monday in Independence, Mo., Sen. Obama went out of his way to praise his opponent for his patriotism and his record of service to this country. But he also made clear that he would not tolerate questions of his own patriotism. "I will never question the patriotism of others in this campaign," he said. "And I will not stand idly by when I hear others question mine." He even wore a flag pin.

In politics, we always spend more time on the question of who started the fight and whether it's actually an intentional fight than whether there is anything worth fighting about. So it is with the candidates' patriotism. In other contexts, one might point out fairly that experience as a prisoner of war leaves scars that last for a lifetime. But if any Democrat within a mile of Barack Obama even suggests as much, that person will be thrown overboard faster than you can say Samantha Power (who was thrown overboard, you may remember, for telling a foreign newspaper that she thought Hillary Clinton was "a monster"). If Gen. Wesley Clark can't make what should be the obvious point -- that military service doesn't qualify a person for the presidency -- imagine the backlash if anyone actually raised questions about the impact of McCain's stint as a POW?

To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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