“Attacking” McCain’s Military Record

What Wesley Clark really said; how the press missed it

So: The latest round of mock outrage—in a presidential race that has turned the tactic into an art form—now comes in response to comments made by General Wesley Clark. Appearing as a surrogate for Barack Obama on CBS’s “Face the Nation”, Clark, in reference to John McCain, said:

I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war…But he hasn’t held executive responsibility. That large squadron in the Navy that he commanded—that wasn’t a wartime squadron. He hasn’t been there and ordered the bombs to fall.

When moderator Bob Schieffer interjected that “Barack Obama has not had any of those experiences, either, nor has he ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down”, Clark responded: “Well, I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.”

The McCain camp, sensing an opportunity, complained that Clark had “attacked John McCain’s military service record.” Of course, Clark had done nothing of the kind. He had questioned the relevance of McCain’s combat experience as a qualification to be president of the United States. This is a distinction that you’d expect any reasonably intelligent nine-year old to be able to grasp.

But many in the press have been unable to. ABC News senior political reporter Rick Klein led the outrage, writing in a blog post on ABCNews.com:

Find me a single Democrat who thinks it’s good politics to call into question the military credentials of a man who spent five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war.

This is the perfect embodiment of the press’s unbelievably destructive habit of assessing every piece of campaign rhetoric for its political acuity, rather than for its validity and accuracy. Clark’s comments may (or may not) have been impolitic. But that has no bearing on their validity or lack thereof—which is how the news media should be evaluating them.

To be fair, Klein does get to that, eventually. Later in the post, he writes:

Clark’s comments seem to miss a vital point about the McCain campaign: Yes, his military service is part of his stock campaign biography, but McCain is not running on that record nearly as much as he’s running on his service in Congress.

Clark is right that “getting shot down” isn’t a qualification to be president, but McCain isn’t saying that it is.

Ads like this just slipped through, I guess. Even if McCain weren’t running on his military record, it’s undoubtedly something that could convince many voters, rightly or wrongly, that he has the experience to be commander in chief. Why should it be out of bounds for Democrats to argue that McCain’s particular military experience has done little to prepare him for the decisions he’ll have to make as president?

Klein wasn’t alone, of course. NBC’s First Read, written by Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro, noted that “American politics can’t quite get beyond this question: Just how big a military hero were you?” before summarizing Clark’s comments—as if Clark was questioning McCain’s claim to military heroism, rather than pointing out that that heroism isn’t a qualification for president. Like Klein, the NBC team couldn’t resist playing political consultants, pronouncing that Clark’s comments “weren’t helpful at all to the Obama campaign,” without bothering to consider whether Clark’s argument might make sense.

Gerald Seib and Sara Murray of The Wall Street Journal arguably do even worse. They write: “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.” Did Seib and Murray even read what Clark said? Where did Clark say anything about McCain not being a war hero?

And in a piece headlined “Clark Hits McCain’s Military Credentials”, Josh Kraushaar of The Politico says that Clark “invoked McCain’s military service against him….” Huh? By this bizarre standard, if Clark were to point out that my record of writing for Columbia Journalism Review is not a qualification to be president, he would have invoked my writing for CJR against me.

It’s crucially important that we have a political debate in this country that’s at least sophisticated enough to be able to handle the following rather basic idea: Arguing that a person’s record of military service is not a qualification for the presidency does not constitute “attacking” their military credentials; nor can it be described as invoking their military service against them, or as denying their record of war heroism.

That’s not a very high bar for sophistication. But right now it’s one the press isn’t capable of clearing.

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.