The Swiftboat Reflex

Wesley Clark fallout, day two

Two days into the Wesley Clark fallout, the press, the GOP, and the Obama campaign all seem to have agreed that Clark’s recent remarks on John McCain’s service record were at best impolitic and at worst despicable. “McCain besieged by slander,” said the Boston Herald. “This backhanded slap against John as not being a worthy warrior because he just got shot down is one of the more surprising insults in my military history,” said McCain surrogate (and Swift Boat veteran/Swift Boat Veterans For Truth veteran) Bud Day. “Sen. Obama honors and respects Sen. McCain’s service, and of course he rejects yesterday’s statement by Sen. Clark,” said a spokesman for Barack Obama. Clark, in a Good Morning America appearance this morning, refused to rescind his comments.

Here’s what Clark said while appearing on “Face The Nation” on Sunday:

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….I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.

Certainly, Clark’s words were blunt. But, as Zachary Roth wrote yesterday, there is a substantial difference between questioning whether McCain’s war experience qualifies him for the presidency and attacking McCain’s war record. Given that McCain’s war record is a vital part of his campaign narrative, it seems valid to ask whether that record qualifies him for executive leadership — just like it’s valid to evaluate Barack Obama on his qualifications rather than on his persona.

However, the only questions the press seems to be asking vis-à-vis Clark are simplistic ones, focused entirely on the political ramifications of Clark’s words and Obama’s response. There is nothing wrong with reporting on the political aspects of any given speech. But reporting nothing but the political angle both detracts from discourse and stifles democracy. As Zachary Roth wrote yesterday, the Clark hubbub is an example of the media’s “unbelievably destructive habit of assessing every piece of campaign rhetoric for its political acuity, rather than for its validity and accuracy.”


Today, ABC News reporters John Berman and Mark Mooney called Clark’s words “the latest salvo in the pre-July 4th presidential skirmishes that revolve around each candidate’s patriotism.” Clark’s “salvo” said nothing about McCain’s patriotism. It questioned his war record’s relevance to his executive qualifications. Berman and Mooney are reporting on how Clark’s remarks will be construed, rather than on the substance of his criticism.

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, in his column today, chooses to critique Clark instead of the media, writing that “it couldn’t have been an accident that Clark used an appearance on “Face the Nation” Sunday to strafe John McCain over his Vietnam War record…. I never imagined, given what McCain endured in North Vietnam, that his own service would become an issue.” But why shouldn’t his service be an issue; or, rather, why shouldn’t the correlation between his service and his presidential aspirations be an issue? McCain himself has promoted this correlation in at least three books of his own.

The New York Times, in its lede today, said that Clark “diminished Senator John McCain’s service as a naval aviator in Vietnam….” Again, Clark did no such thing. The McCain campaign may want to spin Clark’s words as a diminution, but Clark’s question ought to be fair game for debate.

While an editorial in today’s Baltimore Sun allows that “Mr. Clark’s words were a great deal more gentle than the dishonest attacks of the 2004 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” they still thought that he went too far:

It was all too reminiscent of the disgraceful attacks four years ago against Sen. John Kerry’s decorated service in Vietnam.

Let’s nip this right in the bud. When Mr. Clark told Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation, “I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president,” he was being far too glib about Mr. McCain’s harrowing ordeal as a prisoner of war.

First, there is a substantial difference between the Swift Boat insinuations and Clark’s remarks. Second….


McCain’s P.O.W. experience is essential to his campaign narrative. But the press is in the business of facts, not stories. Evaluating a candidate on his qualifications, rather than on his narrative, should not be a politically charged action. Rather, it should be pro forma—especially for the press.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.