CNN Segment: “Swiftboating McCain?”

More on press coverage of What Wes Said.

Zack wrote yesterday:

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.

Last night, CNN wondered (via an on-screen graphic) if Clark arguing that McCain’s record of military service is not a qualification for the presidency constitutes “Swiftboating McCain?” To enlighten viewers, of course, Anderson Cooper invited “Democratic strategist” (in this case, perhaps an apt descriptor) James Carville and “national talk radio host” Bill Bennett to weigh in.

Cooper asked his guests not whether Clark’s comments were valid or even whether they constituted an attack at all but whether they were “part of some sort of orchestrated attack from the Obama campaign,” followed by the question, “Is McCain’s service record fair game?” (another query that leaps over the question of whether Clark was “attacking” McCain’s “service record” in the first place).

Which left it to Carville and Bennett to provide viewers conflicting characterizations of what Clark’s comments were (Carville: a “legimate observation;” Bennett: a “snide and nasty comment” and “[N]ot appropriate to say,” though he did agree that “merely serving in the military is not an automatic qualification to be president” before pronouncing “the effect of his remark was a derogation of service, of McCain’s military service….”)

About “derogation of service,” Cooper did ask Bennett whether there was “something strange” about McCain calling on someone who knows from derogation of military service (one of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, whose allegations McCain denounced in 2004) to defend McCain’s supposedly-under-attack service record. Bennett’s answer (emphasis mine):

BENNETT: There were tons of claims made during the campaign against John Kerry. Some of them proved to be false, a lot of them proved to be true. I noticed the word swift boating is being used as a pejorative now. That’s too simple and simple-minded. A lot of the people who stepped forward, officers who served with John Kerry stepped forward and set the record straight.

I’ll tell you my view. Let people say what they want to say and then deal with it, respond to it, characterize it. A person big enough to be president should be big enough to be able to take the criticisms. I want to know everything there is to know about the public character and something about the private character of anyone that wants to be president….Clark’s comments struck a lot of people, Democrats and Republicans, as off-base. I think we’ve said enough about it. A man big enough to be president is big enough to have the truth told about him. I don’t like this notion of all these off-limit areas when you’re talking about people that want to be president. The Obama campaign is saying you can’t do this or that. You’re demonizing. Let’s find out the truth about the man who wants to be president, both of them.

So, Bennett contends that “a person big enough to be president should be big enough to be able to take the criticisms” —just not the argument (or “legitimate observation” or “attack” or “orchestrated attack”) that their record of military service is not a qualification for the presidency. Talk about “off-limit areas.”

But again, we’re talking talking heads here. It’s from CNN (Cooper and anyone who helped him frame this entire segment) we’d hope for better.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.