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July 7, 2008
Wesley Clark Was
Right: War Heroes Aren’t Always Good Presidents
What does the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant tell us?
It tells us that someone
who excels at war does not necessarily excel when it comes to the
You might have been
forgiven, if you’d just tuned into the presidential campaign last week
and took in Fox News, if you’d thought that ex-Gen. Wesley Clark had
burned down John McCain’s house, kicked his dog and drank his liquor
from an old fruit jar.
Clark’s crime was that he
challenged the narrative on which the McCain campaign has been based
since 2000, which is that McCain was a war hero during Vietnam, which
means . . . well, no one can really say for certainty.
There are a few things
Clark didn’t do. He didn’t question whether McCain had actually served
as a prisoner of war. This would mean he didn’t attempt to “swiftboat”
McCain by any but the most ridiculous stretches of the imagination. He
also didn’t call into question McCain’s heroism under duress, or whether
McCain had served his country with anything other than courage, honor
and dignity. The fulminating – loudest on Fox News – that he had done
all of this and that he was acting as a surrogate of the Obama campaign
was another sign of the degenerating way in which presidential campaigns
are covered in this country.
His suggestion that being
shot down while “riding” in a fighter plane maybe has nothing to do with
his qualifications to be president instead came as an answer to a
question he was asked during an interview. The answer to whether the
question has any merit can be found in the reaction by conservatives
(and mouthpiece Fox News), which was a great deal of hyperventilating
over the fact that someone had questioned it in the first place.
McCain, in recent weeks,
has attempted to minimize the role his Vietnam experiences have played
in his campaign – now in its eighth year – in building his public
persona. In 2000, he started to craft his image as a maverick who’d
spent time as a prisoner-of-war. He frequently reminded people about his
five-year stay in the “Hanoi Hilton.”
Recently, he’s tried to
disavow all of that, claiming that he doesn’t talk about it all that
much. If you live in a battleground state, however, you’ve probably seen
the ads in which images of him from Vietnam play prominently. It’s an
attempt to have his cake and eat it too.
To conservatives, this
was supposed to be unimpeachable. Well, they’re right on that. It is
unimpeachable. No one argues that John McCain spent time as a POW, and
that he did so honorably and courageously. The question is whether it
has anything to do with his ability to be president.
We have historical
precedents for this, of course, like the presidency of President Grant.
Grant, like McCain, was a war hero. His presidency was highly
controversial, however, plagued by scandal and made to look impotent by
a hostile Congress.
We’ve had other war
heroes elected as president, and the results have been a mixed bag. The
lesson is that heroism and honor on the battlefield don’t necessarily
translate into success as a chief executive.
This was Clark’s point,
and it’s a legitimate one to raise, especially since we can measure it
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