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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 presidency.


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 against history.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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