The General's Big Mouth

ASPEN -- It could be the thin air up here; maybe that gives me the perspective equivalent to the astronomer who is looking into a black hole and sees the Democrats and Republicans slowly revolving around the event horizon, beneath which is total absurdity and oblivion. Ret. Gen. Wes Clark’s remark -- in response to a question from Bob Scheiffer -- was a provocation; an insult. Critics of McCain have used the same verbiage before, and used it as an insult. Historians and journalists who study the events will first notice that McCain spent five years as a POW; surely, that is the relevant fact, not the way he became a POW. One focuses on the means of his condition only to degrade the subsequent five years, as if to say, yeah, five years of torture was bad, but it was kinda dumb of him to get shot down. Referring to the shoot down strips away the relevant context: McCain was shot down on a daring combat mission whose target, as I recall, was strategically relevant. It wasn’t as if he wandered into Viet Cong airspace and was hit by a stray piece of metal. (By the way – and this is important – McCain admits in both the books he wrote about his Vietnam experience that he wasn’t a great aviator. So why even make the point?)

In partial fairness to Clark, Scheiffer was the one who brought up the "shot down" evocation but did so with the intention of recounting the story -- see here:


SCHIEFFER: I have to say, Barack Obama has not had any of those experiences either, nor has hem ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down. I mean...

Gen. CLARK: Well, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification
to be president.

SCHIEFFER: Really?

Two: the statement is both patently obvious and patently false. Wait, you say. How could it be both? Well, being “shot down” (or being imprisoned) is obviously not a qualification in the sense that the fact that Barack Obama turned down lucrative corporate law work to join a public interest law firm has any bearing, in the abstract, on his claim to be president. Aside from military command service (which was sort of Clark’s point) or being a strong governor of a large and complex state, there really aren’t any other bright line qualifications for being president. Elections are as much about what the presidency is, and to that end, all of these qualifications service a particular view of what the presidency ought to be about. In that way, John McCain’s military service, and especially his decision, as a POW, not to jump the line and walk out of prison when offered, is a piece of who the man is and tells us about the decisions he has made. Same with Obama and his post-law school career choice.

Three: John McCain has the right to be insulted, but he has heard the dig enough not to be outraged. When he heard what Clark said, he probably laughed. Maybe he chalked it up to an
intra-service rivalry; Clark has a reputation for saying weird things. Most of the outrage on both sides is contrived for political effect. Republicans know Clark was being provocative and dumb; Democrats know that Clark was being provocative and dumb. As unsympathetic as I am to these associational semantics, I can’t blame the Republicans for sezing on this one. Clark said what he said as a surrogate for Barack Obama; the Obama campaign trusted Clark’s judgment enough as a surrogate to send him out there. The "new politics" that both Obama and McCain claim to represent is not supposed to traffic in these type of Jack-In-The-Box debates; there’s no need for conference calls and surrogate television appearances and research -- the effort by Republicans to paint the Democrats (read Obama) as unpatriotic is as absurd in this case as it is when professional Republicans noticed that Obama didn't wear a flag pin.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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