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Previously in Politics & Prose:

A New Deal for the New Economy (December 8, 1999)
Is this the best economy in years? It depends on whom you ask, Jack Beatty argues, and where in the world they live.

Is W. Inevitable? (November 17, 1999)
It looks like George W. Bush has the nomination in the bag. Christopher Caldwell offers a scenario of how Bush could become a loser.

Step Right Up (October 15, 1999)
Scott Stossel asks, What does the Reform Party's cast of odd characters suggest about the state of American politics? Think Fellini. Think David Lynch.

The Billionaire's Curse (September 22, 1999)
Jack Beatty wonders why we should feel sorry for Jim Clark, who founded Silicon Graphics and Netscape and epitomizes "capitalism's hurricane of progress."

Sex and the Social Critic (August 25, 1999)
Jack Beatty on Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut -- and what the film's detractors failed to see.

More Politics & Prose in Atlantic Unbound.


Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

McCain and the 'Bloody Chasm'

Why does the liberal press love McCain? The answer may lie in his stance on Vietnam

by Christopher Caldwell

December 30, 1999

Arizona senator John McCain is pro-life, pro-gun, militaristic, stingy on social services -- and the darling of a press corps that is none of those things. The Washington Post's Richard Cohen gushes over him; Al Hunt is dizzy about him; Mark Shields admires him; Maureen Dowd wallahs to him. How come?

First, McCain's professional courtesy. McCain is, for journalistic purposes, the most cooperative politician in Washington. He -- he, not an aide -- returns calls immediately, never favors television over print reporters, and will always say something newsworthy for attribution.

Second, his issues. Ever since a now-legendary poll from the Media Studies Center showed that 89 percent of Washington journalists voted for Clinton in 1992, it has been hard to deny that the press is "liberal." But theirs is a particular kind of liberalism, an elite liberalism that has little in common with the bread-and-butter politics of F.D.R. and L.B.J. The two signature issues on which McCain breaks from the Republican Party -- campaign finance reform (which he favors) and tobacco (which he does not) -- don't matter much to the broader Democratic Party. But they're litmus-test issues for the elite wing of it that's over-represented in newsrooms.

But a third reason liberals are flocking to McCain is even more significant: Vietnam. McCain offers a kind of expiation to liberals in their forties and fifties -- as good a description of the people who opposed the Vietnam War as it is of the people who today run newsrooms and television studios. McCain holds the protesters responsible neither for the five-and-a-half years he spent in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp nor for the deaths of those who fought alongside him.

In this he differs from those Republicans who see Vietnam as a permanent front in the culture war. Bob Dornan, the former fighter pilot and congressman from Orange County, spent his last years in Congress calling President Clinton a traitor for having avoided the draft. The San Diego congressman and former Navy commander Randy "Duke" Cunningham went further, suggesting that if Clinton had lived in another country he would be "tried as a traitor and even shot." McCain bucked such conservatives when he fought for ratification of the 1995 treaties recognizing Vietnam. He called President Clinton's decision to speak at the Vietnam memorial in 1993 "entirely fitting," dismissing protests as "the ill-conceived and unjustified opposition of a few."

There's a parallel here to post-Civil Rights racial politics. McCain resembles those black activists who were willing to forgive -- if not forget -- the segregationist pasts of their political foes. In both cases, this forgiveness comes at a price. McCain wants bigger benefits for veterans. According to his stump speech the central problem with our defense budget is that "we have 12,000 enlisted personnel, brave young men and women, on food stamps." His proposed health plan allots $4.3 billion for HMOs and drugs in its first year -- in addition to a "veteran's health care" plan that will cost $2 billion. What's more, while McCain is not alone in opposing gays in the military, he surpasses all other candidates in demanding a military role in resolving the issue. "I don't understand why anyone who would pretend to lead on this would take a position without consulting the military leadership of our country," he says, implying a veto at odds with civilian control. His is a scaled-down version of the rhetoric of late-nineteenth-century Republicans from Ulysses S. Grant onward, who used public gratitude toward Civil War vets to turn the Grand Army of the Republic into a patronage empire.

Yet McCain seems to realize, as Republicans did in the 1890s, that a time eventually comes to "join hands across the bloody chasm." If he is inclined to make peace with antiwar Democrats there's a good political reason why.

In presidential politics, the side that's hawkish on Vietnam has generally won. In 1968, opinion polling showed voters overwhelmingly opposed to the demands of war protesters who disrupted the Democratic convention in Chicago. In 1980 and 1984, voters gave two landslide victories to a candidate who insisted that Vietnam was a "noble cause." And the advantage for the hawks persists. Today, 30 percent of Americans, for instance, say it's "very important" for a presidential nominee to have served in the military.

But it is unlikely that this preference still means a Republican advantage. From the 1960s through the 1980s Americans were voting for (or against) candidates who had supported (or opposed) American policy in Vietnam. With a few exceptions, Republicans were the party that backed the war, Democrats the party that opposed it. But now Americans are voting for another generation of candidates: the generation of Vietnam soldiers, rather than Vietnam politicians. And in this context Republicans have no more claim than Democrats to be the party that fought rather than ran. After having crowed in 1992 about President Clinton's malingering, Republicans in 1995 installed a Vietnam-age congressional leadership that had only one Vietnam vet (John Boehner) in it. Ten of the seventeen Vietnam vets in the Senate come from its Democratic minority, according to the Vietnam Veterans of America, as do thirty-one of the sixty-six Vietnam vets in the House. The current U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, Air Force captain Douglas "Pete" Peterson, himself a POW for six years, is a Democrat too.

Of course there is still plenty of rancor left among those who fought the war, and plenty of hypocrisy among those who didn't. One could compile, for instance, an encyclopedia of the President's attempts at patriotism-in-retrospect. But it's hard to draw any firm partisan conclusions -- especially from this distance -- about who owes what to whom. In general, the war was backed by politicians who were disproportionately Republican (back when Republicans were the party of the military) and fought by troops who were disproportionately Democratic (back when Democrats were the party of the poor). Now, in the first presidential election in which all the major candidates were of fighting age during Vietnam, the beginnings of a bipartisan truce are emerging.


Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

More on politics and society in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.


Christopher Caldwell is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. He writes a weekly Washington column for New York Press, and is a regular contributor to Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company.
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