Do McCain’s Medals Matter?
Jake Tapper, notes the contrast between DNC chair Howard Dean’s statements about John Kerry’s military service in 2004 and McCain’s in 2008.
Commenting on John McCain’s new “The American President that Americans Have Been Waiting For” ad yesterday, Dean said, “While we honor McCain’s military service, the fact is Americans want a real leader who offers real solutions, not a blatant opportunist who doesn’t understand the economy and is promising to keep our troops in Iraq for 100 years.”
Tapper reminds us that, in March 2004, Dean said, “The real issue is this. Who would you rather have in charge of the defense of the United States of America, a group of people who never served a day overseas in their life, or a guy who served his country honorably and has three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star on the battlefields of Vietnam?” Tapper observes, “McCain, by the way, has been awarded the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, two Bronze Star Medals, a Purple Heart and the Distinguished Flying Cross.”
Of course, the notion that military heroism in one’s youth automatically qualifies you to be president later is life — let alone settles the issue if one’s opponent never wore the uniform — is silly. That Kerry and McCain served when others didn’t and that they acquitted themselves well under extreme stress redounds to their credit and earns them a certain amount of respect and deflects some lines of attack. But it’s not the end of the discussion.
The first presidential election in which I was truly engaged was the 1980 contest between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. On the merits of their military careers, re-electing Carter would have been the obvious choice. He was, after all, an Annapolis grad and had been a rising star in the Navy’s nuclear program under Admiral Rickover. Reagan, by contrast, made propaganda films for the Army. Reagan was nonetheless my choice (although I was not yet eligible to vote for him) and he turned out to be better on foreign and military affairs than his rival.
In 1984, the first election in which I was old enough to participate, Reagan ran for re-election against Carter’s former vice president, Walter Mondale, who served as a corporal at Fort Knox during the Korean War. Let’s just say their respective military careers didn’t factor into my calculations.
In 1988, we had George H.W. Bush, who earned a Distinguished Flying Cross as the Navy’s youngest pilot in WWII, and Michael Dukakis, who had two years of peacetime service in Korea but looked very funny driving a tank during the campaign.
In 1992, Bush was defeated by artful draft dodger Bill Clinton. The contrast in their military service was an issue in the campaign, to be sure, but obviously not a decisive one. In 1996, Clinton handily defeated Bob Dole, who can’t use his right arm because of wounds suffered in WWII.
The 2000 election pitted George W. Bush, who was trained to fly an obsolete fighter jet during the closing days of Vietnam and sort of served in the National Guard afterwards, against Clinton’s former VP, Al Gore, who served as an Army photojournalist in Vietnam. Bush won re-election against Kerry, who served gallantly as an officer with the Swift Boats.
As James Taranto notes, “You have to go back to 1988 . . . to find an election in which the winner clearly had a more impressive military record than the loser.” Depending on your politics, you might think we’d have been better off if some of them had gone the other way. Likely, though, not because of the military service issue.
If, as seems likely, John McCain faces Barack Obama in the fall, he’ll have an easier time making the “ready on day one” argument. He’ll have a credibility advantage in talking about military affairs. But the election, ultimately, will turn on their competing visions of the future and whether Americans trust them at the controls.