McCain Making Kerry Mistake on Vietnam?
Pat Lang, a retired Green Beret colonel, is somewhat bemused at how much is being made of John McCain’s military experience.
John McCain is an admirable man. There are many such who wore the uniform of the United States in adverse circumstance. Jim Webb, Chuck Hagel, Daniel Inouye, Bob Dole… Shall I go on? How many names would there be? How many million names? In their new found love of soldiers Americans ascribe something almost sacramental to the experience of military service. This is unexpected. There has emerged a kind of reverence for those who have served which is unfamiliar to the veterans of earlier generations. I am old enough to remember the aftermath of World War II. Veterans of that war were treated with respect, but not with veneration. Perhaps there were too many of them for that.
McCain’s brief experience as a junior naval aviator and his extended suffering in North Vietnamese hands seem to be thought by many to be serious qualifications for the ultimate job of making national level policy decisions about the country’s security. Television newsies gush about his empathy with soldiers and understanding for the horrors of war. Sentimentality abounds in these discussions. Sentimentality is good in Valentine’s Day cards. It is bad in picking a president for the country and a commander in chief for the armed forces.
He notes, too, that we have had presidents who made excellent wartime presidents despite little or no military experience.
I’ve argued for quite some time that it’s a mistake for candidates to tout their wartime heroism as a major factor in selling their qualifications for higher office. First, as Lang notes, being a heroic junior officer doesn’t have much bearing on being commander-in-chief. Second, to the extent that military prowess is an asset with the voters, others will make sure that they know about it. Third, and perhaps most importantly, its simply unseemly to toot your own horn in that way. Real heroes don’t shout, and all that.
Moreover, it’s far from clear that it works. If did, George H.W. Bush would have been a two-termer and his son would have been a no-termer. Indeed, it’s rarer that the candidate with the most military experience wins. The match-ups over the last forty years:
- 2004: Bush re-elected over John Kerry, Silver Star recipient
2000: George W. Bush, National Guard bare minimum stateside flyboy beats Al Gore, Vietnam vet
1996: Clinton re-elected over Bob Dole, massively wounded WWII vet
1992: Bush loses to Bill Clinton, dope smoking draft dodger
1988: George H.W. Bush, Distinguished Flying Cross winner, beats Mike Dukakis, peacetime Army vet
1984: Reagan beats Walter Mondale, peacetime Army vet
1980: Ronald Reagan, wartime Army movie star beat Carter
1976: Jimmy Carter, distinguished peacetime Navy career, beats Gerald Ford, WWII Navy officer
1972: Nixon beats George McGovern, WWII hero
1968: Richard Nixon, WWII non-line Navy service beats Hubert Humphrey, no military service
Only twice did the candidate with the more impressive military record win and, really, only 1988 is a true example. Nixon was a Quaker whose Navy career was most distinguished for his skill as a poker player; he wins this by default to a man who “tried twice to join the armed forces [during WWII], but was rejected both times due to a hernia.”
McCain’s military service was distinguished and what he endured at the hands of the Viet Cong is unimaginable to most of us. Presumably, we can draw some conclusions about his character from how he conducted himself during those times. And, certainly, 27 years in the Navy (counting his time at Annapolis) should be factored in as important experience in weighing him for the presidency.
But banging us over the head constantly with the fact that he went to Vietnam won’t get him elected president. Citing experience and contrasting with his opponent’s relative dearth of same is fine. But he’s still got to sell us on his vision for the future. The election is about 2009 and beyond, not 1967.