McCain’s POW Get Out of Jail Free Card

Boyd Garrett, a retired sailor and SERE school graduate has all the respect in the world for what John McCain went through at the Hanoi Hilton.  But enough is enough.  Noting Team McCain’s comical comeback to attacks on how many houses the candidate owns –“This is a guy who lived in one house for five and a half years — in prison,” Boyd writes:

But for crying out loud, “I was a POW” is not the answer to every damn accusation by your opponent. This is starting to get a little old.

McCain campaign? Shut the hell up with the “John was a POW” crap.

Senator? Tell them they’re idiots, and they need to shut the hell up. They haven’t got the foggiest idea of what it meant for you to be a POW, and they’re cheapening the ordeal you went through.


Four years ago, I wrote a post called “Heroes Don’t Shout” about another presidential candidate who was over-playing the Vietnam war hero card.  It concluded,

I’m too young to remember the 1972 campaign but I’m reasonably confident that McGovern didn’t make a fuss over his wartime exploits. George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole didn’t, either. John McCain, who certainly earned the right, generally avoided it although he made far more references to it than I’d have liked. Kerry would have been far better off to let others mention his Vietnam service and to otherwise be stoic about it. It would have been more effective and less absurd. I laughed out loud when he rendered his sloppy hand salute and announced that he was “reporting for duty” at the Democratic convention. I suspect I wasn’t alone.

It’s simply unseemly to continually refer to your own heroism, let alone to use it as a Get Out of Jail Free card on issues totally unrelated.  On top of that, it’s begging for Joe Biden (who, you may have heard, is  Obama’s VP pick) to uncork a variant of “A noun, a verb, and 9/11.”

Via Andrew Sullivan, I see that some fellow calling himself Jetpack has a rather amusing post entitled, “Playing the POW Card – From the Bottom of the Deck” offering a series of mock McCain comebacks.   My favorites:

  • Milk prices are too high

“This is a guy who didn’t have the luxury of milk for five and a half years — in prison.”

  • We’re not doing enough to find alternative sources of energy

“This is a guy who lived in the dark for five and a half years — in prison, with no light bulbs.”

McCain was my favorite of the Republican field well before the primaries started but I’ve said repeatedly that he’s making a mistake to keep hammering this topic.  We already know he’s a war hero.  His courage and character are a large part of why people take him so seriously as a leader.  But they’re not going to elect him president based on what he did nearly four decades ago but on what he’s going to do over the next four years.

Run on the future, Senator, not the past.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Historically, the candidate best able to express an optimistic view of the United States and its future has won the presidency practically every time.

  2. Anthony says:

    ‘I laughed out loud when he rendered his sloppy hand salute and announced that he was “reporting for duty” at the Democratic convention.’

    I remember seeing that on the television. My mother, who, though conservative, is no fan of President Bush, looked over the top of her newspaper, said “Oh for God’s sake. Silly man.” and went back to reading. Which, looking back, was perhaps as insightful as any of the commentary that was to emerge between that point and the election.

  3. McGehee says:

    So you’re trying to tell me McCain was a POW in Vietnam?

    No way. We would’ve heard.

  4. Steve Plunk says:

    Actually he’s far from making it a big deal. Having a single staffer offer the retort off the cuff does not mean John McCain will use it himself. Indeed the campaign staff later offered a more reasoned explanation on the houses and it did not include anything about McCain’s war service.

    So what is really happening is the chattering class is playing games with this and creating a bigger controversy than it really is. With respect, that would include our host here.

    It is wrong to attribute everything a staffer might say to the candidate.

  5. Boyd says:

    Thanks for adding me to the chattering class, Steve. I wasn’t prepared for that honor.

    Seriously, you miss the point here: McCain’s campaign staff work for him, and he needs to keep them on (or off, as the case may be) message.

    “Shut the hell up about the POW thing. Mention it again and you’re fired.”

    And thanks for the link, James.

  6. Repack Rider says:

    Obviously the focus on McCain’s POW experience is because he has damn little of substance to show for his life, and with the exception of those five years, he has been coddled and supported all his life, from his less than lackluster academic experience as a legacy at Annapolis, his destruction of five aircraft (he’s an “ace” for the other side) that would have lost flight status for anyone else, his infidelity and marrying money, his corruption with Charles Keating, and now, finally, to the fact that he can’t manage to talk without saying stupid stuff.

    His daddy and granddaddy were admirals, but John wasn’t, and his military record is dismal.

    I cannot find a single thing about John McCain to admire. We are only choosing between two men, ande the other has overcome significant disadvantages and risen to his current status stricly on the basis of his own ability.

    Do we really need another intellectually challenged, accomplishment-free, spoiled scion of a rich family in the White House?

  7. It wasn’t just the house ref this week, but a member of his staff also played the POW card on Monday when McCain was accused of cheating at the Saddleback Church forum. See here.

    I do think that they are taking an asset and turning it into self-parody.

    Further, as noted about by James and Dave: McCain’s election is predicated on what he will do, not what he did do decades ago.

  8. Anthony says:

    No, seriously, Repack Rider, tell us what you really think.

    I’m with the majority on this one. The PoW line has come up far more than once and it’s naive or disingenuous to believe/pretend that the staffers don’t have their briefing points.

    McCain’s campaign rests on a number of planks, but there’s no doubt that his PoW status is one of them and there’s also no doubt that it’s been deployed as a sort of patriotic force field. I don’t believe it’s credible to claim that the top ranks of the McCain campaign will not be aware of this and I also don’t find the notion that McCain couldn’t step in and put a stop to it if he wanted to particularly plausible.

  9. Hal says:

    Anyone want to give odds that the McCain’s POW bit at the Republican Convention will be like Kerry’s “reporting for duty” line in ’04?

  10. Anthony says:

    I doubt it because I think McCain will have a more sympathetic audience and if Dems attack McCain on his record in that area they will be accused of being unpatriotic, whereas the GOP can generally get away with attacking Dems in the same area (see Kerry, Max Cleland etc).

    In the interests of balance, I think there’s a case to be made that Obama has deployed the race issue as a shield too often. Meant to add that to my previous comment.

  11. John Cole says:

    It wasn’t just the house ref this week, but a member of his staff also played the POW card on Monday when McCain was accused of cheating at the Saddleback Church forum. See here.

    And Michael Goldfarb went to the POW well multiple times over the cross in the dirt stuff. For fun, go count how many times it has been used on that official McCain blog.

    And James is right- the first thing I thought of when they started doing this was the way we mocked Kerry- “Did you hear John Kerry was in Vietnam?” was a running joke in 2004.