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Smears against McCain go too far

By Scott Tibbs, September 9, 2008

It is not a secret that I am not a fan of John McCain. I do not support him and I am not going to vote for him. Even the choice of Governor Palin as his Vice Presidential nominee (by all indications an excellent choice) has not swayed me from my decision to vote against the Republican candidate for President for the first time in my life. (I supported Bill Clinton in 1992, but did not vote that year. I voted for Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004.) But while I will be voting for Libertarian candidate Bob Barr this fall, I cannot allow a recent smear of McCain to pass without comment. In a September 4 letter to the editor, Tim Slack wrote:

John McCain's flying experience somehow makes him presidential material? But didn't McCain get shot down? Wouldn’t a good pilot not get shot down? So we should hire a mediocre pilot as president?

This was completely uncalled for. McCain served with honor in Vietnam, and his years of captivity and torture by sadistic Communists are seen as an example of heroism even by many of his most passionate political opponents. In a June 15 article, New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick describes McCain's experience:

Mr. McCain, then a Navy lieutenant commander, was by all accounts what the American prisoners called a "tough resister." He was nicknamed Crip for the severity of the injuries he sustained - a shoulder, both arms and his knee broken, with a bayonet wound near the groin - when his fighter plane was shot down in October 1967. Military rules only allowed P.O.W.'s to go home in the order of their capture, but some senior officers said his medical condition justified accepting an offer of release from the North Vietnamese. Mr. McCain, the son of a prominent admiral, did not want to be part of North Vietnamese propaganda, so he chose to endure years of torture instead.

At times, Mr. McCain seemed to court punishment, noisily cussing out his captors while giving "thumbs up" signs to his fellow prisoners. "No matter what he did, he always played to the bleachers," Robert Coram, a military historian, wrote in a book about the camps.

All of the prisoners acknowledged that everyone had a breaking point. Mr. McCain's came 10 months after he arrived. With his father taking command of the Pacific Fleet, the North Vietnamese were determined to coerce the son into denouncing the war. For four days they tied him with ropes, beat him every few hours, re-broke his arm, and left him in a pool of his own blood and refuse. Finally, he signed and tape-recorded a war crimes confession.

His fellow prisoners say his capitulation only redoubled his determination to provoke his captors. "Acts of defiance felt so good that I felt they more than compensated for their repercussions," he wrote, "and they helped me keep at bay the unsettled feelings of guilt and self doubt my confession had aroused."

I cannot help but wonder what Barack Obama would say about Slack's letter if he had the opportunity to comment on it. Given that Obama discouraged Democrats from even questioning McCain's motives for changing his positions on certain public policy issues during his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention a couple weeks ago, I cannot imagine that Obama would be pleased with this despicable smear. Obama has campaigned on a theme of reducing the divisive rhetoric and personal attacks in Washington. Meanwhile, some of Obama's supporters reject Obama's vision by shamelessly engaging in the politics of personal destruction.

Yes, McCain got shot down, but that does not make him a "mediocre" pilot. It makes him someone who served in a war. Good and excellent pilots can and do get shot down. There are plenty of legitimate areas where Democrats can criticize McCain leading into the November election. Disparaging McCain's service in Vietnam and attacking his ability as a pilot is not one of those areas and such tactics should be repudiated.

If McCain had behaved dishonorably during or after his service in Vietnam (such as, for example, throwing his military decorations away during an anti-war protest) then it would be reasonable to attack him for it. Smearing McCain's honorable service and his sacrifices is not reasonable. Politics may be a blood sport, but "players" should abide by the "rules" of decency and civility. Political discourse deserves better.