By- Suzie-Q @ 7:00 PM MST
By BEN SMITH | 6/30/08 4:54 AM EST
The highest-voltage third rail of this presidential campaign may not be race, sex or age, but John McCain‘s military service.
On Sunday, McCain’s campaign issued a pair of outraged statements after retired general and Barack Obama supporter Wesley Clark said he didn’t think that McCain’s service as a fighter pilot and prisoner of war was relevant to running the country. Obama has consistently praised McCain’s service, and called him “a genuine American hero.”
But farther to the left — and among some of McCain’s conservative enemies as well — harsher attacks are circulating. Critics have accused McCain of war crimes for bombing targets in Hanoi in the 1960s. A widely read liberal blog on Sunday accused McCain of “disloyalty” during his captivity in Vietnam for his coerced participation in propaganda films and interviews after he had been tortured.
“A lot of people don’t know … that McCain made a propaganda video for the enemy while he was in captivity,” wrote Americablog.com’s John Aravosis. “Putting that bit of disloyalty aside, what exactly is McCain’s military experience that prepares him for being commander in chief?”
“Getting shot down, tortured and then doing propaganda for the enemy is not command experience,” Aravosis wrote in the blog post, titled “Honestly, besides being tortured, what did McCain do to excel in the military?”
McCain’s camp responded sharply to the Americablog posting Sunday night.
“The American people know that John McCain’s record of service and sacrifice is not a matter of debate. He has written about and discussed his service as a POW extensively — often in excruciating and painful detail,” said McCain spokesman Brian Rogers. “The American people will judge harshly anyone who demeans or attacks that service.”
McCain has written repeatedly of his service, including in a long 1973 magazine article and in his memoir, “Faith of My Fathers.” A Navy aviator from a military family, he was shot down on his 23rd sortie over Vietnam on Oct. 26, 1967. His mission was to bomb a power plant in the North Vietnamese capital. Already suffering from broken limbs, he was beaten by a crowd before being taken to a POW camp. After being tortured there, he participated in some Vietnamese propaganda efforts.
“I had learned what we all learned over there: Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine,” he later wrote.
But he later defied his captors by refusing to meet with anti-war delegations from abroad, he wrote, and he also refused the most valuable special treatment he was offered: early release.
“I did not want to go out of order,” he later wrote. He was finally released on March 14, 1973.
Obama and the Democratic establishment haven’t challenged McCain’s record. Indeed, even Clark’s words came in response to a direct question from CBS’s Bob Schieffer on the specific relevance of McCain’s service to the presidency.
In April, Democratic West Virginia Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV cut a bit closer, suggesting that McCain’s days as a fighter pilot were themselves a critique of his character.
“What happened when they [the missiles] get to the ground?” he asked. “He doesn’t know. You have to care about the lives of people. McCain never gets into those issues.”
Rockefeller promptly abjectly apologized, praising McCain’s “honorable and noble service to our country” and deploring his own “inaccurate and wrong analogy.” His apology reflected a conventional political wisdom that McCain’s heroism is too well-established, and a climate of respect for soldiers too strong, for attacks on his service to do anything but backfire.
But Aravosis, who reiterated his criticism in an interview with Politico on Sunday night, isn’t the only one to test this line of attack.
The newsletter CounterPunch published in April an article by Doug Valentine headed “Meet the Real John McCain: North Vietnam’s Go-To Collaborator.”
Valentine suggested McCain contemplated suicide — something the candidate has written about, and attributed in part to his guilt at not withstanding torture — because he was a “war criminal” whose bombs fell on civilians.
McCain, who sought — along with Sen. John F. Kerry — to debunk claims that Vietnam still held American prisoners into the 1990s, has been attacked in similar terms by leaders of the POW/MIA movement, whom he and Kerry cast as charlatans.
That movement has produced the most outlandish attacks on McCain, including widely dismissed and unsubstantiated claims that McCain was not tortured as well as a smear casting him as a “Manchurian candidate.”