As of today, Sen. Barack Obama is about halfway through his "patriotism theme week" message cycle. As of 2008, Sen. John McCain is about seven-ninths through his patriotism theme life cycle. I guess that is the difference between the new politics and the old patriotism.
The Obama campaign launched its new politics patriotism week last Sunday, with retired Gen. Wes "Speichellecker" Clark smearing John McCain’s war record — even to the point of the former general saying that "riding" in a fighter plane and getting shot down are not qualifications for being president. Well, in fact, McCain wasn’t riding, of course. He was the pilot in his 23rd mission over heavily defended enemy territory when he was shot down by a Soviet missile. But when Wes "Camera Hound" Clark goes on a mission, he always aims low.
This is the same Gen. Clark who, while leading the bombing campaign against Serbia from his desk, was reprimanded by President Clinton’s secretary of defense, William Cohen, to get his "f—— face off the TV. No more briefings, period. That’s it." During that bombing campaign, Gen. Clark didn’t even go along for the "ride."
And it is the same general who was removed prematurely from his European command on the following explanation of then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Hugh Sheldon: "The reason he came out of Europe early had to do with integrity and character issues." This is the man who the Obama campaign — which is above politics as usual — sent out to smear a genuine war hero. Of course, after 24 hours, Obama disassociated himself from his surrogate’s smear attack. This is becoming a pattern of Obama’s new politics. Wes Clark is the seventh prominent Obama supporter to disparage Sen. McCain’s military service. Obama is beginning to reveal Nixonian political instincts.
But Wes Clark is right. Merely being a war hero is not qualification for the presidency, although it is a hell of a start when compared with those of us who never served in uniform. And the more than five years as a prisoner of war with constant torture that McCain suffered through is also not qualification for being president — even when compared with Obama’s tough seven years of service at Columbia undergraduate and Harvard Law School.
But just maybe, the strength of character and the wisdom of knowing what really matters in life that young John McCain formed on the anvil of his captivity — just maybe, those attributes are the beginnings of qualifications for leading the rest of us through a dangerous, morally ambiguous world. And when a man so formed then dedicates the next 30 years of his life to studying and leading from the United States Senate on national security issues, perhaps then we have the makings of a man fit to be president.
The test for Sen. Obama in this campaign will not be whether he can fly a jet fighter under enemy fire as well as McCain did or whether he can put up with torture in as manly a fashion as McCain sustained for more than five years or whether he can go through his life not being able to raise his arms to his shoulders because his body was broken by the Commie torturers. Obama, just as most of us, has been spared facing such tests and perhaps been found wanting — as many of us surely would be.
So far, Obama has faced less taxing tests, such as whether to wear a flag lapel pin. So far, he has scored an incomplete after three tries. First he decided to wear a pin. Then he thought better of it and announced that he no longer would wear the pin, explaining: "You know, the truth is that right after 9/11, I had a pin. Shortly after 9/11 — particularly because as we’re talking about the Iraq war, that became a substitute for, I think, true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security — I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest. Instead, I’m going to try to tell the American people what I believe will make this country great, and hopefully that’ll be a testimony to my patriotism."
Then on his third try, during the heated climax to his primary campaign, he started wearing the pin again, I suppose as — in his previous words — "a substitute for true patriotism." Hard to know for sure what his calculations are on this vital matter. But that he does calculate constantly whether to wear the pin or not, there can be no doubt. The demands of patriotism are sometimes hard to know. What’s a patriot to do? Life can be hard, very hard, out on the old campaign trail.
Please note: I am not questioning his patriotism. Many patriotic people — including me — never have worn a flag lapel pin. (We have to be so careful these days because Obama is offended more easily than a convent-schooled virgin. I am stocking up on eggshells to walk on for the duration of the campaign.)
Anyway, John McCain had it easier over the North Vietnamese skies. He didn’t have to decide about such things. He was required to wear his dog tags — evidence of his patriotism. Some people get all the breaks.