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Is McCain's Hero Aura A Political Shield?

How dare you say that about John McCain, war hero?

That, in so many words, is the line of counterattack coming from Republicans who only four years ago dismissed the war service of another decorated Vietnam veteran with his own story of bravery.

For decades, McCain was reluctant to talk about his Hanoi prison camp heroism. That reticence has vanished in the blizzard of ads, speeches and talking points before, during and surely after the convention that made him the Republican nominee.

His service in that war is held out as the core reason to trust his judgment and character, a point made with endless retellings by his supporters of the thumbs-up he gave in the face of torture. McCain's wartime crucible also is used to inoculate him against all criticism, none having to do with his behavior four decades ago.

Think McCain owns too many houses to relate to the common American? Not fair - he lived in a North Vietnam cell for 5½ years. How dare you?

Question his temperament or his temper? Look what he's lived through.

Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, a political rival but Vietnam comrade in arms, says McCain has lived through so much he is entitled to use his past any way he wants.

But the Republicans busily shaping this narrative have been selective in the value they assign military service.

Four years ago, Democratic nominee John Kerry's valor in combat was belittled by his opponents and famously denigrated by some, even as the GOP re-nominated a president who had stayed out of Vietnam in his youth and taken the country into a war going sour.

An honorable military record was no longer sacrosanct.

The attacks started at the margins - the so-called Swiftboat Veterans for Truth ads from outside the campaign, declaring Kerry "unfit to serve" - and worked their way deeper into President Bush's team.

Going beyond their effort to paint another Vietnam veteran, Al Gore, as weak in 2000, Republicans exploited Kerry's complicated history as both war hero and war protester; Bush confidante Karen Hughes declared the latter to be offensive and said he had faked throwing away his medals at a 1971 demonstration. (He said he had thrown away his ribbons while keeping his medals)

McCain appealed to his party to knock it off.

Democrats, slow to counter the storm, addressed it in ways now echoed by McCain's supporters. They said the past is prologue.

They said that the kind of president their candidate would be can be divined from the kind of warrior he was.

"The defining moment is 35 years ago," former Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in Vietnam, said then. "John Kerry chose to volunteer and serve his country and risk his life doing so. George Bush did not."

That same war now is the defining moment for McCain, in the eyes of Republicans. Former Sen. Fred Thompson, for one, spared the Republican convention few of the shocking details of McCain's captivity as he declared that the Arizona senator possesses strengths of character sought since the very beginning of history.

Said McCain's running mate Sarah Palin:

He's compassionate now because he was powerless then.

He has "wisdom that comes even to the captives by the grace of God."

He possesses the "special confidence of those who have seen evil and have seen how evil is overcome."

Yet McCain stands accused of lapses of judgment, moral failings and selfishness. He's been called "dishonest" and a "coward" for putting political expedience ahead of principle in the 2000 campaign, during the debate over the Confederate flag. And it's been said that Hanoi really didn't change the kind of person he was.

Those are all charges that McCain, a reflective man in normal times, has leveled at himself.

How dare he?

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