McCain Can Defend U.S., But Himself?

This column was written by John Nichols

The John McCain campaign is all excited about a statement that West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller, the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, made about McCain's service in Vietnam.

Unlike other war heroes who have been shot down in battle and risked their lives behind enemy lines, such as former South Dakota Senator George McGovern, McCain has chosen to make his military service a central feature of his political campaigning. Unfortunately, McCain and his supporters are hyper-sensitive about discussion's of the Arizona senator's service as a fighter pilot and a prisoner of war.

So they go crazy whenever anyone deviates from the campaign's official story-line.

Rockefeller did that when he told the Charleston Gazette in an interview published today that, "McCain was a fighter pilot, who dropped laser-guided missiles from 35,000 feet. He was long gone when they hit. What happened when they [the missiles] get to the ground? He doesn't know. You have to care about the lives of people. McCain never gets into those issues."

To be sure, Rockefeller showed ignorance with his talk of laser-guided missiles - as opposed to the plain, old-fashioned bombs that were used in 1967.

But his point was clear. He was questioning whether McCain had ever thought seriously about the human beings on whom those bombs were dropped.

As someone who grew up in an Air Force family, I'm sensitive to discussions about issues such as this. I know that pilots ponder these questions, with a seriousness and a moral intensity that merits respect. To my mind, a pilot or any member of an Air Force crew does his duty in the same sense that an infantryman does. They follow orders. I'm much more concerned about the morality of those who give the orders - especially in a country where the military is supposed to be under civilian control - than that of the pilots.

My sense, as someone who has spent a good deal of time with McCain over the past decade - though surely less than has Rockefeller - is that the Republican contender has considered the moral questions rather more seriously than his critics may suggest.

So, from the state, I had real doubts about Rockefeller's challenge - doubts that the West Virginia senator, upon reflection, came to share. He quickly apologized for a statement he described as "an inaccurate and wrong analogy."

But I have even more doubts about the McCain campaign's response to the West Virginia senator's discussion of the military record the Arizona senator has made central to his campaign.

The campaign's answer to criticism from McCain's fellow senator was not to unleash the candidate and have him talk about his service in a thoughtful manner. It was to send a rather too frequently over-the-top supporter to launch a silly, bombastic attack on one of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee's fellow senators.

"Senator Rockefeller's statement is an insult to all the men and women who are serving or have served in America's military," said Lt. Col. Orson Swindle, USMC (Ret.), a longtime McCain ally. "Had Senator Rockefeller served himself, he would appreciate and understand that most who have been to war emerge with a much deeper concern for humanity than they otherwise might. If he knew what he was talking about, he would know that John McCain wasn't dropping laser-guided missiles at 35,000 feet in 1967."

The jab at the end is appropriate, but the rest of the statement is a load of embarrassingly cheap political spin.

The only thing worse was the appropriately-named Swindle's attempt to try and hold Rockefeller's choice in the Democratic race responsible for Rockefeller's words.

Barack Obama has always been respectful of McCain's service, yet Swindle spewed on about how the Illinois senator "has a responsibility to denounce Senator Rockefeller's smear against John McCain's character and military record. The question remains: Does Senator Obama have the courage to stand up and hold himself to the principles of 'new politics' he outlined in his book, The Audacity of Hope?"

No, the question is this: Does John McCain have the courage to defend himself and his record rather than sending Orson Swindle out to play politics for him?

John McCain has chosen to make his military record a campaign issue. He has done so throughout his career. He has a right to do that. But his choice does not come without responsibility. If he wants to challenge Rockefeller's assessment of that record, he should do so - aggressively, thoroughly and, ideally, with the offer of some insight into his own thinking about the fundamental questions that so many other pilots have pondered so seriously and so responsibly.
By John Nichols
Reprinted with permission from The Nation