Physical courage and mental toughness are neutral virtues. Good guys and bad guys can have them equally. The thug you would least want to meet in a dark alley may be the companion you'd most want to have helping you survive being shipwrecked on a desert island.
Surviving five and a half years of captivity and torture tells you nothing about the man who survived other than that he was brave enough and tough enough to have survived it...at the time. Doesn't even tell you he could do it again. Doesn't tell you if he could have lasted five more days let alone another five and a half years.
It doesn't tell you anything about how he'll conduct himself and his life once he's free.
Doesn't tell you if he'll be honest, or thoughtful, or temperate, or kind. Doesn't tell you what he can do or what skills he has. Doesn't tell you if he can count, if he can sell, if he can listen, if he can solve a plumbing problem or diagnose an illness or grow a flower or groom a dog. As much as it might dispose yout to want to hire him, it doesn't tell you if you should. It won't have made him a skilled surgeon, unless performing surgery was something he did while imprisoned. It won't have made him a competent electrician, unless he spent the time he wasn't being tortured re-wiring houses near the prisoner of war camp. It certainly won't have automatically qualified him to be President of the United States.
The record is full of war heroes who came home---well, actually, it is fuller of war heroes who didn't come home---full of war heroes who came home to go into politics, some successfully, some not so much.
The record is even more full of war heroes who came home to be janitors, insurance salesmen, grade school teachers, town drunks, bank robbers, and movie stars.
What most war heroes come home to do is to continue to be themselves, the selves they were or were on the way to becoming before they went off to war. The only war heroes whose lives are defined by their heroism are the ones I mentioned two paragraphs up. The ones who don't come home.
We haven't been in the habit of electing Presidents just because they were war heroes. If we had, the walls of elementary school classrooms would be decorated with portraits of President Benedict Arnold, President Aaron Burr, and President John Paul Jones.
Even nice guy war heroes aren't automatically presidential timber.
There are many ways to become war hero, most of them accidental, matters of being in the wrong place at the wrong time but having the right, instantaneous reaction. When asked how he became a war hero, John Kennedy spoke for most war heroes. I had no choice, he said. They sunk my boat.
He didn't mention that his boat probably shouldn't have been where it was when it got sunk and its skipper should have had a lot of explaining to do.
PT-109's skipper was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he had the right reaction, not just instantaneously, but over the course of several days.
And he was able to have that reaction because he wasn't the crewman who was killed in the collision, his bad back wasn't injured even worse than it was, and because he could swim very well.
A talent for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, no matter how right and instantaneous his reaction, is not a quality we want in a President.
Unfortunately, we have elected a number of men who have had that talent, at least in the sense of having their thinking focused on the wrong problems and wrong-headed suppositions. They weren't all war heroes either. But if they had been, their war records probably wouldn't have told us much about their potential for future wrong-headedness.
With just a couple of exceptions, Kennedy being one of them, our war hero Presidents had war records that demonstrated both exceptional leadership and impressive organizational and management skills and a talent for having their thinking in the right place at the right time and having the right reactions, starting with George Washington.
Jackson, Harrison, Taylor, and Grant were generals first, war heroes second. Generals are supposed to be good at two things. Leading and planning.
Eisenhower wasn't a war hero in a typical sense. He never led troops into combat. He never saw combat. MacArthur was the fighting general, and imagine if he'd ever realized his dream of becoming President.
Eisenhower was always in management and planning. In World War II, he had to be an executive, a politician, a diplomat, and a commander in chief. For a short time he was in effect a Sub-President of the USA, Eurpopean Division.
MacArthur was our Viceroy in Japan. He did a great job, but we wouldn't have wanted a President who thought like a viceroy, that is, like a minor king. I know we're stuck with one at the moment, but we don't want him.
Sixty-five or more per cent of us don't, at any rate.
The "Real American" bombast and "He puts America first" bullshit of the McCain campaign---besides designed to call attention to and raise alarms about Barack Obama---he's black, he's different, he's black, he's a liberal, he's black, he has a funny name, he's an elitist, he's weird, he's a closet Muslim, he's black---is a brag on John McCain's war record.
Bragging on their war records is something politicians of all persuasions do. Washington didn't need to, but every candidate for office since who has had any claim to being a war hero---and some who haven't---has done a fair share of bragging. Burr did it. Jackson did it. William Henry Harrison practically renamed himself in order to do it. Tippecanoe and Tyler too! Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. Ulysses S. Grant. James Garfield did it. Teddy Roosevelt did it. Boy, did he. In fact, he made himself a war hero just to be able to do it. Harry Truman. Ike. JFK. George McGovern. George Herbert Walker Bush and Bob Dole and Al Gore and John Kerry all did it.
All of them wanted voters to think that their once having had the bad luck to have been at the wrong place at the wrong time but having had the right reaction somehow made them more qualified to be President.
None of them, though, wanted voters to think that was their sole qualification, not even Teddy Roosevelt.
All of them wanted voters to be impressed, but impressed enough to pay attention to their other claims on the office. They used their war records to help tell voters something about themselves, not to define themselves.
John Kennedy wanted to tell the generation of Americans coming of age in 1960 that he was one of them. He'd served in the war along with them. Nixon wanted to tell them the same thing when he bragged---by exaggerating---on his war record.
George McGovern wanted to reassure voters that even though he was the anti-war candidate he was still a patriot and something of a tough guy. John Kerry was doing the same thing.
None of them, not even Eisenhower thought their war record entitled them to the job, although Jackson and TR might have felt entitled to it just because. But whatever general sense of entitlement marred their characters, they still felt they had to work for it.
Their war records were part of their biographies, an exciting part, but not the whole of it.
To learn the whole of it voters had to look at the whole of it. They had to see what kind of men they were before they'd gone off to war and what kind of men and citizens and politicians and leaders they became after they came home.
John McCain was and is an averagely intelligent guy with a rather lazy attitude when it comes to ethical matters, a nasty sense of humor, and very little ability to control his impulses, his temper, or his mouth. He has demonstrated a fitful urge to do the right things coupled with a bad habit of not following through and an unfortunate sort of vanity that allows him to think he has done those right things even when he has clearly not followed through.
As I've argued before, the Maverick and Commander is not a true maverick---a better description of what he is is loose cannon---but he has been enough of one that he hasn't been able to be much of a commander either. He's not a leader, especially not within his own party, and never has been.
One day, in the skies over Vietnam, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. For five and a half years after that he demonstrated the remarkable virtues of physical courage and mental toughness. There were men in that prison who were braver and tougher, but that makes them even more remarkable, and it takes nothing away from McCain to say so. For five and a half years, McCain endured heroically.
But what does his war record tell us about him as a potential President? What does it tell us about him as the man he was before and the man he became afterwards?
Only this. That John McCain was a better human being under duress than he's shown himself to be in the easier time of it he's had in life since. Which is something that can be said of pretty much all of us. We're better when the chips are down.
So I suppose that if you believe that the defining event of the next four years is going to be something that puts the whole country in the position of a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton then John McCain's conduct while there is an important qualification for him to be President, although even so all it tells you is that he is brave enough and tough enough to survive it, assuming that a seventy-something year old man can be in the same physical and mental shape as his thirty year old self was.
He might survive it. Doesn't mean you will.
And it would seem to me that what you'd really like to have, anyway, is a President who will get you out of that situation and not just help you survive it. Even better would be a President who will keep you and him and all the rest of us from getting into that predicament in the first place.
John McCain's biography, apart from his war record, tells us that he is a politician with a habit of being mentally in the wrong place at the wrong time way too often and that the times he has been in the right place at the right time have been more often the result of opportunism or vanity than of careful thought and heartfelt conviction.
Which brings me to Wesley Clark.
I don't know the real reason Clark won't be speaking at the Democratic Convention. Looks to me, glacing over the schedule, that there just wasn't room for him among all those governors---and have you looked at the list of all those governors who will be speaking? It's heartening. I think it gets forgotten that the big news about the election of 2006 wasn't just that the Democrats took back control of both houses of Congress. They took control over most of the state houses and governor's mansions too. The problem the Democrats are going to have in 2016 isn't finding a replacement for President Obama. The problem's going to be deciding which one of half a dozen or more rising stars to settle on.
But on to Clark's absence from the speaker's podium.
Besides the lack of time and room, there's a good reason not to put him up there.
He told the truth about John McCain's war record and its place in McCain's biography.
Now I don't think that was a bad thing. Nor do I think it was a mistake. I think it's important for the Obama campaign to get that truth out there. John McCain's entire claim on the Presidency is based on his having survived the Vietnam War. So did several hundred thousand other guys, including Wesley Clark, whose military record, by the way, combines the best of MacArthur's and Eisenhower's, so if a war record is and ought to be the qualification for the job of President, then both Obama and McCain should step aside and let Clark take it on. All the Media's fawning over McCain is rooted in their being impressed by his war record. All that most of the country knows about John McCain is that he was a war hero and that because of it he will somehow make a good President. That needs to be addressed and refuted.
But John McCain's fanboys and fangirls in the Media don't want to hear it. And they don't intend to let voters hear it.
If Wesley Clark took the stage at the convention the story wouldn't be what his being there said about Barack Obama. It wouldn't be the contrast between Clark's record and McCain's and how it shows what a record of real achievement as opposed to a record of accidental heroism looks like. It certainly wouldn't be how Clark made the obvious point that having been a prisoner of war doesn't qualify you to be President of the United States and voters need to look at McCain's political record and the policies he proposes to enact should he be elected.
The story would be all about McCain and how Wes Clark, and by extension Barack Obama, dissed McCain's heroism.
Always remember one of the first rules of Insider Journalism: Everything is bad news for the Democrats.
No matter how well this convention goes the yammerers and blowhards will find the dark cloud around the silver lining.
Right now that story is shaping up to be that Obama failed to unify the party.
The Insiders will find a few die-hard Clinton supporters who are still not on the bandwagon after Thursday night and that will prove it. Once again, the Democrats are divided.
Hillary's speech tonight might blunt some of that, but it won't squash it.
That's why the Obama campaign isn't thrilled about having a roll call vote. It's not because they want to marginalize or insult Clinton and her supporters. It's because they'd rather not give the Insiders the opportunity to call a good will gesture and an inspirational moment a disaster.
If Wes Clark were to speak, the story would be what it was, with the addtion that it proved that Obama couldn't control the story, that he let his own covention go off message, not to mention that it showed how elitist and out of touch he is because he just doesn't get how much regular Americans love and admire John McCain for what he went through.
As Atrios likes to remind us, our political discourse is controlled by idiots.
For four days, Barack Obama and the Democrats get the opportunity to talk over them and around them. Best to make the most of it and save Clark for another day.
Anyway, I'm looking forward to hearing what Governor Patrick has to say.
And Governor Sibelius.
And Governeor Paterson.
And Governors Napolitano, Schweitzer, Manchin, Doyle, Strickland, Rendell, Culver...