Media in a frenzy, but Clark's comment not extraordinary or unprecedented

››› ››› ERIC HANANOKI, KATHLEEN HENEHAN & LAUREN AUERBACH

The media frenzy that has followed Wesley Clark's June 29 comment on CBS' Face the Nation that Sen. John McCain's military heroism alone does not establish his qualification to be president is partially based on the false premise that the comment is in some way extraordinary or unusual. In fact, in 2004, numerous media figures argued that Sen. John Kerry's military record alone did not qualify him to be president.

The media frenzy that has followed retired Gen. Wesley Clark's comments on the June 29 edition of CBS' Face the Nation is based on at least two false premises: first, that Clark attacked Sen. John McCain's military service, and second, that his comment -- that one's, in this case McCain's, military heroism alone does not establish his qualification to be president -- is in any way extraordinary or unusual. As Media Matters for America has noted, Clark did not attack McCain's military service; he praised McCain as a "hero." Moreover, Clark's comments were far from the first time someone has said of a war veteran running for president that his military service alone does not make him qualified to be president.

Indeed, in 2004, numerous media figures argued that Sen. John Kerry's (D-MA) military record alone did not qualify him to be president. For example:

  • On the September 10, 2004, edition (accessed via Nexis) of Fox News' Special Report, Roll Call executive editor Mort Kondracke asserted that "this whole business of John Kerry saying I'm qualified to be commander in chief because I was a Swift boat commander in Vietnam is bunk. ... It does not qualify you to be the commander in chief of all the Armed Forces because you were a Swift boat commander."
  • In a February 13, 2004, column, syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker wrote: "Given that military service neither qualifies nor disqualifies one for political office -- and given the fact of Bush's honorable discharge -- it's time to dismount this jackass. Vietnam is over. To judge people now on the basis of what they said or did then is to forget how emotionally riven we were. And how young and naive we were. ... What's more important now is what would a man do as president?"
  • In a September 23, 2004, column, syndicated columnist Thomas Sowell wrote of Kerry: "Never mind that people who were actually there with him in the 1960s dispute what a great job he did then. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that he did all the things he said he did and none of the things that eyewitnesses in Vietnam said he did. How does that qualify anyone to be President of the United States?"
  • In an August 26, 2004, column, National Review Online editor-at-large Jonah Goldberg wrote that "experience -- while more often than not superior to the lack of it -- isn't as powerful or important as we like to think. If service in Vietnam or in uniform were the prerequisite for correct thinking on military and foreign-policy issues, then you'd think Veterans would all agree with each other. Obviously, they don't. The media's favorite veteran, John McCain, disagrees with John Kerry about Iraq and most foreign-policy issues."

Moreover, then-staff writer Ronald Brownstein wrote in a July 28, 2004, Los Angeles Times news analysis (retrieved from Nexis) that President Bush's "aides quickly insisted that Kerry's military service in Vietnam, however laudable, was less relevant to his qualifications as commander in chief than his Senate voting record on national security issues -- which the Bush campaign has tried to portray as soft on defense. 'Every American, including the president ... believes John Kerry's service in Vietnam was admirable,' said Steve Schmidt, the Bush campaign's deputy communications director. 'But what's most striking is that in order to talk about John Kerry's accomplishments, they've had to go back for 35 years. There is no mention of what John Kerry has done in the Senate the past 20 years.'"

On the June 29 edition of CBS' Face the Nation, Clark said of McCain:

CLARK: Because in the matters of national security policy-making, it's a matter of understanding risk. It's a matter of gauging your opponents, and it's a matter of being held accountable. John McCain's never done any of that in his official positions. I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands of millions of others in the Armed Forces as a prisoner of war. He has been a voice on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and he has traveled all over the world. But he hasn't held executive responsibility. That large squadron in the Air -- in the Navy that he commanded, it wasn't a wartime squadron. He hasn't been there and ordered the bombs to fall. He hasn't seen what it's like when diplomats come in and say, "I don't know whether we're going to be able to get this point through or not. Do you want to take the risk? What about your reputation? How do we handle it publicly?" He hasn't made those calls, Bob.

After Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer said, "[Sen.] Barack Obama has not had any of those experiences either, nor has he ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down," Clark replied: "Well, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president. ... But Barack is not -- he is not running on the fact that he has made these national security pronouncements. He's running on his other strengths."

From the September 10, 2004, edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

JUAN WILLIAMS (Fox News contributor): Well, that's what they say. But let me just say, these documents have slowly poured out over the course of Mr. Bush's term. And they haven't been in a consistent fashion, where I were to say, here is an entire record of President Bush's service and here is why he did not show up for a period in the Alabama National Guard.

KONDRACKE: Let us stipulate this whole business is nonsense. It is a diversion.

WILLIAMS: That is a good point.

KONDRACKE: It's a diversion --

FRED BARNES (Weekly Standard executive editor): No, I don't agree with that.

KONDRACKE: No, it's a diversion from what the voters of America deserve.

WILLIAMS: I agree.

KONDRACKE: And that is a discussion of their future. I mean, this whole business of John Kerry saying I'm qualified to be commander in chief because I was a Swift boat commander in Vietnam is bunk. And the idea --

WILLIAMS: Why is it bunk?

KONDRACKE: Because you command a little boat. You are not commanding --

WILLIAMS: Let me just say this to you.

KONDRACKE: Just a second.

WILLIAMS: If you are in the military --

KONDRACKE: Just a minute.

WILLIAMS: -- and served --

KONDRACKE: Just a minute. Just a minute. Just a minute. It does not qualify you to be commander in chief. Abraham Lincoln did not fight in any wars, right? And he ran a very good war in the Civil War. FDR did not fight in any wars and he ran a very good war in World War II. It does not qualify you to be the commander in chief of all the Armed Forces because you were a Swift boat commander.

WILLIAMS: Can I respond to this point?

KONDRACKE: Nor does it mean that you were a lousy commander in chief if you were a hack-off back in the 1970s, and then became an upstanding person because you had a religious conversion --

WILLIAMS: Do you think that it adds to your credibility as the American people look at the fact that we're in war right now that you were able to say, I put myself on the line. I went to war for this country. I risked my life? Do you think that adds to something to the voters in terms of their information about your character and your willingness to put their children at risk?

KONDRACKE: But your record for 20 years on foreign policy is a much more important thing. And that's very weak.

WILLIAMS: I think people have a strong feeling about your character on this point.

JIM ANGLE (guest host): We need to take a break at this point. Coming up, maybe a little bit more of this.

[laughter]

ANGLE: But also, John Kerry says if the president were serious about fighting terrorism, he'd extend the weapons assault ban -- the assault weapons ban, rather. We'll ask our All-Star panel about that and maybe some more of this next.

From Parker's February 13, 2004, column:

In defense of Bush's record, the White House has produced military pay receipts. Outside entities, including The Annenberg Political Fact Check, a project of the nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, have investigated records and found nothing to substantiate claims of desertion. (www.factcheck.org/article.aspx?docID=131)

Kerry wisely has taken the high road during this obvious witch-hunt, saying he has no interest in Bush's record. Of course as long as he has people like Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe cluster-bombing the media with AWOL charges, the high road is a pretty easy leap. There's no way to go but up when the source for "desertion" is movie producer Michael Moore.

Given that military service neither qualifies nor disqualifies one for political office -- and given the fact of Bush's honorable discharge -- it's time to dismount this jackass. Vietnam is over. To judge people now on the basis of what they said or did then is to forget how emotionally riven we were. And how young and naive we were.

By that standard, it is possible to forgive Kerry's 1970 Harvard Crimson interview in which he said he wanted to eliminate CIA activity and turn our troops over to the United Nations. He's changed his tune. Presumably he's wiser. So are we all.

What's more important now is what would a man do as president? We know what Bush would do. Kerry voted for the war on Iraq but against funding to finish the job, thus making life more difficult for our service men and women still on the front lines.

Which Kerry would be president, the hero who advances assertively against the threat of danger? Or the antiwar demonstrator who turns protest into political currency?

From Sowell's September 23, 2004, column:

Yet for the most important job in this country -- indeed, the most important job in the world -- Senator John Kerry has applied by talking about what he did in a wholly different job back in the 1960s.

Never mind that people who were actually there with him in the 1960s dispute what a great job he did then. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that he did all the things he said he did and none of the things that eyewitnesses in Vietnam said he did. How does that qualify anyone to be President of the United States?

The Kerry campaign and the liberal media want to make this election a referendum on President Bush, especially as regards Iraq. That too is an insult to our intelligence.

From Goldberg's August 26, 2004, column:

As for the president, the only area in which he beats John Kerry decisively in the polls is, broadly, in his capacity as commander-in-chief. The American people -- as well as a majority of veterans and (I presume) those serving in the military -- generally think Bush is a better war president than Kerry would be. And yet the Kerry campaign insists that Kerry's stint in Vietnam makes him more qualified to be a war president because George W. Bush's four-year term as a war president cannot outweigh the fact that John Kerry spent four months in Vietnam. Meanwhile a bunch of guys who served alongside Kerry under similar circumstances all say that Kerry's full of it, and the Democrats say they have no right to talk at all. Indeed, they want the book pulled from bookstores. Follow all of that?

Now, keep in mind this is all largely a reversal from twelve years ago when Bill Clinton ran for office. Back then the Paul Begalas and John Kerrys claimed that service in Vietnam -- or anywhere else -- was irrelevant to being an effective president (while some Republicans were largely saying the reverse). Now, suddenly, it is the qualification that trumps all others.

My point isn't the usual hypocrisy gotcha, though that's certainly worth pointing out. It's that experience -- while more often than not superior to the lack of it -- isn't as powerful or important as we like to think. If service in Vietnam or in uniform were the prerequisite for correct thinking on military and foreign-policy issues, then you'd think Veterans would all agree with each other. Obviously, they don't. The media's favorite veteran, John McCain, disagrees with John Kerry about Iraq and most foreign-policy issues (depending on which day of the week Kerry is talking). John Edwards talks about how Kerry still carries shrapnel in his leg and therefore...therefore...therefore, well, something along the lines of nobody's ever allowed to criticize John Kerry. Obviously, that's idiotic on its face. If it's not, maybe we should count the side with the most shrapnel in its collective body and declare it the most qualified to lead the country. My guess is Karl Rove would be happy with that.

We do not live in the world of Starship Troopers where only veterans are allowed to vote.

In a democracy, arguments and reason must count for something, if not necessarily everything. During the lead-up to the war, opponents of the war (including hundreds of nasty folks in my e-mail box) declared that the White House had no right to send troops into combat because they hadn't seen it themselves. Or, I remember Chris Matthews trying to bully Rich Lowry into silence during the lead-up to the war. Matthews shrieked at Rich something to the effect of "Have you ever been to the Middle East!?" And when Rich said no, Matthews responded something like "Well, then you have no right to talk."

This is the path to madness. If reading books and articles, talking to experts -- including veterans -- and making arguments built on facts and logic is always insufficient compared to the experience of being shot at -- or taking a walking tour of a Middle Eastern city -- then we must have compulsory military conscription for everybody -- men, women, Quakers, Amish, gays, and invalids included (and then find ways to rotate them through combat). That's the only way to ensure that everyone maintains their rights.

From the July 28, 2004, Los Angeles Times article:

And Bush aides quickly insisted that Kerry's military service in Vietnam, however laudable, was less relevant to his qualifications as commander in chief than his Senate voting record on national security issues -- which the Bush campaign has tried to portray as soft on defense.

"Every American, including the president ... believes John Kerry's service in Vietnam was admirable," said Steve Schmidt, the Bush campaign's deputy communications director. "But what's most striking is that in order to talk about John Kerry 's accomplishments, they've had to go back for 35 years. There is no mention of what John Kerry has done in the Senate the past 20 years."

The dueling arguments over the relevance of Kerry's Vietnam experience illustrate a key way the convention is sharpening and advancing the debate between the two contenders. In effect, the two sides are competing to define the frame that swing voters could use to assess Kerry's fitness to be president.

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