According to Jim Geraghty at National Review, the Democrats have devised a plan for going after one of John McCain's strengths in the fall campaign: They apparently plan to "Swift Boat" McCain for his military record, appropriating the tactic used successfully against John Kerry in 2004.
This strikes us as a particularly high-risk strategy. Senator McCain's status as a war hero is well-established. Shot down over North Vietnam, McCain suffered horribly at the hands of his captors. Yet, despite terrible injuries, little medical care and brutal torture, McCain continued to resist the enemy, becoming an inspiration for his fellow prisoners and his countrymen.
But, apparently some Democrats think John McCain's ordeal is a prime campaign issue. West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller recently apologized for a particularly odious remark about Mr. McCain, claiming that he had little knowledge of the brutality of war, since he dropped smart bombs from 35,000 feet.
Never mind that the first precision weapons didn't arrive in theater until after McCain was captured. Or that he suffers lingering effects from the injuries he suffered in Vietnam, the result of ejecting from his crippled A-4 (which left him with multiple broken bones), and later, the beatings administered by North Vietnamese interrogators.
Now, the Democrats are floating a second trial balloon in their effort to "Swift Boat" Mr. McCain. The latest attack comes from former South Dakota Senator (and presidential candidate) George McGovern, who served as an Army Air Corps bomber pilot during World War II. Speaking at an event in his home state last weekend, McGovern offered the following shot:
Let me tell you what I would say to John McCain: neither of us is an expert on national defense. It's true that you went to one of the service academies but you were in the bottom of the class. It's true that you were a pilot in Vietnam, that you were shot down and spent most of the war in prison and we all sympathize with that and honor you for your courage. But you and I both had these battle experiences, you as a Navy fighter plane, I as an army bomber. I am not going to criticize your war record and your knowledge of national security but I don't want you criticizing mine either.
If I'd be allowed just one little dig at Senator McCain, since he gave me. I would say, 'John, you were shot down early in the war and spent most of the time in prison. I flew 35 combat missions with a 10-man crew and brought them home safely every time.'
Incidentally, McGovern's comments came in response to remarks made by McCain years ago, during a televised discussion on the Vietnam War. Part of a panel that included McGovern and former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, McCain opined that Senator McGovern didn't know much about national defense. It's safe to assume that McCain was referring to McGovern's positions on defense issues as a Congressman and Senator--not his record as a B-24 pilot.
Whew, talk about holding a grudge! At least he's not going to criticize McCain's war record.
It would be easy to dismiss McGovern's rant as that of an angry and (apparently) thin-skinned old man. But Mr. McGovern deserves credit for his service during World War II. Piloting a B-24 in the flak-filled skies of Nazi Germany was no mean feat; the Liberator was less rugged than its more famous partner, the B-17 Flying Fortress. Liberators had a nasty habit of catching fire and exploding before their crews could escape. Leading his crew through a 35-mission combat crew--and winning a Distinguished Flying Cross--McGovern earned his spurs as a war hero.
But, you'd also think that George McGovern's experiences in World War II would give him a greater appreciation for what John McCain faced in Vietnam. Fact is, the air defenses that McCain faced around Hanoi were more dense than those of the Third Reich.
In addition to anti-aircraft guns, McCain and his fellow pilots ran a gauntlet of Russian-built surface-to-air missiles, in an era when countermeasures were decidedly crude. North Vietnamese MiGs posed another threat, and making matters worse, U.S. pilots operated under rules of engagement that actually made their missions more dangerous.
We lost hundreds of aircraft (and crews) over North Vietnam between 1965-1972. That may pale in comparison to the thousands of bomber crews shot down during World War II, but it doesn't mitigate the hazards faced by Air Force and Navy pilots attacking targets in Hanoi or Haiphong. When the war finally ended, a total of 591 POWs returned to the United States. John McCain was among the first, after spending almost six years in captivity.
One of Geraghty's readers confirms that Democrats plan to attack McCain's military record. As he told the NRO columnist:
I can tell you that what you are surmising meshes with a comment I heard at a dinner party recently. One of the guests was a PR person for MoveOn.org and he told the a few of guests that the Dems were planning to go after McCain on his war record. Specifically, they wanted to hammer home that he graduated at the bottom of his class and that he crashed a few planes and wasn't really the hero he claimed to be.
They saw it as a return favor for what they perceived as the unfair "Swift Boating" of Kerry.
The McGovern remarks and the Rockefeller remarks do appear to be trial balloons for such a strategy.
I did manage to hide my amusement and mention to the guy that this might not be the wisest course of action against McCain, but he was really sold that this was a great idea.
And, if that's not enough, a Democratic consultant tells Geraghty that if "it were up to me," the campaign would be about McCain making propaganda for the enemy. No kidding.
That's right, criticize McCain for a confession made under extreme duress, after days of torture. Surely that will resonate with the American electorate.
As for Mr. McGovern, he appears happy to be doing his part, implying that John McCain didn't have enough of the right stuff, or he wouldn't have wound up in the Hanoi Hilton.
By that standard, we guess that Senator McGovern might describe 2Lt Lloyd Hughes as an inferior pilot, too. Hughes also flew B-24s during World War II. During the famous attack on Ploesti, Romania on 1 August 1943, the 22-year-old Hughes held his damaged bomber on course --at an altitude of 30 feet--allowing his bombardier to drop his bombs on an enemy oil refinery. Hughes died while attempting a crash landing, his Liberator engulfed in flames. Three of his crew members, including the bombardier, survived.
Hughes was one of five airmen who won the Medal of Honor over Ploesti that day; three were awarded posthumously. A total of 53 bombers were shot down, resulting in the deaths of more than 400 airmen. Too bad those guys (like John McCain) lacked the flying skills, or just the old-fashioned luck, of George McGovern.