If there’s one thing you can count on at every Barack Obama campaign event it’s this: The presumed Democratic nominee for president, after thanking the crowd and local officials, begins by praising the military service of his counterpart, Sen. John McCain — often calling him a genuine American hero. It’s a way for Obama to diffuse anything that comes after if the Illinois senator acknowledges McCain’s heroism in Vietnam a generation ago, and the suffering he endured as a young man there, before pummeling the candidate today. It comes straight from the playbook of George W. Bush, who would cite Sen. John Kerry’s military service (while ads "swiftboated" Kerry’s record in Vietnam), before he would call him a flip-flopper in issues like national security.
Thus, it’s no surprise that Obama was quick to distance himself from the remarks of retired general and former presidential nominee Wesley Clark, who questioned whether McCain’s harrowing time in Vietnam served as a qualification for him to be president. This, is after all, sensitive ground. McCain underwent unspeakable hardship during his time in captivity, and even today, when he speaks of those days, one gets the sense that those years will never really leave him.
Still, Clark has opened up a vein for a serious discourse on the nature of experience and of the acts of one’s youth and the ability to lead a nation. We have seen how one’s youth can either provide a compelling, successful narrative in the stories of John F. Kennedy in his PT-Boat and Teddy Roosevelt’s exploits during the Spanish-American War.
But with our last two presidents we’ve seen an almost total disregard for one’s past. Both tried their damnedest to avoid combat in the same war where McCain and Kerry earned military honors. We cared little about Bill Clinton’s unsuccessful attempts to smoke weed at Oxford. Likewise, Bush’s troubled times, including allegations of drunk driving, were written off as stuff that should be left behind as mistakes of one’s youth (though that youth lasted til age 40), with no bearing on the man set to lead the nation today.
And that’s what it comes down to, doesn’t it? One’s youth. As a culture we allow ourselves to live and relive the exploits of sports figures, begging them to relive their lives as twenty-something men. As such, they are continually torn between who they once were and who they are today. Now, after seeming to move past that same mentality when it came to politics, it seems that we’ve stumbled backward, the years of one’s youth as measurements of leadership.
In some ways it’s a disturbing notion. McCain on his own is a viable candidate whose ideas on energy and national security and immigration deserve to be talked about in the context of today — not tied down to his acts of the past. Most people you and I know want to be heard and seen as who they are today, and one would hope McCain does too. Did Clark use the wrong phrasing? Of course. But one would hope Clark’s frankness will lead us away from that distant time to our own. Faulkner got it wrong. The past is past. Let the real contest of 2008 begin.
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