0

Defining the courage of a candidate

Being shot down may not qualify one to be president, as retired Gen. Wesley Clark infamously said recently. But what men do under fire might tell us about the character we may discover in a president.

Clark's precise words, aimed at undermining John McCain's executive experience, were: "I don't think getting in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to become president." In fairness, Clark also praised McCain's heroism, saying that he honored his service as a prisoner of war and even that "he was a hero to me."

Predictably, Republicans were outraged and Democrats were outraged at the GOP's outrage. For his part, Barack Obama performed the political minuet of condemn 'n' distance. He condemned the remarks and distanced himself from his surrogate/general.

McCain made a few tepid remarks, but mostly let others put Clark in his place. And, though McCain is clearly content to use the iconic image of his younger pilot self for campaign purposes, he also has shrugged off his heroism.

"It doesn't take a great deal of effort to get shot down," McCain himself is fond of saying.

As the news cycle churns, Clark's comment was yesterday's chum. It was in poor taste, yes, but it wasn't the first time he had expressed similar thoughts. National Review's Byron York blogged in March that Clark viewed McCain's combat experience as inferior to Hillary Clinton's qualifications for office.

"If you look at what Hillary Clinton has done during her time as the first lady of the United States, her travel to 80 countries, her representing the U.S. abroad, plus her years in the Senate, I think she's the most experienced and capable person in the race," York quotes Clark as saying.

Ahem. Well. So much for that. Now that Clark is a military adviser to Obama, he apparently is still skeptical about McCain's qualifications.

Let's concede that surviving torture doesn't necessarily endow one with presidential mettle. And, fine, being shot down doesn't qualify one to direct the executive branch.

But Clark misses the point of McCain's story.

McCain isn't a hero because he was tortured. He's a hero because he declined an offer by his captors to be released, refusing to leave his fellow Americans behind.

It may not take much effort to get shot down, but it must take a considerable act of will to consign oneself to more deprivation and torture. It must take a level of courage unknown to most to place concern for others above one's own interest.

Surely self-sacrifice, courage and loyalty figure somewhere in the calculus for selecting a president.

We can make no similar analysis of Obama, since he hasn't fought in any wars in his lifetime. But we have been given a glimpse at how Obama responds to external pressures and where he draws the line on loyalty and self-sacrifice. When it comes to family and friends, it seems Obama is first a survivalist.

A few months ago, when the Rev. Jeremiah Wright first came to national attention, Obama was nearly demure when he said: "I can no more disown (Wright) than I can disown my white grandmother."

He may not have disowned his white grandmother, but Obama didn't exactly paint a sympathetic - or loving - portrait of her either. He essentially threw her under the bus, saying that she had made racist remarks while he was growing up, a statement that served only to highlight Obama's own remarkable transcendence.

After several weeks of balancing his professed love for Wright with the controversial statements of his chosen father figure and spiritual mentor, Obama eventually left his church of 20 years. But why then, after all those years, did Obama finally find the door?

What changed was the degree of his self-interest. As long as Wright was helping Obama burnish his bona fides within the African-American community, it didn't matter that the minister's rhetorical flights of fancy bordered on paranoid, racist delusion. Only when Wright became a potential obstacle to Obama's ambition - by saying that Obama was simply behaving as a politician - did Obama show Wright the underside of that very busy bus.

Clark is right that getting shot down doesn't qualify one to be commander in chief. But it is relevant to wonder with whom one would rather share a foxhole.

E-mail nationally syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker at kparker@kparker.com.