Columns » Ernest Dumas

What price truth?

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The worst aspect of this race for president is that it bears out John Milton's maxim that truth comes into the world a bastard, heaping ignominy upon those who dare to speak it.

Gen. Wesley Clark can attest to that. He uttered a line so unassailably true that John McCain himself would not deny its truth. Clark said that merely being shot down while flying a Navy plane in wartime did not qualify a person to be president. In fact, McCain had said as much in the past. But Clark has been so pilloried for the remark that Sen. Barack Obama had to criticize him and the general, a true war hero himself, was taken off the list of potential vice presidential candidates.

Clark had just finished praising McCain's courage and long service to the country and counted him one of his personal heroes but when his questioner noted that Obama had not flown a plane that was shot down Clark replied that it was true but that McCain's misfortune and heroic ordeal did not qualify him for president.

But Clark is not the first to be scorched by having the nerve to tell the plain truth, even if inadvertently. That was the case when Charlie Black, the lobbyist/publicist who advises McCain, told an interviewer that national security was McCain's best issue and when he was asked if another attack like 9/11 would help McCain he replied that undoubtedly it would. That is an article of faith for everybody, Democrats and Republicans alike, because the assumption is that terrorism would rise to the top of everyone's agenda again and people would rest their faith in the tough guy. Rationally, people should react just the opposite — it would show that the Republicans have not made us any safer — but that is not the common thinking. Black merely repeated the conventional wisdom. He apologized for his truthfulness and McCain repudiated him. You won't hear from Charlie Black again.

There was no dishonor but plenty of ignominy when Bill Clinton said Barack Obama's primary victory in South Carolina was not a shock because, after all, Rev. Jesse Jackson had carried the state, too. It was a simple statement of fact that it was the same large African-American vote that carried Obama to victory. But it was characterized as a denigration of the African-American candidate and it did untold harm to Clinton's own reputation and to his wife's candidacy.

Same with Geraldine Ferraro's famous remark that much of the excitement around the Obama campaign arose from his race. That is an indisputable fact that Obama's earnest admirers have no trouble admitting. But Ferraro was banished forever.

The list goes endlessly on.

At least General Clark did not apologize. A real tough guy who has told the truth would not.

Clark's point all along ought to be the central issue of the campaign. The issues are both experience and the judgment that one develops from the experience. McCain served his country honorably in the Navy and heroically when he was tortured after his capture. But while flying a fighter plane took courage and quick thinking McCain's military experience was not on a theater scale where his decisions affected the outcome of campaigns. The latter is the kind of military experience that one might claim as qualification for commander in chief.

The real issue is judgment. What did McCain learn from his experience and what did Obama learn from his? McCain did learn one important thing that has informed his decisions as a senator. He learned that every patriot has his breaking point — he was forced to do a propaganda video against the United States for his captors — and that torture was both immoral and worthless. But it did not inform his larger judgment.

In the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, McCain said in speech after speech that the war was necessary for national security and that it would be a military cakewalk. The war will be “brief,” he said, and would pave the way for democracy throughout the Middle East. And contrary to his assertions the past couple of years he wholly supported the Bush war strategy, praised Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and said it would not take many troops to secure the victory. He was defending Rumsfeld and his war strategy at least through May 12, 2004, in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal. “I believe he's done a fine job,” he said on “Hannity and Colmes.”

Compare that to Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama's speech in 2002 when the U. S. Senate began debating the war resolution.

“I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. ... He's a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.

“But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military is a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.

“I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.

“I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda.

“I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars.”

Obama was right on all counts on the most important foreign-policy question of the past 40 years, McCain consistently wrong. Wesley Clark never made a wiser, more provably accurate statement.

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