Clift: Clark's 3 Mistakes on McCain's War Service

John McCain has never claimed that getting shot down in a fighter plane qualifies him to be president. In fact he has joked that it "doesn't take a lot of talent to get shot down. I was able to intercept a surface-to-air missile with my own airplane." Withstanding more than five years as a prisoner of war is another matter. It's a horror most people can't even imagine, and however he got there, he deserves his country's respect. He is a war hero, and that's a powerful image for voters.

General Wesley Clark is a war hero too, with a Silver Star for valor in Vietnam among the many honors he has received over a long military career. That's why it is puzzling that he would allow himself to get drawn into a no-win controversy over McCain's military service, putting Barack Obama in the crossfire instead of simply shaking off the comment, saying that's not what he meant.

Here's what happened: Clark was a guest on Sunday's Face the Nation with Bob Schieffer, who was grilling him about Obama's experience to be commander in chief, noting that unlike McCain, Obama has not "ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down." Mistake Number One: Clark repeated Schieffer's words, saying, "I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president." That's a fair point but only if McCain were claiming it as a credential. He never has, and as someone steeped in military tradition, he's all too aware that a flyer who gets shot down is disparaged by his peers, not lionized, hence the joke.

Clark did praise McCain's service, saying, "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 Navy that he commanded, it wasn't a wartime squadron. He hasn't been there and ordered the bombs to fall." Mistake Number Two: Elevating executive responsibility, which sounds like a desk job, over the experience of enduring torture and deprivation.

The McCain campaign, though floundering and in the midst of a shakeup, smelled blood. Spokespeople condemned Obama for saying one thing while allowing surrogates to run a smear campaign, and McCain weighed in to demand Obama "cut him loose." Obama did not defend Clark. Some battles are not worth fighting, and the general was pretty much hung out to dry, to use an old Watergate term. Mistake Number Three: Refusing to back down. If Clark had said he didn't mean what he seemed to imply, it would have been over. Instead, the cable news chatter hijacked Obama's Monday speech on patriotism and its use as both a shield and a sword in American politics.

It's hard to feel too sympathetic toward Clark. He ran for president briefly in 2004 and knows firsthand what it's like to be caught up in a media scrum. Injecting military service and patriotism into a campaign is playing with nitroglycerin. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth blew up John Kerry's campaign, but that unsavory exercise is not transferable to McCain if only because of the singular nature of his wartime experience. Watching Clark struggle to make himself clear, I was reminded of a long ago Senate race in Ohio when astronaut John Glenn, first to orbit the earth and hailed as a hero, challenged Howard Metzenbaum, a self-made millionaire and parking-lot magnate who had been appointed to the seat just months before.

Frustrated by Glenn's exalted status and feeling it was unfair, Metzenbaum pointed out that Glenn had never met a payroll or done much in the workaday world. "How can you run for the Senate," he asked, "when you've never held a job?" The events that followed are spelled out in a forthcoming biography of Metzenbaum, "Fighting the Unbeatable Foe," by Tom Diemer, then with the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer. Glenn had served in the Marine Corps through two wars and he thought the remark "so silly" he wasn't even going to respond. But his campaign recognized the gaffe, and when the two candidates next appeared together, Glenn delivered what is known in campaign lore as the "Gold Star mothers" speech. He told Metzenbaum to go to a veterans' hospital and "look those men with mangled bodies in the eyes and tell them they didn't hold a job. You go with me to any Gold Star mother and you look her in the eye and tell her that her son did not hold a job… I have held a job, Howard." The applause went on for 22 seconds. "I was talking about a job in private employment," Metzenbaum sputtered, which only made it worse. Glenn won and went on to the Senate; Metzenbaum followed two years later, winning Ohio's second seat, and rueing the day he ignored his campaign chief's advice: "He is a hero, you can't touch him." Words to live by in the months ahead.