- The Washington Times - Friday, February 11, 2000

We are all products of our biographies. In a time of unprecedented plenty and relative peace, most Americans haven’t had the opportunity to grow into lives marked and deepened by great and cataclysmic events the losses and triumphs of total war; the perils and rewards of exploration; the sacrifice and struggle of deprivation. While this is something our steely forefathers fervently hoped for, it has a less than desirable effect of making us into what you might call softees despite our (possibly) better (we hope) selves.

All of which makes that by-now familiar image of John McCain white-haired, unbent, speaking before the grainy backdrop of the young pilot who is also John McCain, the vibrant ghost with the fabulous smile and the Navy jet almost talismanically potent. The emotional wallop, of course, comes from what you don’t see: that same flyboy shot from the sky, who, having had to trade his flight suit for prison stripes, suffered through five and a half years in a North Vietnamese prison camp.

After all these years of a president who not only dodged the draft, but also encouraged the enemy through his participation in antiwar protests abroad, the young warrior in John McCain’s biography is the source of an allure that, these days, has the unfamiliar aura of nobility. But is that allure enough? Do we even fully understand that phase of his biography? And does it tell the story of his life?

Given the centrality of Mr. McCain’s prisoner of war past to his possible presidential future, the division among military men about the Arizona Republican’s candidacy may at first seem puzzling. His rival, George W. Bush, goes to South Carolina, a state with 400,000 veterans and four major military installations, and collects a slew of endorsements from retired generals and war heroes, including three Medal of Honor winners, the National Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans Coalition (a federation of 102 veterans groups), and the Coalition of Retired Military Veterans. Why? One Medal of Honor winner, John Baker Jr., explained it this way to the Associated Press: “McCain has paid his dues while he was in the military, but when he was in office he hasn’t done a thing for veterans.” Veterans activist J. Thomas Burch Jr. put it more bluntly still: Mr. McCain, he said, returned from a Vietnam prisoner of war camp and “forgot about us.”

Tough talk. Mr. McCain’s response was, somewhat peevishly, to seek an apology from Mr. Bush, and he called upon five senators who are veterans (four of them, interestingly enough, Democrats), to demand such an apology while urging Mr. Bush not to have anything to do with “those who would impugn John McCain’s character and so maliciously distort his record on these critical issues.” In other words, don’t mention this issue; and don’t associate with anyone who does.

For his supporters’ remarks, Mr. Bush continues to take a bit of drubbing in the press. But certainly Mr. McCain’s political record on such matters, a source of frustration and even animosity to more than a few veterans, is a permissible subject for comment and investigation. Nevertheless, it looks as if the sacrificial nature of Mr. McCain’s early biography has magically, and practically morally, shielded him from such scrutiny. It becomes increasingly apparent that the firepower of Mr. McCain’s biographical build-up has effectively neutralized certain legitimate questions about his record. But should the salient facts of a politician’s biography render him in any way untouchable?

Biography in such terms is not usually the make-or-break criterion for voters. In fact, the case of Hillary Rodham Clinton presents the other extreme, where biography is not only non-essential, it is superfluous. While it has not exactly been Mrs. Clinton’s lot to lead a life of heroic events, she has nonetheless led an eventful life, much of it well-documented. What stands out namely, her duplicities, corruptions and collusions has had a notably bizarre impact on her Senate race supporters. Where Mr. McCain’s biography focuses the attention of his likely voters, inspiring an allegiance that requires little else that is consistently clear-cut and solid, Mrs. Clinton’s life and times have the effect of causing her supporters to avert their eyes. They don’t want to know. Think of it this way: Nobody who still hopes to solve the enduring mysteries of her career as the eminence rose in both the Clinton state house and the White House would ever think of voting for her. In order to support Hillary, as she now tags herself in New York, one must ignore Hillary’s life.

Perhaps the only similarity between the two sets of voters is an apparent reluctance to know more to reconcile the perplexing contradictions of John McCain; to accept the unpleasant facts about Hillary Clinton. Voters have the right to demand more answers of their candidates. Whether they exercise that right is another question.

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