Real estate tycoon Donald Trump has a serious problem with American war heroes. He says he doesn’t like them if they’re captured.
The New York billionaire said so last week about one of our most famous war heroes: Arizona Sen. John McCain, who was taken prisoner during the Vietnam War after his Skyhawk dive bomber was blown out of the air over Hanoi, shattering his arms and one of his legs.
His parachute landed him in a lake where Vietnamese soldiers dragged him to shore and took him to a prisoner of war camp called “the plantation.”
Mr. McCain was thrown into a small, filthy, windowless cell, beaten, starved and tortured during the more than five years of his imprisonment. A cellmate told him later that he wasn’t expected to live. But he survived and on March 14, 1973, returned to the United States, a virtual cripple, barely held up by his crutches.
During this same time, Mr. Trump, who had graduated from the Wharton School, was working for his father’s real estate firm, collecting rent from low-income families in New York.
In his autobiography about that period, Mr. Trump wrote, “Suddenly here I was in a scene that was violent at worst and unpleasant at best.”
But Mr. McCain encountered real violence in North Vietnam, not the kind imagined by young Donald Trump. And for his heroic bravery, never once buckling and giving the enemy the information they wanted, Mr. McCain was awarded a Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross.
He was elected a congressman, then U.S. senator, and in 2008 the Republican Party nominated him for president.
But Mr. Trump, who has an ego the size of the Grand Canyon and who has an embarrassing history of making inflammable, exaggerated statements, decided to go after John McCain during a presidential campaign speech in Iowa.
“He’s not a war hero,” Mr. Trump said last week. “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”
What is Mr. Trump saying here? That because they had been captured, our best and bravest soldiers who fought for their country, bled, lost limbs and returned physically broken, were not true heroes?
He seems to be saying that Mr. McCain is a war hero only because he was captured — not for anything else he did. In Mr. Trump’s eyes, the true heroes, the ones he likes the best, are “people who weren’t captured.”
It was a stupid, ignorant, senseless, insensitive and thoughtless remark. It was unbecoming for any candidate for the presidency who wants to be taken seriously and is seen as someone who carefully chooses his words. It is not the manner of a candidate who understands that a wrong or careless reply can get our country into war or further inflame a delicate national security issue.
Is this the kind of president we want speaking for our country — someone who doesn’t think before he shoots off his mouth?
Mr. Trump isn’t backing away from his remarks. When ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz asked him on Sunday’s “This Week” program if he thought he should apologize to Mr. McCain, Mr. Straight Talker replied, “No, not at all.”
Instead, Mr. Trump sought to change the subject by accusing Mr. McCain of having “done nothing” for veterans. When she read statements from veteran leaders who condemned Mr. Trump, he said, “Well, maybe they don’t speak to the same vets that I speak to.”
Mr. Trump’s political style of combat — and the reason that he gives for his latest attack on Mr. McCain — sounds like a schoolboy’s excuse for name-calling.
He said, for example, that he became angry when he read that Mr. McCain, in a New Yorker interview, called his supporters a bunch of “crazies.”
When asked by Ms. Raddatz if he intends calling people he disagrees with a “loser” or “dummy,” he said,”Look, when people attack me, I let them have it back. “You know people are constantly attacking my hair. I don’t see you coming to my defense.” Then he continued to call Mr. McCain “a dummy.”
Politics is in some ways a verbal contact sport that can get rough at times, but the trick is to appear “presidential” and tough at the same time — and Mr. Trump can’t quite get the hang of it.
Ronald Reagan was a master at the game when he was running against President Carter. Reagan kept saying that the economy was in a recession, as Mr. Carter’s advisers said Reagan didn’t even know the definition of a true recession.
“Well, if it’s definition they want, I’ll given ‘em one,” he said at a rally launching his fall campaign. “A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose your job, and recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”
For Reagan, it was a soft one, two, three punch, but it knocked Mr. Carter out of the ring.
Mr. Trump has moved to the front of the GOP primary race, with 24 percent in the latest Washington Post-ABC poll, followed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (13 percent) and former Florida governor Jeb Bush (12 percent), with all the others in single digits.
But it’s early yet, and Mr. Trump’s opponents are going to be reminding Republicans, especially veterans and our soldiers here and abroad, about The Donald’s remark that John McCain is “not a war hero.”
Personal attacks can get you only so far in presidential politics, but then it can turn against you and bite you in the behind.
Attacking one of America’s true war heroes will likely result in a very big bite.
• Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and contributor to The Washington Times.