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Sunday, December 4, 2016

GETTYSBURG, PA — There were many poignant moments in President Obama’s speech in Normandy commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day. But two sentences he spoke at what he called “democracy’s beachhead” seemed especially resonant  back home.

“Whenever the world makes you cynical, stop and think of these men,” Obama said. “Whenever you lose hope, stop and think of these men.”

It’s hard not to be cynical after the display of rancid partisanship that greeted the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after five years as a Taliban-held prisoner of war. The Greatest Generation would not have acted this way.

Yes, Obama could certainly have handled the situation better. It’s fair to question the optics of the Rose Garden ceremony announcing Bergdahl’s freedom, to wonder why the administration did not acknowledge upfront the ambiguities surrounding his tour of duty, and to ask why Congress wasn’t alerted to the deal the administration was negotiating.

But what’s truly astounding is how many Republicans raced to turn Obama’s commitment to bringing home a POW into an outrage. It tells us something that so many GOP politicians first tweeted warmly about the good news only to take their tweets down and replace them with the party line that we never negotiate with terrorists, that Obama had endangered the nation, etc.

Four months ago, Senator John McCain said he could support the kind of trade Obama made to get Bergdahl back. When it happened, McCain declared, “I would have not made this deal.” McCain is a national hero who spent over five years in captivity during the Vietnam War. He may have let his unhappiness with Obama’s overall Afghanistan policy get the best of him.

And there is no defense for the rush to judgment on Bergdahl’s own behavior. Those who served with him and are angry that he walked away from his base have every right to challenge what Bergdahl did and insist upon accountability. But why can’t commentators safe in their studios and offices have the decency to withhold their verdicts until all the facts are in? Bergdahl volunteered to fight for his country. This should at least earn him the chance to explain himself before the pundit mob descends.

As the charges were flying, I found myself at the scene of one of our Civil War’s bloodiest and most consequential battles for a meeting of the Aspen Institute’s Franklin Project, dedicated to making a year of national service a widely accepted norm. Leading the effort is retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of our forces in Afghanistan. In an interview, he offered the sanest and most balanced take on this controversy I have heard.

“I think the key thing in a case like Sgt. Bergdahl’s is you first understand there’s a responsibility to our servicemembers and that’s very clear-cut and nobody should argue about that,” McChrystal said. “We know we have a responsibility to get them or their remains, and we go to great efforts to do that.