As soon as Donald Trump brayed that John McCain is “not a war hero” and went on to mock his suffering in North Vietnamese captivity, the righteous reaction of Republicans was entirely predictable. Nearly every would-be presidential candidate in the GOP, humiliated and worried by Trump’s sudden rise in the polls, immediately sought to wrap the loud-mouthed celebrity’s gaffe around his neck. No doubt some of them, like Senator Lindsey Graham, a close friend of his Arizona colleague, were truly incensed by Trump’s slur. But either way, the incident presented an irresistible opportunity to stoke public indignation against an opponent whose taunting has become unbearable, even as his rise appears inexorable.
Whether this episode will cost Trump the admiration of the Tea Party horde remains uncertain. Many of them already dislike McCain and may hear Trump’s insults as brutal candor. Yet in denigrating a war hero to advance himself, the casino mogul did nothing more or less than what other “conservatives” have done for political expediency in elections past. Nobody should be shocked to hear a right-wing chicken-hawk disparaging a worthy veteran at this late date. In the Republican Party, it is standard operating procedure — and for any Republican to pretend otherwise now is risibly hypocritical.
Need we recall every example of this profoundly distasteful and unpatriotic conduct? One of the most poisonous occurred in 2002, when a Georgia Republican named Saxby Chambliss ran ads suggesting that Senator Max Cleland, a Vietnam War hero who had lost both legs and one arm in an accidental grenade explosion, lacked the guts to face down Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Cleland, a Democrat who had served in the Veterans Administration under President Carter, had cast a vote protecting the rights of civil service workers in the new Department of Homeland Security, thus earning him a smear at the hands of Chambliss — one of those smooth favorite sons who had nimbly avoided the Vietnam draft.
When Cleland spoke up against President George W. Bush two years later, Ann Coulter sniped at him with an even nastier shot:
“Max Cleland should stop allowing Democrats to portray him as a war hero who lost his limbs taking enemy fire on the battlefields of Vietnam,” she wrote, describing his misfortune as “an accident during a routine non-combat mission where he was about to drink beer with friends. He saw a grenade on the ground and picked it up. He could have done that at Fort Dix. In fact, Cleland could have dropped a grenade on his foot as a National Guardsman …. Luckily for Cleland’s political career and current pomposity about Bush, he happened to do it while in Vietnam.” Ugly and appalling, even from her reliably foul mouth — and replete with lying insinuation. Although he lost his limbs in an accident — when a young infantryman dropped a live grenade that Cleland picked up — he is an authentic war hero who won a Silver Star for “exceptionally valorous action” at the Battle of Khe Sanh.
According to the official citation:
When the battalion command post came under a heavy enemy rocket and mortar attack, Capt. Cleland, disregarding his own safety, exposed himself to the rocket barrage as he left his covered position to administer first aid to his wounded comrades. He then assisted in moving the injured personnel to covered positions. Continuing to expose himself, Capt. Cleland organized his men into a work party to repair the battalion communications equipment which had been damaged by enemy fire. His gallant action is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service, and reflects great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.
That action took place four days before the accident that maimed Cleland and sent him into years of depression from which he emerged, with great courage, to lead a life of service to his fellow veterans and his country. He possesses a kind of nobility and grace that the likes of Coulter and Chambliss could not even comprehend.