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.
The Cleland episode served as a prelude to the infamous “Swift Boat Veterans For Truth” assault on John Kerry, another heroic veteran, who returned home to testify and organize against the same terrible war in which he had served with such distinction. Kerry’s brave dissent brought him the lasting enmity of the Republican right — and, when he ran for president in 2004, a litany of outlandish claims about his own highly decorated service, for which he had earned a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts.
Those false charges were concocted and publicized, as I reported at the time, with money provided by Texas millionaires allied with the Bush family and their political boss Karl Rove. The Republicans led by Rove went so far as to mock Kerry’s Purple Hearts on the floor of their convention. Their aim was not only to ruin Kerry’s reputation, but to deflect attention from the highly questionable service record of George W. Bush — a subject about which he had lied shamelessly in his own 1999 campaign autobiography, A Charge To Keep.
Ultimately, Kerry and the Navy vets who had actually served with him refuted all of the bogus Swift Boat accusations. By then, however, the political damage was done. He had lost a close election to a man whose presidential candidacy was originally rejected by most voters, and whose presidency came to be seen as a tragic mistake by most Americans.
Among those who spoke up on Kerry’s behalf, unsurprisingly, was none other than his friend and fellow veteran McCain, who denounced the Swift Boat campaign as “dishonest and dishonorable.” Recalling how supporters of George W. Bush spread lies about his own service during the 2000 primaries, McCain told the Associated Press that the “independent” Swift Boat ads attacking Kerry were “the same kind of deal that was pulled on me,” and called on the Bush White House to repudiate them. Equally unsurprisingly, Bush rejected McCain’s plea for decency. The Bush family, including Jeb — who once considered posing as a conscientious objector to avoid the Vietnam draft — quietly let the dirty tricksters do their dirty work, as usual.
That wasn’t quite the end, however, as blogger extraordinaire Oliver Willis reported over the weekend. On the day before his brother’s second inauguration in January 2005, Jeb Bush sent a groveling letter (on official Governor of Florida stationery) to George E. Day, one of the leaders of the Swift Boat campaign. “As someone who truly understands the risk of standing up for something.” he wrote pompously, “I simply cannot express in words how much I value the [Swift Boat Veterans’] willingness to stand up against John Kerry. Their efforts, like their service to their country, speak volumes about what matters most.”
On Saturday, Jeb quickly seized the chance to pose as a defender of those who have served, while bashing his rival Trump. “Enough with the slanderous attacks,” he tweeted. “@SenJohnMcCain and all our veterans – especially POWs – have earned our respect and admiration.”
For those who know the story behind Jeb’s feigned outrage, that tweet could evoke nausea, or laughter, or perhaps both. What it could not do is erase the stain on his character that this episode has revealed. Sure, Donald Trump is a demented, obnoxious character who lacks moral values. But somehow Jeb, a tough-talking weenie and sanctimonious fraud, seems even worse.