Once asked how he became a war hero, John F. Kennedy said, "It was involuntary; they sank my boat."
Historian and Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger said this "deflationary wartime understatement" was an example of Kennedy’s nonchalance.
In 1943, a Japanese destroyer sliced Navy Lt. Kennedy’s PT-109 in half, plunging his crew into waters aflame with fuel. As skipper, Kennedy saved the crew.
Likewise, John McCain became a war hero when the North Vietnamese shot down his Navy plane. He endured more than five years as a prisoner of war.
And during George H.W. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign, the candidate emphasized that he too had became a war hero — by being shot down.
His campaign featured footage of Navy aviator Bush, only 20 years old at the time, being rescued by the USS Finback after the Japanese shot down his plane on Sept. 22, 1944.
Direct assault on Kerry
Four years ago, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth mounted a direct assault on Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. And they attacked the one asset thought to be invulnerable: his Vietnam veteran credentials.
Now some Democrats, led by retired Gen. Wesley Clark, are aiming directly at what has defined McCain’s career, ever since he first won a seat in House of Representatives nearly 30 years ago: his stature as a former POW and a war hero.
In an interview on CBS's Face the Nation, Clark said, "I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war, he was a hero to me and to…millions of others in the armed forces as prisoner of war."
But, Clark argued, "He hasn’t held executive responsibility…He hasn’t been there and ordered the bombs to fall."
Moderator Bob Schieffer commented that the candidate Clark is supporting, Sen. Barack Obama, has no executive or military command experience either.
"Nor has he ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down," Schieffer added.
"I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president," Clark replied.
For McCain, getting shot down and enduring as a POW has been a political asset. Now Clark was suggesting that the "getting shot down" part was an irrelevant — at least as far as being a credential for the White House.
McCain, Arizona, and Hanoi
Throughout his career, McCain and his supporters have alluded to his service in Vietnam.
McCain moved to Arizona in 1981. When he ran for a House seat the very next year, some questioned whether he’d lived in the state long enough. "The longest place I ever lived was Hanoi," McCain shot back.
In recent speeches on the presidential campaign trail, McCain has frequently alluded to fellow prisoner of war Mike Christian, a man who stitched a homemade American flag during his dentention and was beaten for it by his North Vietnamese captors.
In the 1988 and 1992 campaigns, with Vietnam fresh in voters’ minds, Democrats were defensive about not having the candidate with a heroic military record.
Bill Clinton's 1992 candidacy was nearly destroyed when records emerged of his working to maneuver his way out of the draft in 1969. "I want to thank you," wrote Clinton to ROTC commander Col. Eugene Holmes on Dec. 3, 1969, "for saving me from the draft."
Defending Clinton that year, Kerry argued, "We do not need to divide America over who served and how. I have personally always believed that many served in many different ways. Someone who was deeply against the war in 1969 or 1970 may well have served their country with equal passion and patriotism by opposing the war as by fighting in it."
But by the beginning of 2004, Democrats were able to turn the tables, in effect arguing that their leaders were the military veterans, not Republicans like Dick Cheney, who obtained a student draft deferment during the Vietnam War.
Kerry’s precious asset in the 2004 Democratic primaries was his service as a Navy officer who conducted river patrols during the conflict. Kerry’s supporters said that the combat experience convinced them of his decency and courage.
Kerry invulnerable on national security?
"I have two nephews who served in the Army in the Vietnam War," Lois Dencklau, a Kerry supporter in Fort Dodge, Iowa, said in January 2004, right before the state's caucuses. "I felt exactly the way Kerry did: It was a terrible war. But that didn’t stop him from being there and serving his country."
The Republicans, Democrats said, would never be able to attack Kerry on national security or impugn his patriotism.
And in case anyone missed the message, Kerry himself opened his speech at the Democratic national convention in Boston by declaring, with a snappy salute, "I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty."
But Kerry’s supposed invulnerability on national security was exactly what Republicans did attack, first by questioning what he had done with his Navy medals and then in August of 2004, with Swift Boat ads that disputed the account of his time in Vietnam.
It was a reversal of the common political strategy of jabbing away at an opponent’s perceived weak spots. Instead, it took a strength and tried to tarnish it.
With Clark’s argument that getting shot down is not a qualification to be president, the long-running political fight over "did you serve or didn’t you?" has evolved to "you did serve, but that’s not really relevant."
Obama rejects Clark's commentary
Sen. Barack Obama rejected Clark’s comments Monday. And Tuesday morning on ABC’s Good Morning America, Clark said the Democratic nominee "had nothing to do with this."
But in campaigns, once an argument is out in the public domain, a candidate distancing himself from an ally, or vice versa, serves only to point listeners back to the original comment.
And Clark continued making his case Tuesday in an interview on MSNBC with Andrea Mitchell, saying, "There’s a distinction between having shown your courage and commitment as a soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine in the United States armed forces, and having learned from that the judgment that will make you a better president. I think ultimately this is a question about who has the better judgment to be commander-in-chief."
That judgment theme fits neatly into what Obama has argued from the start: that he, unlike rivals Hillary Clinton and McCain, had the good sense to not support the 2002 resolution authorizing President Bush to invade Iraq.
Obama was not serving in the Senate in 2002, so he did not have make the decision on whether to vote for the resolution. McCain did, and he voted for it.