Do Americans Really Want a War Hero for President?

by: Matt Stoller

Fri Mar 28, 2008 at 12:13

McCain is obviously hinging his whole campaign on his POW time in Vietnam, with this spot closing with 'An American President Americans Have Been Waiting for'.  This is a frequent tool he deploys when he speaks with the press, saying things like 'I haven't been questioned this hard since Hanoi'.

I can't help but think that it's a foolish narrative.  1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 all saw the candidate without military service elected over the candidate who had served, in several cases heroically.  There's a standard conservative narrative about America, one that existed before Hollywood but has been perfected by the entertainment business.  In that narrative, baseball was a pastoral sport untainted by money until greedy city corruptors got their mitts on it, rural America is a place free of sin and greed, war is glorious and divine, segregation was an anomaly, businessmen are self-made, and Americans want a hero for a leader.  It's the Horatia Alger myth spun in various webs outward, a timeless perfection that is America.

Liberal myths look different, and focus on love of country not as the embodiment of perfection but as the embodiment of our own capacity to improve who we are.  This demands an honest understanding that yes, we have flaws.  The story that Obama and Clinton tell by their very presence is about our ability to change direction, include those who are different, and build a diverse messy democracy that works.  It's a much more real and beautiful story in my opinion, and it's also more powerful at this moment when we are confronted with immense tragedies, many of which are of our own making.  And people know this.  There are no Rambo style movies coming out anymore emphasizing the indestructable muscle bound American heros and dominating the culture.  The top eight grossing movies of 2007 were Spiderman 3, Shrek, the Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter,  I am Legend, the Bourne Ultimatum, and National Treasure: Book of Secrets.  All of these emphasize either flawed heros doing battle with themselves, an incompetent, overpowered, or actively malicious state, the apocalypse, or an ironic challenge to mainstream cultural norms as the route to happiness.  This is just not a good environment for an excessively sincere call to serve instruments of national power.

So while the conservative myth is dominant in the political press, there's no just no evidence voters want a hero for President, just as every professional baseball team is identified with a city and youth are leaving rural areas for vibrant and diversely creative metropolitan areas.  Or at any rate, since 1992, voters keep voting against the hero.  So don't be lulled by McCain's narrative into thinking it's a sign that he's a tough candidate.  That's what John Kerry thought when he took on George Bush.  Bush might be President, but Kerry was a hero in Vietnam, and surely the American people would trust a hero with national security.

... Ed Kilgore has similar thoughts at the Democratic Strategist.

McCain may be in the process of making the same big mistake his friend Kerry made in 2004--making his biography the overriding centerpiece of his national security message. Sure, McCain's war record attests to his character and patriotism, but hardly means he'd be an effective commander-in-chief. If that were the case, we'd only have military leaders as presidents. What McCain has to say about national security issues will, over time, have as great an impact on how he's perceived by persuadable voters as endless clips of him in uniform or returning from the Hanoi Hilton. The tragedy of the Kerry campaiign was that the man did have a pretty powerful grasp of national security challenges and what to do about them, but it never much got a hearing thanks to the back-and-forth about his own "story."

In contrast, much of what John McCain's been saying on the substance of national security and foreign policy strikes me as an odd combo of George W. Bush's 2000 and 20004 messages: a multilateral, "humble" foreign policy based on the continuation and even expansion of the very single-minded military adventurism that's made Bush a global pariah and empirical failure. Suggesting that the Democratic nominee isn't fit to debate him on national security because he or she doesn't have a war record isn't going to cut it for John McCain.

Matt Stoller :: Do Americans Really Want a War Hero for President?

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Just to play Devil's Advocate (4.00 / 1)
First let me state that this ad made me very very uncomfortable. I thought it was creepy and borderline ridiculous.

But to be fair, isn't the war hero imagery what John Kerry ran on in 2004 ?

I agree completely (4.00 / 1)
Honestly, I wasn't just creeped by this ad, I was disgusted by it.  The style of the ad, this absolute, unquestioned defense of America, it just sickens me, to be honest.  I respect John McCain's military service, as I did John Kerry's, but I also tremendously respect Barack Obama, because there are so many points where his story could have gone off the rails.  As he writes of his drug use in Dream from my Father, "Junkie. Pothead. That's where I'd be headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man."  America is designed so that Barack Obama will fall, more than once, and never get up again, and if you want to talk about defying the odds, let's talk about defying the odds.  

In a country that systematically, with no regard, destroys the lives of its urban youth, its minorities, and its poorest, kills them, imprisons them, or pays them no attention, Barack Obama defied the odds, no matter what you think of his politics.  The system is designed for John McCain to be president, and for Barack Obama to go to jail, and yet if I have anything to say about it, a man who I couldn't share a water fountain with 50 years ago is going to put his hand on a bible on January 20, 2009, and become the next President of the United States, even if he has to swear to uphold a constitution that says he's 3/5 of a human being.  

So if John McCain wants to talk about how he's the leader of all that's great about America, that he represents the vanguard of liberty, freedom, honor, and only him, let's have that fucking debate.  If he wants to talk about affirmative action, if he wants to talk about drugs (and he will), well, he better take a good, long look in the mirror and his own life before he realizes that he's a ridiculous hypocrite.  Barack Obama, not John McCain, is a realistic, modernized Horatio Alger, and the embodiment of America - the fulfillment of its possibilities, and the recognition of its flaws.

[ Parent ]
Maybe people are just tired of stories (4.00 / 3)
about someone else.  One of the inspiring things about Obama is that he talks about "we" and what "we" can do to make things better, while Clinton talks about "I" and what she has done.  McCain is the same way--it's all about him and what a hero he is.  

It's not that people are so selfish or self-centered as that they are tired of politicians who are.  They want someone who doesn't slice and dice the electorate but who talks about what "we" can achieve for the common good.

And the "real American" is test driving a snide dig at Obama's foreign name and father.  New Mexico would not seem to be the best place to run  such an ad, but what do I know.

John McCain--He's not who you think he is.

interesting thought (4.00 / 1)
Maybe we're also unable to trust that people we elect can actually do things properly.  Obama promises that "we" will do it, as you say, which builds trust because it promises transparency and accountability.

Superior pitch, I think.

[ Parent ]
Agree completely here too (4.00 / 3)
This is another significant component to Obama's candidacy (one I neglect to mention in my post above, but is extremely important to me).  John McCain is about John McCain - Barack Obama is about Barack Obama too, but in a way is not just about his leadership.  He also focuses on the necessity of empowering people, and reach a certain communion with others and his candidacy that I think is very important, and a product of who he is and what he represents in a larger sense.  

In a bumper sticker:

John McCain is me-first.

Barack Obama is we-first.

[ Parent ]
"Real American" is the whole reason for the ad...not puffing up the hero (0.00 / 0)
And the "real American" is test driving a snide dig at Obama's foreign name and father.  New Mexico would not seem to be the best place to run  such an ad, but what do I know.  

That is the purpose of the get to that line about real American...but's much more clever and subliminal than that.  Though it may just be that this is how right wingers feel so the subtext is there because that's what's in their hearts.

The ad's main purpose is not to tout John McCain as a war hero, rather its main goal is to attack both potential Democtatic nominees.....though primaily Obama ....for what John MCCain is supposed to have in abundance....patriotism.

This is an attack ad.

It's Republicans playing the national security card one more time.... John McCain is a patriot and an real AMERICAN and the wimpy Democrats, as usual....have a nominee who isn't a patriot and who isn't a real AMERICAN. Obama...yes Muslim, other countries, Indonesia.... but for the more sophisticated in terms of Obama ...they already have the other less disputable images cued up.....Rev Wright "God damn America", no flag pin, the hands at the side at the national anthem, "for the first ever in my adult life". It's the race they run every 4 may be expected and even boring...but they do it over and over because it works....

The emphasis on odd sounding locution "protect her" referring to America is a twofer.... It's a very subtle gender message aimed somewhat obliquely at Hillary ( she needs protecting therefore it makes her weak) However  the racial subtext is even clearer but just as subtle. It's a message about that old southern fear of black men with  white women....the threat that they pose to the sanctity of the white race.

But  if you make that observation you'll be considered nutty and lost in some time warp.  Criticizing this and getting the media to see it that way is going to very hard.  The McCain camp may have succeeded already in their subliminal messaging to the American people without anything overt enough in terms of race  to be called out upon.  The 527's will do the rest....the other nastier images.

This is not a positive bio ad about a war hero, but an attack ad targeting the OTHER.

"Incrementalism isn't a different path to the same place, it could be a different path to a different place"

[ Parent ]
heh. (4.00 / 3)
the ad that appears here is a "John McCain for President" ad.

I think i'll click through and let John McCain help pay the bills for OpenLeft.


Take a look at McCain's pre-POW military career (0.00 / 0)
Has enough money been funneled into opposition research to look into McCain's record, including his plane-crashing habit?

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both

hmm.... (0.00 / 0)
Even if the potential to "swift boat" John McCain exists, do we want to do it?  Would it be better to elect Obama with a campaign that included that sort of thing, or without?

And would "swift boating," even if it's done by a non-affiliated third party, make Obama look like a hypocrite?  Separate questions.

[ Parent ]
what about (0.00 / 0)
the colorado rockies?

the war hero (0.00 / 0)
I'm surprised that you could be so naive. John Kerry was Democrat war hero, which meant that he wasn't a war hero at all, but a cut-and-run-hate-america traitor. John McCain, of course, is the real war hero, because he knows John Kerry caused us to lose Viet Nam, and more importantly, the press knows it too - that's why the narrative plays out the way it does.

Okay... (4.00 / 1)
Good start, now explain why George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole lost.  Both of them were war heroes in WW2 after all.  

[ Parent ]
Manly voice for Manly American President (0.00 / 0)
Ah, the manliness of it all.  That deep, manly voice compels me spit some chew tobacco.  And go shoot something.

And for some reason my balls really seem to itch right now.

I hope Twitty doesn't see this ad; he'll faint from all the manliness.

What I really want to know (0.00 / 0)
is what did the Vietcong do to McCain when he was a POW?

I mean, was he tortured?  What secrets did he divulge about US troop movements and tactics?  What did he tell the Vietcong about future US plans?  Did he tell the NVA where were our planes were going to strike?

Is John McCain a traitor?  That's what I want to know.  Did John McCain help the US lose Vietnam?

Did the NVA brainwash McCain? Does he have a minder back in Vietnam or China?

(ok, I'll take off the tinfoil now, but I do want to know if John McCain betrayed the US when the NVA tortured him)

To me it says... (0.00 / 0)
John McCain is just George W. Bush without the cowardice.  Not sure that gets McCain many more votes than the 30% who already like Bush.  The utterly false Maverick/Independent theme is the one that can dupe the 21% of independent voters to his side.  

If THIS is the best McCain's got (0.00 / 0)
Let the Democratic nomination go to the Convention and get out the butter, because he's toast.

"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."

Not the same (0.00 / 0)
John McCain IS NOT John Kerry, in any way. To conflate the two of them is an enormous mistake.

McCain will never be swiftboated on his war record and his war hero status is undeniable. That's really important because his whole political image is built around that status--the core of his political image is simply untouchable.

Kerry's problem is that he tried to play the war hero but failed miserably. This won't happen with McCain.


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