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 immediately sought to wrap the loud-mouthed celebrity’s gaffe around his neck.
The incident presented an irresistible opportunity for Trump’s rivals to stoke public indignation against a merciless, infuriating, suddenly formidable opponent. No doubt some of them, like McCain’s close friend Senator Lindsey Graham, were truly incensed by Trump’s slur. Yet much of the outrage on the right seems insincere.
In denigrating a widely admired Vietnam veteran to advance himself, the casino mogul did nothing more or less than what other “conservatives” have long done for political expediency. Nobody should be shocked to hear a Republican chicken-hawk disparaging a heroic vet; such conduct is standard operating procedure.
In 2002, Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss ran ads suggesting that then-Senator Max Cleland, a Democratic 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 had cast a vote protecting employee rights in the new Department of Homeland Security, earning him a smear by Chambliss — who had smoothly avoided the Vietnam draft.
Two years later, when Cleland spoke up against President George W. Bush, columnist Ann Coulter sniped again:
“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. … Luckily for Cleland’s political career and current pomposity about Bush, he happened to do it while in Vietnam.”
Luckily? Cleland 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, “Capt. Cleland, disregarding his own safety, exposed himself to the [enemy] rocket barrage as he left his covered position to administer first aid to his wounded comrades…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 for life.
The Cleland smear served as prelude to the infamous “Swift Boat Veterans For Truth” assault on John Kerry, another heroic veteran, who returned home to oppose that terrible war.
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 Navy service, for which he had earned a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts.
Those false charges were concocted and publicized with money provided by Texas millionaires allied with the Bush family and their political boss Karl Rove. Led by Rove, the Republicans went so far as to mock Kerry’s Purple Hearts on the floor of their convention.
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.
Among those who spoke up on Kerry’s behalf, unsurprisingly, was none other than his friend 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 in 2004 that the “independent” Swift Boat ads attacking Kerry were “the same kind of deal that was pulled on me.” He called on the Bush White House to repudiate them but, equally unsurprisingly, the president 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 reported by blogger extraordinaire Oliver Willis. 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 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.”
But last week Jeb quickly posed 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; 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 stuntman, lacking moral values. But somehow Jeb, a sanctimonious fraud, looks even worse.