Should Mccain’s expereinces count for him?

I’m fascinated at the symbolism that’s shaping up in the presidential election.  It looks like it’s coming down to a mostly conservative former prisoner of war and a mostly progressive former community organizer. 

As we assess these two facts about the candidates, it’s interesting to me how they play out.  There seems to be an unquestioned assumption that being a prisoner of war counts as something that works in Mccain’s favor.  There seems to be an unquestioned assumption that Obama’s time as a community organizer does not.

In the final analysis, these assumptions might turn out to be right.  But it’s incredibly difficult to even ask the question “Is being a former prisoner of war good preperation to be president?”

Before I explain why I think this is a question worth asking, I want to state some things up front:

#1) I thank God for veterans and recognize we would not have a country with out them.

#2) I can’t imagine being a prisoner of war.  Mccain experienced periods of torture.  So near as I can see, he came through this experience fairly healthy and whole.  I doubt I could do this.

#3) Though I am not a Republican and disagree with Mccain on a variety of issues I have a great deal of respect for him as a human being.  I appreciate that he is calls things like he sees them and doesn’t get hemmed in by partisan politics.

(It’s interesting.  If I were criticizing a liberal, I’d be able to bring up the idea that “political correctness” says I’m not supposed to call these things into question.  Conservative politics also has a code of things that are taken as sacred and that we’re not supposed to question, too.  Nobody’s come up with a neat little name for these ideas, so it’s harder to complain about the fact that we’re bullied into not talking about them.)

Having said all that, I’d like to explore  why I think we ought to question the assumption that Mccain’s experiences as a prisoner of war inherently lead to him being a better candidate.

The most obvious reason is that simply being a hero is not preperation for being the president.  Certainly character is huge.  And character certainly might have been built through that process.  But if that’s the real issue then we ought to look at all the candidates’ lives and choose our president based on who has suffered the most or overcome the most adversity.

If we engaged in such a search through all the candidates lives, and uncovered the toughest experiences they went through, we’d be wise to ask whether these experiences were a good thing or a bad thing for them.

When I look back at the traumatic experiences of my own life, I know that they leave a mixed impact on me.  Some leave me with strength and bitterness.  Others leave with me with greater endurance and also a prejudice.

So here’s the question: Did being a prisoner of war for five years, did being tortured for five years leave a positive or a negative impact on Mccain?

If it were me that experienced that, I know that there would be absolutely no way that I could come through that experience and be qualified to be America’s commander and chief.  There’s no way I could represent my country in an unbiased manner.  There’s no way that I could negotiate reasonably with other countries.

Mccain has strength in ways that I’ll never imagine.  I’m open to the outside possibility that someone, such as him, might make it through those 5 years and have it build them up.  I believe that people heal and overcome their wounds.

When we look at things on the surface, we often think “the person who has been through the most experiences is most qualified.”  But if we look at the issue very deeply we realize that there are limits to this. 

Most of us would not want to look like the potential boss’s ex-boyfriend in a job interview.  The boss recently experienced a break-up.  This experience does not better prepare her for making the decision around whether or not we’re qualified for the job.

If something horrendous happened to someone in my family, part of me might wish for the death penalty of the perpretrator.  I believe I’d be wrong to wish for the death penalty; I don’t believe in it.  But this wouldn’t make me wish for it any less.  Having a family member victimized would not prepare to judge fairly about legal issues.

We recognize this principal in jury selection.  People with significant experiences similar to the case are dismissed as the assumption is that the person could be biased.

Perhaps Mccain’s made it through to the other side of his experiences.  Maybe he’s grown through them.  Nobody’s really asking the question, so we can’t really know.  And some of the reason we don’t know, some of the reason we’re not asking is simply because we’re afraid that people will bully us by labeling us “unpatriotic” for asking the question in the first place.

 But it’s not an issue of patriotism at all.  It’s bigger than our country.  Nelson Mandella become president of South Africa within months of being released from a decades-long improsonment.  When this occured, people wondered the same things I’m wondering about Mccain: Is he unbiased?  Did the experience scar him?    Though Mandella is a hero and did an amazing job, it was appropriate to ask these questions in his case.  I’m suggesting here that we ought to be asking the same for Mccain.

At the bare minimum, I’d say that his experiences are a sword that cuts both ways.  In some sense it probably did prepare him for the presidency.  But how could it not have other, negative effects?  It seems to me that it’s incredibly important to wiegh these effects as well.


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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

7 thoughts on “Should Mccain’s expereinces count for him?”

  1. great points.. especially this one:
    “there would be absolutely no way that I could come through that experience and be qualified to be America’s commander and chief. There’s no way I could represent my country in an unbiased manner.”


  2. If it were me that experienced that, I know that there would be absolutely no way that I could come through that experience and be qualified to be America’s commander and chief. There’s no way I could represent my country in an unbiased manner. There’s no way that I could negotiate reasonably with other countries.

    Jeff, I suggest that you read McCain’s books, in particular “Faith of My Fathers” and “Worth the Fighting For.” As it is, I can’t help but think that the thrust of the above quote is just a ridiculous sort of slander. (You seem to be saying that because McCain was tortured that perhaps it drove him insane since you speculate, probably wrongly, that it would have driven you insane.)

    However, I don’t disagree with most of your piece. It is not at all clear that being a POW has anything to do with being President of the United States. Of course, that’s not what McCain is running on. He’s running on a political career dating back to 1982 and being involved in every major security issue that has faced this country in that time (as an important member of the Armed Services Committee). It is that experience which dwarfs Obama’s, not his time as a POW.

    But a lot of your piece is asking questions which have been a part of the public record for decades. And this is the reason that nobody is asking them; they’ve already been clearly and obviously answered. If you don’t like McCain’s foreign policy, then that’s fine and you should just say so. But implying that perhaps he was driven round the bend by being tortured is beneath you.


  3. Just out of curiosity, would it be okay if Republicans started saying things like, “Well, it’s great that Obama is black, but we should look at the negatives of that. If I had grown up black, I’d probably have come to hate white people. Can we really expect him to give white people an even break?”


  4. David:
    Thanks for your encouragement.

    It’s a fair enough point that Mccain’s books probably have parts of the answer I’m looking for.
    I don’t particularly like Mccain’s foreign policy, but that’s not what I’m saying here. If I left the impression that I felt like Mccain was insane, then I did not communicate clearly.
    I did my best to use words such as “unbiased” and “healed”. I provided a number of analogies none of which demonstrated that the sufferer was insane.
    If my attempt was to levy the charge that Mccain is insane, this would of course be slanderous, and yes, it would be beneath me.
    As for your question about whether people could ask a paralell question of Obama… in some form that question would be fine to ask. I’m all for asking questions. But I don’t think that anybody’s likely to get very far with it.
    Generally speaking, Republicans have lots of reasons for wanting to claim that the playing field is much more level than Democrats do.
    To make the claim that simply having grown up black would be enough to cause a person to hate white people would be reason to dismiss the black person as a viable candidate. But it would also lead to agnowlodging the impact of racism; in the act of dismissing Obama a person would have to admit that the playing field is not to level as they thought, and further, many would recognize that in this admission they are called to do something about the unfairness of this arrangement.
    In short, introducing this question is a win-win for progessives. If someone answers answers that they can’t expect Obama to be unbiased then they’d be buying into progressive assumptions about the way the world works; if they claim that it’s reasonable to think Obama would give white people a fair break then we’ve got no reason to dismiss him as a viable candidate.

    All the time we look at people’s life experiences and circumstances and ask whether these made the person more or less fit for the job. Sometimes it’s hard to admit that certain experiences impact us in a certain way. Certainly one part of this process is actually establishing whether or not the experience is likely to have the proposed effect on the candidate.


  5. My brother had some interesting insights on the subject that I thought I’d share.

    #1) Mccain’s experiences as a POW actually might lend him legitimacy with some rulers and people. His experiences in war give him the military equivalent of street credibility with folks whose everyday lives and realities are war.

    #2) One of the reasons that it’s so hard to ask this question is that in some sense, it’s adding insult to injury. The man lost five years of his life in terrible circumstances. There is some level of impetuousness that we might add to this suffering.
    The stakes are too important I think, for this to be sufficient reason not to ask the questions. But I’m doing my best to atleast be aware of his heroism and to be as respectful as I can in how I ask it.


  6. Well, to be fair, my opinion is that you were implying that POWs are highly likely to become xenophobic rather than insane, but this is clearly false in Mr. McCain’s case. For one thing, it is a matter of record that Mr. McCain was deeply involved in normalizing relations with VietNam (you know, the people who tortured him) back in 2001.

    As for racism, not many people will deny that it has probably played some role in Mr. Obama’s life. He is of the first generation where it can plausibly be claimed that it didn’t play a huge role. (Born in 1961, Mr. Obama has no memory of Jim Crow. For that matter, institutionalized racism has played no particular role even in Mr. Obama’s ancestry since his mother was white and his father wasn’t from the U.S.)

    On the other hand, I favor a number of programs for minorities (free college tuition, for example), not because I think modern blacks have suffered much from the effects of slavery or Jim Crow, but because of the negative consequences of various Great Society programs which were put in place ostensibly to help them, but which have instead created large degrees of government dependency in blacks and other minorities, making it more difficult for them to get ahead. I.e. I believe blacks now suffer from the effects of the patronizing racism of the left.

    Anyway, you should definitely read the two books I recommended above. Unlike the vapid nonsense written by most politicians, McCain’s books are both A) excellent and B) very educational. This is due, in no small part, to the fact that the man has the best biography in politics. “Faith of My Fathers” is how the brash, arrogant, narcissistic young Naval aristocrat (both his father and grandfather were Admirals) found the faith that sustained him after he was shot down over VietNam and broken by his captors. (His father, by the way, was Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command at the time his son was a POW. When the VietNamese learned this, they offered to let McCain go so they could use him as a propaganda tool to show how the well-connected got special favors. Because Naval regulations required that POWs be released in the same order they were captured, McCain refused.)

    By the by, because John McCain does not use his family as political props, you may not be aware that one of his sons just returned from Iraq. He has two sons in the military, John Sidney McCain IV (Navy) and Jimmy McCain (Marines). I think Democrats are just mad because they can’t use the “chickenhawk” line with any remote plausibility against John McCain.


  7. A slight error in the above. Normalization of relations with VietNam occurred in 1995, the 2001 agreement was on trade. Both were vigorously supported by McCain (and John Kerry).


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