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.