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McCain's Mettle

The Founders knew that character matters most.

12:00 AM, Jul 22, 2008 • By STUART KOEHL
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IN WRITING ABOUT the qualifications for the chief executive of the United States, the Founding Fathers did not seem to care much about where candidates stood on the issues, or what their position papers said, or what their talking points might be. Neither did they care much about poise, posture, eloquence or even "experience". The word that comes up most often, starting with the Federalist Papers, is "character". It wasn't what a man said, or believed, but what a man was that determined his fitness for office.

The German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote in his landmark book On War, that "War is a contest of character", by which he meant that, more than skill or intellect, it is a combination of physical and moral courage allied with resolution that determine success or failure. This is true at all levels of command, from squad to army, and even the entire nation. And it is true not only in war, but in any endeavor where decision-making carries momentous consequences, which is why the Founders placed so much emphasis on it.

The ongoing presidential campaign has tended to focus on matters like "competence", "experience", and "consistency"--but these are essentially peripheral matters. Yes, it is good to have leaders who are competent (I still remember Jimmy Carter), but competence without character can be catastrophic--witness Richard Nixon, or Aaron Burr. Experience is nice to have, but some of our greatest presidents had little or no experience going into the job--but they had the character to sustain them as they learned the ropes. And consistency can either be a sign of character or a sign of dogmatic indifference to facts and an unwillingness to admit one was wrong (it takes guts to change one's mind in response to changing facts). So, in the end, we need a discussion about character, and for some reason, we have been loath to do so in a forthright manner.

Which brings me to a couple of recent incidents involving John McCain. The first was General Wesley Clark's comments regarding McCain's POW experience not being indicative of his fitness for national command. Before he stuck his loafers in his mouth all the way to the ankle on Face the Nation, Clark test-drove his remarks at a June 26 book publication event at the Johns Hopkins University-SAIS Center for Transatlantic Relations. Upon hearing his remarks, I was acutely embarrassed, first because it was a cheap shot; second because I was a contributor to the book on which Clark was supposed to be commenting; and finally because it was so clear that Clark himself did not "get it". When he took the opportunity to repeat the comment the following day on national television, I was outraged, particularly in light of Wesley Clark's own shortcomings in the character field, well known to those who served with him in the United States Army, and in allied military forces when he was NATO supreme commander.

The second incident was a conversation I had with a personal friend, James Warner, who had the opportunity to observe John McCain under particularly stressful conditions designed to test a man's character to the utmost. You see, Jim Warner, like McCain, "missed out" on the 1960s because he, like McCain, was a guest of Comrade Ho Chi Minh in one of Hanoi's finest detention facilities. I stand in awe of Jim, a man of tremendous reserve and dignity, who like McCain came out of the POW experience with a number of permanent physical disabilities courtesy of his hosts. He's pretty open about his experiences, but he recounts them in such a modest, matter-of-fact tone that it takes a while for you to realize the man is talking about grotesque physical and mental torture. That Warner, like McCain and so many of the other Vietnam POWs has not only managed to overcome the trauma of captivity to get on with his life, but has become eminently successful in his chosen field (Jim is a lawyer and served as a policy adviser to President Ronald Reagan) makes one realize that here is a real test of character, one that tells you a lot about how the man will react in a wide range of circumstances: Can his word be trusted? Will he stick to his guns? Will he stand by his friends?

Recently, Jim published in a local paper, the Herald-Mail, an article about one particular incident during his captivity in Hanoi that demonstrates to my satisfaction that John McCain's character is what qualifies him to be president of the United States. Jim tells it like this: