My book, Why Veterans Run, describes the political paths of the presidential candidates who served in the armed forces. John McCain features prominently. His passing last week, complicated by the steady antagonist treatment he received from President Trump, should be discussed not only as a moment in the Trump administration, but also on its own terms.
I wrote quite a bit about him in chapter eight on the Vietnam War veterans, along with the others (John Kerry and Al Gore). Here is an excerpt, relating to the day in October, 1967 when he was shot down over Hanoi:
…After his education at the U.S. Naval Academy, McCain became an aviator and piloted carrier-based A-4 Skyhawks. These single-seat small planes were used during the Vietnam War as fast, light bombers. For his twenty-third bombing mission, McCain flew with his squadron to attack a power station in North Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, in October 1967. McCain watched the radar tracking alarm light up, signaling a likely incoming surface-to-air missile (SAM); engaged countermeasures; and then dove and dropped his payload. After dropping his bombs, his plane’s wing was destroyed by the SAM, forcing McCain to eject over hostile territory. Ejecting from a small combat aircraft even when not in hostile conditions is dangerous. The process to push the pilot from the aircraft uses controlled explosives to quickly launch the seat from the cockpit—the intention being to save the life without excessive concern for the limbs. McCain’s arms and legs were severely injured by the ejection. While he survived and landed in a lake, he sustained many injuries and broken bones that were made worse by the crowd that pulled him from the water and beat him, as well as neglect and abuse by his captors.
When he first ran for Congress in 1982, he “deflected carpetbagger accusations” with the following memorable line:
I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the First District of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.
(photo via US Navy)
There is a lot of attention on the congressional race in Kentucky’s sixth where one of the several female Democrats with military experience is challenging a nonveteran GOP incumbent. Congressman Andy Barr made an unforced error when he appeared to some to put his time in Congress somehow as equivalent to challenger Amy McGrath’s time flying F/A-18s in combat over Iraq and Afghanistan. Details of what he actually said can be found here, but this just looks like a freshman error for someone trying to remain in office. Remember when Mitt Romney tried to convey that the time his sons were spending helping him try to win the presidency was somehow tantamount to serving in the armed forces? That only put more light on the sons’ (and Romney’s) lack of service.
Why does it seem like this was an really easy one to avoid? McGrath’s service is vividly central in her campaign biography, maybe more so than the other vets running. Even down to the last detail: her campaign website’s favicon is a little blue outline of an F/A-18.
I had a great conversation with Michael Schulder about veterans in elections that he turned into a wonderful episode of his “Wavemaker Conversations: A Podcast for the Insanely Curious.”
Check it out!
George P. Bush, who does does not share the rest of his extended family’s disdain for Donald Trump, is a rising political force in Texas. He’s running for reelection in his statewide job (and presumably stepping stone to higher office) of State Land Commissioner. However, Jeb Bush’s son seems to be tripping over his military service record.
W. Gardner Selby just wrote a piece about a recent mailer Bush sent out to Texans. He claims to be a “Retired U.S. Navy officer,” but those with military experience or connections thereto know that “retirement” is different than “veteran.” It takes a career to retire and it comes with far more benefits than those who separate after one or two hitches in uniform. Don’t expect the campaign to make the same error twice if this turns into bigger news.
Utterly irrelevant side note for full disclosure: I once got George P. Bush out. In the early ’00s, both he and I were students at the University of Texas and played intramural softball. He was a law student, I in political science (our team name: “The Regime”). Bush batted left and I played deep right. They crushed us in the final score, but I found the right spot in the outfield to wait. The ball stayed in the air for about a week (he did *not* inherit a “low energy” swing from his dad), but I got it.
Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) is starting to become one of the most newsworthy members of her cohort of legislators. She recently announced her pregnancy, which warranted coverage given the fact that no sitting U.S. senator has ever had a baby (given birth!) before.
However, more relevant to our interests, she has become one of the top Democrats’ go-to Donald Trump critics. I’m paying specific attention to how she weaves her own military service in Iraq into her criticisms of the president.
Duckworth, an OIF Black Hawk pilot injured by an RPG, has been increasingly vocal in engaging Trump. Her most recent appellation for the president is “Cadet Bone Spurs,” circa this tweet:
This was a retort, hitting back at Trump’s February 5th diversion-from-the-teleprompter in Ohio, in which he insinuated that those that failed to clap for him at the State of the Union were possibly “treasonous,” though he framed it in his frequently-used “they say” or “some say” pattern.
She’s also called him a “five-deferment draft dodger,” presumably in reference to the educational and medical deferments Trump obtained during the Vietnam War.
In my new book, I did my best to make a bang-up index. Regrettably, while you can find “beef, embalmed,” I felt “spurs, bone” not sufficiently index-worthy. More seriously, the book does of course speak to Trump’s 2016 candidacy in the context of other Vietnam-war eligible presidential candidates, roughly from Bill Clinton to Trump.
(image from wikimedia)
The politics of military service found two colorful streams in the past few days. While he got his fair share of criticism over the timing of it (given the imminent landfall of Hurricane Harvey), Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio as the Friday news cycle wound down. Arpaio of course was convicted last month on charges related to defying a court order by continuing racial profiling. Trump hinted that he would pardon Arpaio at a campaign style rally (2020 ostensibly) days prior, and pulled the trigger Friday.
Now, this blog does not really care about the president exercising one of his actually-clearly-spelled-out-powers in the constitution itself—what caught my eye was the justification offered: Arpaio was a Korean War-era army veteran. Trump aide Tom Bossert (and others) said,
“I think there’s a clemency argument that can be made for the long history of service…in the United States military…”
He joined a medical unit and spent time in France during the Korean War according to Wikipedia. A few years back when he created a veteran-segregated jail wing to help veterans, he said, “I served in the military in the Korean War,” so maybe Wikipedia has it wrong, whatever, I’m not sailing this ship down the Stolon Valor seas (unless exaggerated claims are forthcoming).
So why rely on his army service from more than 50 years ago to justify the pardon? In my mind, it’s the easiest part of the entire story to understand. Veterans enjoy a sort of first-class citizenship position in American civic space, so reminding the audience that Arpaio wore a U.S. Army uniform as a young man distracts from his controversies as sheriff.
The Trump administration caused a stir in military policy in the exact same news cycle with a detail-light ban on transgender recruitment. We’ll hear more on this after Harvey settles down, but apparently, one Trump cabinet member’s daughter does not approve of the commander in chief’s transgender move. Jennifer Detlefsen, daughter of the Interior Secretary, served in the navy and avoided nuance in her response:
“This veteran says sit down and shut the f–k up, you know-nothing, never-served piece of s–t.”
(photo from Gage Skidmore)
I pass along (forgive duplication) notice of a call for papers with regard to a future special issue of Journal of Veterans Studies. They seek to explore issues related to transgender policies and issues, especially in comparison to changes to politics and policies about homosexuals serving openly in the armed forces since the 1990s. Check it out.