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Back Channels: He's brave and he's honest

A senior noncommissioned officer at Fort Lewis, Wash., in the late '70s had the unenviable task of guiding soldiers through the discharge process.

Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain , R-Ariz., has both experience and integrity.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain , R-Ariz., has both experience and integrity.Read moreL.M. OTERO / Associated Press

A senior noncommissioned officer at Fort Lewis, Wash., in the late '70s had the unenviable task of guiding soldiers through the discharge process.

He would face a roomful of GIs eager to begin civilian life and methodically review a mountain of paperwork and a mostly forgettable list of do's and don'ts. Mostly. One thing he said stopped the fidgeting and horseplay cold.

The NCO reminded the soldiers that though they could leave the base, they were technically in the Army until midnight. Then he added:

"Don't do anything to disgrace the uniform. A lot of good guys died wearing it."

It was good advice for impatient GIs then. It's good advice for presidential candidates and their surrogates now.

Of course, retired Army Gen. Wes Clark has a right to oh-so-subtly denigrate the service of junior officers he deems unprepared for the office he failed to achieve. He is free to spin a war hero's record in a hapless effort to make Barack Obama a more commanding-looking commander in chief. And if Obama thinks shooting spitballs at John McCain from behind a general's uniform looks presidential, go for it.

But don't pretend that this Democratic misstep was an attempt by McCain to question his opponent's patriotism. He would never do that. Besides, the issue isn't patriotism. It's judgment. And character. And last week Obama showed his considerable shortcomings in both areas.

McCain's own character and judgment were certainly influenced by his naval career and his years as a POW. Those experiences don't automatically qualify him to be president, but they do spotlight the kind of integrity, courage and sense of duty that are needed in the Oval Office.

Start with courage. That was the first answer I got at last week's town-hall meeting when I asked a supporter why he backed McCain. One word. No hesitation.


There have been no modern-day presidential candidates who were tested under such extreme circumstances as McCain during his years of imprisonment. The only other former POW who was president was Andrew Jackson, held as a teenager by the British during the Revolution.

In Hanoi, McCain's integrity and honor passed the tests. He fought back against his captors, despite repeated torture and solitary confinement. He refused an early release - and suffered for it.

,Here's a man who saw evil face to face and stood up to it. He endured the worst that one human can do to another and survived. He understands and appreciates freedom as few can.

That courage has carried over into his political career, with his willingness to stand up for what he believes in, whether the issue is campaign-finance reform, immigration, or other topics that cause some Republicans to wince.

McCain understands the concerns, but he speaks out anyway. He refused to play to the crowd when one questioner in Bucks County last week raised the immigration issue by decrying having to "press one for English."

He said the country must first secure its borders - the lesson he says he learned from last year's failed attempt at passing immigration legislation. He could have left it there. But then he talked about the need for "comprehensive reform." Why not just scratch your fingernails down the conservative chalkboard? That very morning, conservative radio host Laura Ingraham and her guest were decrying McCain's bid for the "pro-amnesty vote."

"He's honest," said Karin Inngermann, a supporter from Washington Crossing. She's glad to see the Democrats have nominated Obama, but believes he's too inexperienced for the presidency.

"I'll feel safer with McCain," she said.

Peter Meissner, of Three Bridges, N.J., says any talk of amnesty for illegals is a "disgrace." After the town hall, he still didn't like everything he heard, but admired McCain's willingness to say what he believes.

Meissner had considered staying home on Election Day. Now he says he'll vote for McCain.

Clearly, courage and integrity demonstrated over a lifetime of service have their appeal, even if they aren't the only qualifications for high office. So why did Clark bring it up?

Perhaps this was an example of the new kind of politics we've heard so much about. Define McCain by highlighting his strengths: a fierce commitment to serving his country, heroism in wartime, and political courage that leads to bipartisan accomplishments. All vs. an incredibly thin resume, an inability to reach out and get much done, and a habit of hiding behind - and then dumping on - surrogates.

Or maybe it's as coldly calculating as it seems. In which case, voters have a clear choice for president: One man who has done the uniform proud or one who will use it as needed, disgracing those who suffered or died wearing it.