POW card up his sleeve

John McCain was on Jay Leno's show, cracking wise about being old. He said his Social Security number was 8. He said we should remember that he was the one who warned us the British were coming.

The ability to laugh and joke about one's perceived foibles or vulnerabilities suggests healthiness. It also signals that the wise-cracking candidate deems the perceived foibles or vulnerabilities to be unworthy of real worry, eventually insignificant.

So then Leno brought up the seven homes that McCain and his rich beer-business wife own, and that, when asked about them, McCain had been unable to say how many homes they did, in fact, possess.

McCain turned deadly serious and pulled out a response equal parts trump card and non sequitur.

"Could I just mention to you, Jay, in a moment of seriousness," McCain said, "that I spent five-and-a-half years in a prison cell. I didn't have a house. I didn't have a kitchen table. I didn't have a table."

The trump card was that McCain was a prisoner of war who was tortured. Got that?

Wes Clark learned the hard way not to dare to diminish even benignly that ordeal. All the retired Army general had meant to say was that being tortured as a prisoner of war did not necessarily commend one for the presidency. But the right-wing commentariat practically ran the general out of the country for daring to speak such simple truth, and the right wing permeated mainstream thinking with this bogus notion that Clark had some how defiled McCain's brave and noble personal sacrifice.

The non sequitur was that, in reality, one had nothing to do with the other -- torture then and unfathomable, unaccounted property wealth now.

There isn't any substantive connection, no linear logic, to McCain's being a prisoner of war 40 years ago and his being, with his wife and her family, owner of more homes than he knows today.

Of course we respect and honor what he endured then. But we can't begin to imagine his not knowing last week whether he owned three, four or seven homes.

These are vastly different considerations, you see.

All of that is to say there is no evident healthiness in McCain's response to the home issue. Nor is there any signal that he deems this perceived vulnerability to be unworthy of real worry, eventually insignificant.

When he plays the POW card from the bottom of the deck, or out of his sleeve, rest assured he's worried, as he should be.

So then ever-unctuous Mitt Romney, in a failed audition to be the running mate for a man who can hardly abide him, came humorlessly, as always, to McCain's defense. He said that McCain had earned his houses whereas Barack Obama got a convicted felon to help him with his.

There was a lot of truth in what Romney spoke.

It is true that Obama and his wife took a shine to a big old house in Chicago that the owner wanted to sell simultaneously with an adjacent lot.

It is true that Obama couldn't afford both.

It is true that Obama mentioned the availability of the lot to Tony Rezko, not under indictment then, but a convicted felon now, and that Rezko's wife simultaneously purchased the lot.

It is true that, later, Rezko's wife sold a 100-foot strip of the lot to Obama.

It is also true that Obama can count his houses and that all these transactions were at fair market value.

It is true, also, that McCain came by his several homes the old-fashioned way. He married into them.

John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.