Caught red-handed in truth

Wesley Clark did nothing wrong except respond in kind to a newsman’s question and do so honestly and frankly.

Of course it is not permitted in contemporary American politics to be honest and frank. Plain words are certain to be exploited by the media and the other side.

And it is a cardinal sin of modern politics to let a media questioner lure you into speaking in his terms, by which you have erred in getting what the experts call “off message.”

The “message,” you see, is the sterilized rhetoric you have been restricted by handlers to say, no matter the question. It has been poll-tested and focus-group tested, most likely. Getting “off” it means you let your Stepford side get overtaken by your human side.

This may help explain why Clark didn’t fare any better when he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination four years ago, possessed of a stellar general’s resume and seeming, by his having commanded the NATO air war in Kosovo, to be a godsend for the Democrats during war time.

But then he forgot what his “message” was on the Iraq war resolution, and he cried out for his press secretary during a press gaggle. He didn’t seem so commanding, which was supposed to have been his schtick, and that, as it turned out, was that.

So, anyway, Bob Schieffer on CBS “Face the Nation” wanted to have a little foreign policy episode last Sunday. He got Clark to speak for Barack Obama.

Clark informed the Obama campaign of the invitation and his appearance was blessed by the campaign. But Clark and the Obama campaign did not coordinate their preparation or “message,” or so they say, which is convenient considering that Obama had to come back and disown the honesty and frankness that the general had let slip.

This was Clark’s point on the program: McCain is a war hero, yes. Clark called him a national hero and a personal hero. But, Clark explained, the real qualification for president in regard to foreign policy in war time is having made executive decisions that affect life and death, and in doing so after consultation with foreign and domestic leaders. Clark said McCain hadn’t had that actual executive war-time experience.

So then came this, fatefully:

Schieffer: “I have to say, Barack Obama has not had any of those experiences, either, nor has he ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down. I mean …”

Clark: “Well, I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.”

Oh, my.

The first charge of the media and Republican brigade is that Clark diminished the heroic, horrible, character-testing war experience of this American patriot, McCain, who spent five years in enemy captivity.

It simply is not so. Clark had previously said very plainly that McCain was a hero to the nation and to him personally.

What he said was that McCain’s experience didn’t qualify him for the presidency, which it doesn’t. Others have been shot down. Others have been tortured. Others have survived such unspeakable ordeals. It makes all of them our heroes and worthy of our respect.

But it won’t necessarily make any of them a good president.

Some have said that Clark diminished McCain’s military service by referring to his “riding” passively in a fighter plane, rather than piloting it. Some have said this is the old prejudice of ground fighters against the fly-over boys.

But I would invite you to review the transcript excerpt to see that it was Schieffer who, in his typically argumentative question, used the phrase “ridden in a fighter plane.” Clark was responding in the context and phrasing of the question.

He did not err factually. He did not err morally. He did not err patriotically.

He merely erred in the only arena that seems to matter, the one of political messaging.

John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of “High Wire.” His e-mail address is jbrummett@

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