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Sunday, August 24, 2008

McCain's Bio

As others have suggested, yesterday may go down as the day the McCain campaign jumped the shark on Vietnam. In response to Obama's attack on his hard-to-count real estate holdings, McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rogers noted that "[t]his is a guy who lived in one house for five and a half years -- in prison." Subtle stuff.

McCain aides typically say their boss is reluctant to dwell on his Vietnam experience despite their constant prodding. That may or may not be true. But if McCain is reluctant, it certainly hasn't stopped him from invoking Vietnam in the past. It's been at the heart of his political appeal since his first congressional race in 1982, which I discuss in my piece this week.

In fact, one of that campaign's climactic moments nicely foreshadowed yesterday's comment. It came during a Republican primary debate in which McCain fielded a question that had dogged him from the get-go--namely, why voters should embrace a man who'd only lived in Phoenix for about a year before seeking office.

As McCain biographer Robert Timberg described the scene:

The carpetbagger issue plagued [McCain] from the start of his campaign, became the killer question at the candidates' forum to which the four hopefuls dragged themselves two and three nights a week. ... One night he turned it around. ...

"Listen, pal," he replied, "I spent twenty-two years in the Navy. My father was in the Navy. My grandfather was in the Navy. We in the military service tend to move a lot. We have to live in all parts of the country, all parts of the world. 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 the longest in my life was Hanoi."

The audience sat for several seconds in shocked silence, then broke into a thunderous applause.

Perhaps even more important to McCain's chances that first race was his two-minute bio-ad. After it ran, McCain's political consultant, Jay Smith, told me, "There was a sea change in the way he was received when he went door to door everyday." (Smith generously provided TNR with a DVD of the ad.)

Watching the commercial, you don't exactly get the impression of a candidate reluctant to discuss his war experience:

The ad showcases a lot of what we've come to think of as McCain's persona: The fatalistic sense of humor combined with a can-do sense of optimism; the emphasis on duty, valor, honor, manhood; the self-styling as a non-political politician.

But, of course, it's the POW experience that really grabs you. You realize it's over the top as you're watching ("...if you go for six years without being able to see the sunset or the sunrise, like I did"), and yet you can't help being moved. Particularly the footage of McCain emerging from the transport plane. There's a reason this guy is such a formidable candidate.

--Noam Scheiber

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