Naval Gazing

Let's have a look at John McCain's military personnel file

By the time you read this, Super Tuesday will be history, and the pundits will be gumming the results.

Democrat Bill Bradley likely will say farewell by week's end. But on the other side of the aisle, things are far from finished. Even if John McCain blew it in California and all those other states the talking heads say are crucial to nabbing the GOP nod, I'm betting the senator from Arizona will remain a player on the presidential scene.

McCain has grown far too comfy in the limelight to drop out now, and who can blame him? McCainia has reached Ricky Martinesque proportions. Last week on National Public Radio, I heard a mother from Georgia complaining that she left a George W. Bush rally early because her 3-year-old kept asking for John McCain. The only thing more bizarre than listening to Al Gore espouse campaign finance reform is hearing my Democratic friends coo over pro-life, pro-gun, anti-environment, no-domestic-agenda John McCain.

In his quest to be all things to all voters, McCain has infuriated some folks, but he's won a lot of hearts, too, and there's no way he and his stable of strategists and deep-pocketed supporters will give that up -- not yet, at least.

Whether McCain continues on as a Republican or switches to a third party, he will continue. That's fine with me -- I'm all for mixing it up. There's no reason we need to choose the finalists eight months before the pageant. But please, let's raise the quality of the dialogue just a tad.

At the rate we're going, I don't know if I can take much more. It's only March, and already the 2000 presidential campaign has the regurgitated stink of a Jerry Springer rerun. Really, now, have the candidates hashed out the issues so thoroughly, are we so enlightened, that the only thing left to talk about is whether it's okay for John McCain to call the Vietnamese "gooks"?

The current GOP primary season may not -- as McCain has whined -- be the nastiest in recent history, but it is certainly the most personality-driven. And we're stuck with it. No one can steer Campaign 2000 off the low road now. The reason, quite simply, is that the politics of personality and hate are lots more fun than the politics of education reform and tax policies.

Once you get a taste of Springer, it's hard to flip back to The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. More and more, I've found, there's a pretty good mix of the two available at all hours on CSPAN.

But why are we in reruns in the middle of sweeps? Enough about Bob Jones and Luke Skywalker and "gooks" and the inevitable, endless, done-to-death discussion of the media's "McCain Swoon." I can live with a personality-driven race, but I want some new material to chew on. And I have a pretty good idea where it should come from and what it should be: John McCain should make public his official naval personnel record. After all, his is a campaign based on two things: candor and his status as a Vietnam-era prisoner of war.

And there are a lot of people out there with a lot of Vietnam-related questions beyond whether McCain is justified in using the term "gook."

Thus far, all we really know about the former Navy pilot's years in the military we've read either in McCain's own best-selling memoir or Robert Timberg's well-written but sympathetic books about the senator. I surveyed the presidential libraries, and found that many of our former presidents donated complete copies of their military personnel records to the libraries formed in their names.

Make it public before you're elected, Senator. After all, that's your m.o.

Releasing official documents in the face of criticism has been standard operating procedure for Camp McCain. Question his health? The senator releases reams of medical records. Accuse McCain of using the Senate Commerce Committee as a goody bag for campaign contributors? He offers up hundreds of pages of correspondence.

Satisfied by the sheer bulk of the offering and too lazy to wonder whether the materials are complete, the journalism gods are appeased and move on to a new, lightweight topic -- like McCain's wardrobe, or his musical tastes.

Myriad questions have been raised about McCain's military service: Was he really tortured during the war? (The Vietnamese say no; so have at least two of McCain's fellow prisoners.) What does he really think of the Vietnamese? (This one has a bizarre range of possible answers, since McCain calls them "gooks" but was among the leaders of the push to normalize relations with Vietnam. Some unhappy vets have dubbed him "The Manchurian Candidate.") And finally, how and why did McCain drop his pursuit to rise through the ranks of the U.S. Navy -- say, to the rank of admiral, like his father and grandfather? (McCain has said he dumped the idea when he realized his war injuries prevented him from flying, but I smell a rat there. Not every naval admiral flies. . . .)

These questions could likely be answered -- at the very least, the debate could be furthered -- if McCain would release his naval personnel record.

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