Wesley Clark and the Unbearable Banality of Campaign '08

It began the way these things usually begin -- a statement or observation, inartfully made or, more likely, deliberately misinterpreted and twisted by one side or another. The innocuous words or phrase are fashioned into a weapon that for 48 or 72 hours on the internet becomes a spittle flecked, all out war of charge and countercharge until both sides exhaust themselves and go looking for another fake controversy.

One helluva way to elect a president.

This latest dust-up is perhaps even more inane than usual. In the Red Corner, John McCain -- Republican Presidential Nominee, war hero, former prisoner of war, and a man that most non-partisan experts would grant a wealth of experience in defense and international affairs.

In the Blue Corner, Wesley Clark -- former NATO Commander, war hero, former candidate for President, and currently auditioning for a role in the Barack Obama production of Campaign '08: The Musical. Clark would love to latch on officially to the Obama campaign and move up to the head of the line for a plum posting in any Obama Administration. Hence, CBS newsman Bob Schieffer welcomed Clark to the network's Sunday morning gabfest Face the Nation.

Clark understood his role perfectly. As a former general, his credentials (so he thought) were unassailable. Clark was to venture into territory that few if any other Obama surrogate - and certainly not the practitioner of the "new politics" himself - could ever go; the careful but deliberate trashing of McCain's national security credentials.

The rationale of the Obama campaign is simple. If the race turns on the economy and gas prices, he wins. If it turns on national security and terrorism, he might lose. With McCain's huge perceived advantage in national security, cutting the Arizona senator down to size in that regard becomes paramount.

And who better to get the ball rolling in that direction than Wesley Clark, respected former SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander -- Europe) and the man in charge of the Kosovo bombing campaign. Clark began his deconstruction of McCain by praising him for his service and complimenting him on a lifetime of work in the national security arena.

But then the caveats started to pour forth:

In the interview, Clark said McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, was "untested and untried."

When Schieffer asked to explain the comment, Clark said he was referring to McCain's experience, or lack thereof, in setting national security policies and understanding the risk involved in such matters.

"I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands and millions of others in the armed forces, as a prisoner of war. And he has traveled all over the world. But he hasn't held executive responsibility," said Clark, a former NATO commander who campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004.

"He hasn't been there and ordered the bombs to fall. He hasn't seen what it's like when diplomats come in and say, I don't know whether we're going to be able to get this point through or not," Clark said.

So far so good. Clark has carefully carved out a line of attack that acknowledges McCain's heroism while blasting the idea that just because he was in the military, he is more qualified than Obama to be Commander in Chief. Whether the attack would resonate is another matter. But at least Clark hadn't crossed the invisible line and tried to smear McCain by denigrating his service.

Until Schieffer asked the painfully obvious follow-up question:

Schieffer noted that Obama did not have any of those experiences, nor had he "ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down."

"Well, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president," Clark said.

This is mostly true - if one were to simply take Clark's words at face value and apply them to a reasonable standard of logic. Tragically for Clark, logic is the last thing anyone in this campaign is interested in practicing.

Clark's valid point about military service not necessarily denoting experience that would be valuable for a president was lost in his incredibly clumsy attempt to downplay the one thing about McCain that can never be attacked; his 5 years of torture in a North Vietnamese prison camp. "The POW Card" is as valuable to McCain as the "Race Card" is to Obama. And the McCain campaign played this one to the hilt.