In a C-SPAN interview that aired Sunday, McCain threw shade on President Donald Trump's war record
. Both men were of age to be drafted to serve in Vietnam. McCain famously endured more than five years as a prisoner of war, and was left with a permanent injury from torture and poor medical care; Trump was diagnosed, by a private doctor, with a bone spur that allowed him to defer the draft.
Speaking for a documentary on the Vietnam War, McCain said: "One aspect of the conflict, by the way, that I will never ever countenance is that we drafted the lowest income level of America and the highest income level found a doctor that would say they had a bone spur. That is wrong. That is wrong. If we are going to ask every American to serve, every American should serve." The clear implication is that Trump's wealth kept him from military service while others served and died.
On the surface, it's a bad day for Trump to be accused by a war hero of short-changing the military. Even as the Vietnam War continues to haunt American politics, Trump is under attack for his attitude to today's servicemen. Every voter in America may by now have heard the assertions by Myeshia Johnson, the pregnant widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, that Donald Trump seemed insensitive to her husband's sacrifice in a telephone call and couldn't remember Sgt. Johnson's name until reminded by his notes. (Trump disputes this account.)
It follows a torrid week in which Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson made similar claims about the call, which took place on speakerphone in a car while Wilson was accompanying the family to meet Sgt. Johnson's body. Sgt Johnson's aunt, who raised him with her husband, has also backed up
Congresswoman Wilson's claims. As more Gold Star families line up
to accuse Trump of ignoring them, he is not currently winning any prizes for sensitivity to military sacrifice.
But McCain is hardly likely to hold sway with President Trump's base. Insulting McCain's war record
didn't hurt him in 2016 And at a rally last week for Steve Bannon, the President's former chief strategist -- still loved by many Trump voters --one attendee was heard to shout "hang him"
when Bannon began to lambaste McCain from the podium.
McCain is an old-school Republican -- for many voters on both sides of the aisle, he has spent too many years in Washington advocating bombing people. His comments at this point are as likely to rally the President's supporters behind their man as they are to damage him. Nor are they likely to galvanize the Democratic base.
Congresswoman Wilson, on the other hand, is a very different type of foe for Trump. Where McCain is a patrician white man from an elite family of high-ranking military officers, Wilson is an African-American woman who has spent her life as a liberal Democrat.
Wilson has been personally attacked by Trump, who twice labeled her "wacky,
" while his Chief of Staff, Gen. John F. Kelly, accused her of failing to honor fallen FBI agents herself at an event in 2015. (This allegation has since been proven by video footage to be categorically untrue.)
There is no question that some supporters of Rep. Wilson consider the President's animosity towards her to be racially motivated
(Seventeen female members of the Congressional Black Caucus have backed her
). The question of whether Trump's remembered Sgt. Johnson's name and his public spat with the service member's widow, Myeshia, for some look like a lack of empathy for the sacrifices of black families.
If this continues, we are heading for a political fight along predictable dividing lines: leftist Democrat vs traditionalist GOP, progressives vs reactionaries.
McCain complicates things, as he always does. His refusal to compromise to his party's worst instincts remains the reason many admire him -- similarly, his refusal to abandon the dream of a better GOP. But if his intervention does sting, it will be because the Vietnam War still casts its long shadow over the US.
Consider that President Trump has often been described as a political throwback. After the youthful President Barack Obama, born in 1961, Trump's presidency gives us once again the last of the baby boomers, his political base the last fightback of a generation troubled by the radical social change of recent years.
With Obama, many thought that the era of candidates being quizzed on their Vietnam War service was over. Yet it turned out we had not seen the last President -- after George W. Bush and Bill Clinton -- old enough to be called out for avoiding the draft.
Much has been written elsewhere as to why the implication of draft dodging had such power to end careers. Partly because, as McCain points out, those who succeeded in securing draft deferments in the 1960s were often exploiting social inequality. Partly because the experience of jungle fighting and Southeast Asian guerrilla warfare appears to have been brutal beyond anything that we younger generations can imagine.
Partly, too, because there is something particularly scarring for a superpower in fighting a war it cannot win. The very futility of the Vietnam War (at the moment being laid before America again in Ken Burns' PBS series
), made sharing in the experience a collective initiation for veterans into the darknesses of adulthood. The less easy glory in a war, the more shame in shirking it.
The new generation of wars bring with them new patterns of politicized dirt-digging.
In 2017 America, for families like Sgt. Johnson's, or perhaps the parents of Humayun Khan
, every personal grief raises with it the question of whether non-white Americans can ever earn full respect as American citizens, even as they sacrifice their lives to American causes.
As President Trump defends his own war record, he's fighting an old generation's political war. Myeshia Johnson, reluctantly, is a fighting a new one.