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McCain: Playing the POW card

As the race for the presidency tightens, McCain is doing something he was loathe to do in the past: putting his experience as a POW to political use.

Throughout his long political career, said Will Bunch in the Philadelphia Daily News, John McCain has refused to talk about his five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, claiming those weren’t memories he cared to revisit. Suddenly, that has changed. With McCain now locked in a tight presidential race, his campaign has taken to “using his time as a POW as a defense for all manner of allegations.” When McCain tastelessly joked that wife Cindy should enter a topless beauty pageant, his staffers reminded critics that his character had been “tested and forged in ways few can fathom.” When asked if he’d been tipped off in advance to questions at a presidential forum, his staff declared that any insinuation that “John McCain, a former prisoner of war, cheated is outrageous.” Thanks to this cynical strategy, Democrats now face a difficult choice: Criticize McCain’s constant use of the “POW card,” or watch him play it all the way to White House.

McCain “can play the POW card from now until his last breath,” said Richard Roeper in the Chicago Sun-Times, and “there’s not a damn thing wrong with that.” When you spend five and a half years being tortured in an unimaginable foreign hellhole in the service of your country, “nobody has the right to tell you when and how often you can make reference to that experience.” Is McCain using his POW experience for political advantage? Undeniably. After last week’s stammered admission that he didn’t know how many houses he and Cindy own, for instance, McCain took pains to remind America that for five and a half years he had no houses at all. But it’s a political advantage McCain earned the hard way, and his opponents have no right to question it.

Tell that to John Kerry, said Maureen Dowd in The New York Times. In the last election, Republicans gleefully “struck down the off-limits signs that were traditionally on a candidate’s military service,” questioning Kerry’s valor and the validity of his Purple Hearts. Many Democrats are now “willing to repay the favor”—and McCain is opening the door for them. Granted, McCain’s “brutal hiatus in the Hanoi Hilton is one of the most stirring narratives ever told on the presidential trail,” and it would be perverse of him not to exploit it. But by “flashing the POW card to rebut any criticism, no matter how unrelated,” McCain is in danger of “cheapening his greatest strength.”

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