On Gen. Wesley Clark

Gen. Wesley Clark got in a lot of trouble for comments he made on Face the Nation about Sen. John McCain’s qualifications for office.

SCHIEFFER: I have to say, Barack Obama has not had any of those experiences either, nor has he ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down. I mean —

CLARK: Well, I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.

(Transcript here)

Eve though Clark had earlier called McCain, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, a hero for his service as a prisoner of war, his comment above — stripped of its context — became fodder for the crude, overly simplistic tit-for-tat world of American politics today.

Clark is a former Democratic presidential candidate who has endorsed Barack Obama, so he must have been speaking as a politician, not a retired general.

McCain spokesman Brian Rogers saw the angle right away and pounced:

“Let’s please drop the pretense that Barack Obama stands for a new type of politics. The reality is he’s proving to be a typical politician who is willing to say anything to get elected, including allowing his campaign surrogates to demean and attack John McCain’s military service record.”

The media, smelling blood, dove right in.  CNN’s Rick Sanchez said “Wesley Clark tried to Swiftboat John McCain today.” BANG! The Washington Post’s ubiquitous Howie Kurtz said Clark had used his appearance on Face the Nation to “strafe” McCain. Politico.com called it “one of the more personal attacks on the Republican presidential nominee this election cycle.” CRACK!

Clark’s remark may be an inartful snap judgment, but it also happens to be true.

Like McCain, Randy “Duke” Cunningham was shot down over North Vietnam in May 10, 1972, the day he became the first fighter ace of the Vietnam War. He avoided capture because U.S. forces came to his rescue.

Cunningham was by no means qualified to be a congressman, let alone president, and yet, he served for 15 years until he was finally revealed as the most corrupt congressman of all time.

It’s what Cunningham and McCain did after they were shot down that proved their mettle as men.

McCain spent six years in a prisoner of war camp. When he was offered release, McCain refused. The son of a Navy admiral would not allow himself to be used for enemy propaganda. As a result, he was routinely tortured and beaten.

And what did Cunningham do? Well, that’s  exactly what my book Feasting on the Spoils is about.

Cunningham became a professional “war hero. He came to resent his commanders when they tried to hold him accountable. He grew envious of other pilots and remained bitter that he never got the Medal of Honor. He believed the rest of his life should be an extended coronation. His ego grew to a monstrous size that always wanted more and more, and Cunningham bullied his way to power.

Getting shot down alone isn’t a qualification. It’s what we make of ourselves and how we respond when tested that matters.