The Universal Notebook: Of patriots, politicos and military pawns

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Pompous plutocrat Donald Trump seems to be getting away with questioning whether Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who spent five years in a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp, is a hero.

The Donald, who has never served anyone other than himself, says he prefers heroes who were not captured. I suppose he also prefers heroes who were not killed in action.

The way politicians make pawns of the U.S. military is perfectly disgusting. And the fact that Trump, a coxcomb who has made billions peddling casinos, condos and bimbos, is a front-runner in the Republican presidential primary speaks volumes about the GOP and its worship of money above all else.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, called Trump out on his unconscionable attack on McCain and Trump retaliated by giving out Graham’s personal phone number at a news conference. This is the kind of small-minded, mean-spirited behavior we have routinely seen from Gov. Paul LePage. It’s the way the new breed of nasty Republicans does business.

If military service were a prerequisite for the presidency, the field of 16 Republican wannabees would be winnowed down to Air Force veterans Graham or former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. The Democratic nominee would have to be former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, an Annapolis grad, Marine combat veteran and secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan.

Though it pains me to say so, in the rogue’s gallery of presidential suspects, the moderate Webb is starting to look good to me. If Trump is ever elected president of the United States, I will move to Canada.

In peacetime, an obsolete term now that the United States is in a constant state of war, only about one in 10 Americans serves in the military. So it is not unusual that only three of the presidential hopefuls are military veterans. And maybe it is just because such a small percentage of Americans have military backgrounds that politicians can get away with questioning the patriotism and heroism of veterans.

One of the all-time lows in veteran-bashing occurred in 2002, when Sen. Max Cleland, D-Georgia, who lost three limbs fighting in Vietnam, was attacked by his Republican opponent Rep. Saxby Chambliss with ads that morphed photos of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein into a picture of Cleland. That sick ad was credited with securing Cleland’s defeat.

McCain said the Chambliss ad was “worse than disgraceful, it’s reprehensible.” Of course, two years earlier the GOP dirty tricks machine had run over McCain, helping George W. Bush win the South Carolina primary by portraying McCain as a crazy man who had abandoned veterans and fathered a black child.

The evil genius behind both the Cleland and McCain attacks was supposedly GOP ghoul Karl Rove. Rove denied involvement, but there is no denying that he ushered in the new age of underhanded mudslinging. What Rove realized is that it’s easy to be a highly effective political strategist if you have no moral conscience.

In 2004, Rove’s soulless shade haunted Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts with Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group of veterans who claimed Kerry was not a war hero and had not earned his combat medals. The Swift Boaters were proven wrong, but their strategy worked. “Swiftboating” has since come to mean the questioning of someone’s honesty and patriotism in a dishonest manner.

Republicans are now beating up on Secretary of State Kerry for the Iran nuclear deal. I have no idea whether the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is the best deal the U.S. could have gotten, but I do know that Kerry’s critics are some of the same folks who thumped the tub and waved the flag to invade Iraq, one of the biggest military blunders in U.S. history.

In an apparent bid to steal some attention from spotlight hog Trump, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the latest GOP Me Too, played to the sunshine patriots on the right last week by rattling the sword of a ground war against ISIS. On an emotional level, the drums of war are hard to beat. But perhaps the governor doesn’t understand that American boots on the ground helped create the anarchy and power vacuum that gave rise to ISIS in the first place. The U.S. needs to get out of the Middle East and stay out.

In the political pathology of conservatism, all hawks are patriots, all rich men are to be admired, and all insults are just straight talk. That’s Trump’s appeal and that’s why we’re stuck with LePage.

But there is nothing patriotic about sending the military off to fight unwinnable wars, nothing admirable about making boatloads of money, and nothing straight about insulting military veterans.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.