Heroic Disappointment

John McCain went on Leno last night. In reference to a recent gaffe, when McCain couldn’t remember how many houses he owns, Jay asked him, “How many houses do you have?”

Everybody knows that John McCain was a prisoner of war, that he suffered more than five years of imprisonment. Most people, even those who serve in the military, do not experience such terrible things in service to their nation, and McCain certainly deserves respect for what he gave.

But when he responded to Jay Leno last night, he turned that awful time in his life into a trite dodge:

“Could I just mention to you, Jay, that, at a moment of seriousness. I spent five-and-a-half years in a prison cell,” McCain said. “I didn’t have a house. I didn’t have a kitchen table. I didn’t have a table. I didn’t have a chair. And I didn’t spend those five-and-a-half years because, not because I wanted to get a house when I got out.”

That’s not an honorable response. It takes something honorable and plays it for political value. It devalues his suffering. It’s unbefitting a hero and it diminishes the honor he is due.

I must respect Senator McCain for the suffering he endured in service to my nation, but I cannot respect him for using that suffering the way he did last night, or the way he and his supporters continue to tout it as a qualification to sit in the Oval Office. Having a distinguished military career does not automatically raise McCain above his present failings, or give him a ticket out of his embarrassing stumbles—like forgetting how many houses he owns. Even less so when he abuses that honor for political advantage.

A real hero can look back on something like a prisoner-of-war experience and say, “Yes, I was there, and I suffered, and it changed me irrevocably.” And a real hero should be respected for that. But a real hero takes the fortitude and integrity that spring from honorable suffering and builds on those things to be a greater person. A real hero does not use his naked honor as a skeleton key to open every door and escape from every trap.

If John McCain wants to keep being a real hero, he needs to stop playing the POW card, let his distinguished service stand as a quiet testament to the size of his character, and demonstrate that he is still the same man who found the strength to survive those five years as a prisoner of war, instead of just a man who needs to keep reminding us that once upon a time he showed that strength. We know. And it speaks for itself.

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