As the McCain-Clark dustup continues into its fourth day (mostly courtesy of McCain), it seems to me that there is one interesting way in which it reveals assumptions about Presidential qualifications.
One could make a fairly plausible point about how being a POW would prepare someone for the Presidency: in a word, courage. It was courageous for McCain to fly the missions he did, and courageous for him to refuse to confess, reveal information, become a tool of North Vietnamese propaganda, etc.
So one could quite easily reason: wouldn’t courage be an excellent trait in a President? He or she wouldn’t flinch from making tough or unpopular decisions. If you resist the temptation to avoid torture or even death, certainly you could handle some criticism in the press.
Except that it doesn’t seem to work that way. There is a profound difference between personal and political courage.
Exhibit Number One: John Fitzgerald Kennedy. No one can deny the vast personal courage that it took for him to become a war hero on PT-109. Yes, yes: he wanted to show he was a tough as his older brother, yadda yadda yadda. But volunteering for PT boat duty was an enormously courageous act.
Flash forward to his political career and the hero becomes the wimp. As a Senator and President, he was hardly a profile in courage. He managed to be out of Washington when the Senate censured Joe McCarthy, for example. He was AWOL on civil rights. He spent 14 years in Congress with virtually nothing to show for it. He regularly deferred to southern segregationists.
We could name lots of other examples of personal courage not translating into the political: George H.W. Bush comes to mind as well. Somehow the brain seems to compartmentalize facets of our life, so people can risk death but not Rush Limbaugh. I can’t explain it, but it does seem to be the case.