An Anniversary to Remember for Both the Boomer and the POW
They are the Sixties bookends of the 2008 campaign, one a college protester during Vietnam, the other a decorated naval officer who flew combat missions in the skies over Hanoi. On Friday, their biographies will intersect in a powerful evocation of a decade that long has shaped the politics of the country.
It is an accident of history that Hillary Clinton's 60th birthday will fall on the 40th anniversary of the day John McCain was shot down over Vietnam. Today they campaign for the White House as respectful rivals but across a vast cultural chasm that still divides the country.
It is ironic perhaps that their shared anniversaries come at the end of a week in which McCain has tweaked Clinton over one of the great symbols of that decade, the Woodstock rock concert in upstate New York, which McCain described in last Sunday's debate as a "cultural and pharmaceutical event" that he missed because he "was tied up." Clinton's support for $1 million in taxpayer dollars to help fund a Woodstock memorial is the subject of McCain's new campaign ad.
Baby Boomer Clinton will mark her big birthday with a big celebration, a fundraising bash Thursday night featuring rocker Elvis Costello that will include friends and political contributors and will be hosted by her husband.
McCain, more than a decade older and therefore not sharing the sensibilities of the Boomer generation, will not celebrate as much as commemorate the anniversary of his capture. He plans to campaign Friday in Iowa with Bud Day, with whom he shared a prison cell at the Hanoi Hilton.
McCain's life was forever shaped by Oct. 26, 1967 and the subsequent six years he spent as a prisoner of war. He still carries the physical scars from his torture and exudes the indomitable spirit that kept him alive. So too was Clinton's life changed by those years. She was 20 at the time and in midstream of a political evolution that would take her from Goldwater Girl to liberal activist to the most prominent woman in the Democratic Party.
McCain with Nixon in 1973
When McCain was finally released from prison in the spring of 1973, he met President Nixon at a White House reception for the POWs, resulting in a famous photo of their handshake. By the end of that year, Clinton, then a young law school graduate, had been recruited to join the staff of the House Judiciary Committee for its Watergate impeachment investigation.
To many Republicans, Clinton and her husband remain symbols of all that was wrong with the Sixties. One need only to recall the speech Marilyn Quayle delivered at the 1992 Republican convention in Houston. "Not everyone demonstrated, dropped out, took drugs, joined in the sexual revolution or dodged the draft," she told her Astrodome audience that week.
McCain has never engaged in such rhetoric. When it comes to Vietnam, he has sought to be a conciliator. He developed genuine friendships with some of the fiercest opponents of the war and pushed for normalization of relations with Vietnam at a time when many conservatives were opposed. He gave aid and comfort to President Bill Clinton on that issue during Clinton's presidency.
Today he says of Hillary Clinton, "I like her. I respect her." He also says she is a liberal and he a proud conservative.
As fellow senators, McCain and Clinton have traveled overseas together, once sharing a bottle of vodka with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina in a memorable night of senatorial camaraderie that seemed to cut against all the stereotypes. Their trips included one to Iraq.
At one time, they even came close to seeing eye-to-eye on Iraq, this being when both were critics of the administration's management of the conflict and of then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Today they are as divided over Iraq as they once were over Vietnam, only now it comes in the context of a high-stakes presidential campaign.
As Clinton shifted left to accommodate the views of her party's base and embraced the politics of withdrawal, McCain dug in as the most visible supporter of sending more troops into Baghdad and elsewhere. They are poles apart over what may be the most important foreign policy issue of the campaign.
They began the 2008 campaign being viewed as likely rivals in the general election. McCain's star has since faded as Clinton's has burned brighter. That they could yet end up in direct competition for the White House is of course possible, but fewer envision that today than did 10 months ago.
What kind of campaign would that be? I asked McCain that the other day. "I hope it would sound like a respectable debate based on philosophical differences, which are significant," he said. "For example, she voted to cut off funding to the troops in Iraq after it was clear we were going to stay. I think that that's something that ought to be debated. I think that her view of mandates for health care as opposed to mine is a issue that ought to be debated."
Clinton and McCain may never share that presidential campaign platform, never meet in a general election debate. But on Friday their names will be intertwined in the headlines and in the chatter of talk television, two veterans of the cultural and political clashes of the Sixties now symbols in their own right seeking to lead a still-divided nation.
Washington Post editors
October 25, 2007; 1:50 PM ET
Categories: A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take
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