"Young Voters May Not Remember McCain's Heroic Past"
March 31, 2008
Author: Elaine Kamarck, Lecturer in Public Policy
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
Hoa Lo Prison stands in the middle of the bustling capital of a youthful and fast-growing country. Even during a holiday week, the museum that commemorates the notorious prison is quiet and almost deserted. The Vietnamese have much more on their minds than remembering what they call the American War. That's a lesson with an important bearing on current American politics.
The museum stands in the shadow of a new high-rise apartment building in the middle of Hanoi. Most of the 19 rooms that remain of the former prison are dedicated to the story of Vietnam's long struggle against their French colonial masters.
But room 15 focuses on the American pilots downed during the Vietnam War and imprisoned at Hoa Lo — dubbed the Hanoi Hilton by the American prisoners of war.
At the end of the American Pilots' room is a large Plexiglas case. It contains the flight suit, helmet, parachute, boots and other paraphernalia allegedly belonging to Hoa Lo's most famous American prisoner: John McCain.
Half of all living Americans today were born after McCain's A4E Skyhawk was shot down in an attempted bombing run on the Yen Phu power plant. Thus his story here bears retelling.
To the left of the case containing McCain's flight suit is a photograph of Vietnamese civilians pulling the downed pilot out of Truc Bach Lake on Oct. 26, 1967. According to many accounts, his "rescuers" stripped him and beat him before handing him over to the military, which put him in Hoa Lo and then moved him around to several other prisons, where he continued to be repeatedly tortured.
When his father became head of U.S. forces in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese offered to let McCain out. But he refused to go unless all the POWs went home with him. That meant remaining in captivity until March 1973.
He came home having suffered numerous broken bones. To this day he is unable to raise his arms above his head because of his injuries.
Standing in Room 15, guidebook and camera in hand, I understood why the Democratic candidates are locked in a fierce battle over patriotism — but also why, in the end, that debate may be beside the point.
The McCain story is unambiguously heroic. Whoever emerges as the Democratic presidential nominee will face a Republican candidate who can't be swift-boated. For John McCain, patriotism is as simple as biography; for the Democrats, it is a much more complex matter.
Hence the past few weeks of attacks and counterattacks: Sen. Barack Obama's decidedly unpatriotic pastor; Bill Clinton's remarks about candidates who "love their country"; the tendency of both candidates, but Sen. Hillary Clinton most recently, to deal in some serious resume puffery, designed to prove who is or is not the best-qualified commander in chief.
Clinton and Obama know that at some point, one (or both) of them will confront the drama of John McCain's history, and that Republican ad makers will take all those Americans who never heard of it back to Hoa Lo prison.
The only chance Democrats have is to turn the page. For them, victory lies in the fact that a new generation is about to take over American politics.
In a provocative new book, Morley Winograd and Michael Hais identify today's young voters as millennials — the largest generation in American history, bigger even than the baby boom. About a third of this generation will be eligible to vote this year.
Moreover, in "Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics," the authors argue that this generation is unique in its composition, its attitudes and its ability to communicate in a new technology. Millennials are the most racially diverse and racially integrated generation in American history. They are civic-minded and post-partisan.
They've been the driving force behind Obama's campaign and, to a lesser extent, Hillary Clinton's.
They are inclined to cooperate, not fight.
They voted in unprecedented numbers in 2004, and in 2006 and they voted Democratic.
And, unlike their ideological parents, the baby boomers, they will not be sucked into a war about a war that ended well before they were born.
As for the Vietnamese people themselves, that war is history — cleaned up, sanitized, placed in a Plexiglas case. Inconvenient stories of torture are ignored in favor of photos of American prisoners decorating a Christmas tree.
The Democrats can't compete with John McCain's past. But given the emergence of the millennial generation and its contributions so far to the Democratic comeback, they should be more than able to compete with John McCain for the future.
Elaine C. Kamarck, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, worked for the Clinton-Gore administration.
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