Media mischaracterizes Clark comments, Obama backs away

Following an uproar in the press, Obama distances himself from Clark's questions on McCain's qualifications.

Published June 30, 2008 6:42PM (EDT)

Following up on an item from this morning, the push-back from news outlets, the McCain campaign and conservative activists against Wesley Clark has been pretty fierce today. In fact, Clark's comments have already taken on an entirely different meaning.

Here's how Time characterized the McCain campaign's efforts this morning: "The presumptive GOP nominee's campaign launches a "truth squad" Monday morning in the wake of Gen. Wesley Clark repeating his stark criticisms of McCain's war record Sunday." That analysis has been common all day -- on Fox News, Molly Henneberg asserted that Clark "seemed to attack McCain's military service." But that's just it -- Clark didn't criticize McCain's war record or military service at all. Not once. Not even a little.

If you missed it, I posted the entire video clip this morning. Clark actually praised McCain's war record and military service, saying, "I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands and millions of others in the armed forces, as a prisoner of war."

What Clark actually said was that McCain has never held "executive responsibility." McCain led a Navy squadron, but it "wasn't a wartime squadron." The line between McCain's service and his presidential qualifications is incomplete: "I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president," Clark said. The point, which is pretty obvious to anyone who saw the interview and heard the remarks in context, is that McCain's service several decades ago is not entirely relevant to his presidential qualifications now.

I realize we're not accustomed to hearing anyone say this, but it's not false, it's not a personal attack, and it's not criticism of McCain's war record. Several media outlets and the right are clearly manufacturing a scandal here.

Given the freakout, I guess it's not too surprising that Barack Obama has started to move in the other direction:

In a speech on patriotism in Independence, Missouri, Obama honors McCain's "physical torment in service to our country."

Also implicitly criticizes Gen. Clark's comment Sunday disparaging McCain's accomplishments in Vietnam. "No one should ever devalue that service, especially for the sake of a political campaign, and that goes for supporters on both sides."

Also criticizes's "General Betray Us" advertisement.

Shortly thereafter, Obama campaign spokesperson Bill Burton added, "As he's said many times before, Senator Obama honors and respects Senator McCain's service, and of course he rejects yesterday's statement by General Clark."

Now, it's possible that everyone is just playing a part here. Clark takes on one of the pillars of McCain's campaign pitch (just as took on Petraeus), it gets lots of attention, and Obama distances himself from the remarks, nevertheless pleased that the arguments have been inserted into the public discourse.

The problem, though, is that the Obama campaign's response implicitly accepts the criticism offered by the media and the right -- that Clark was attacking McCain's military service, despite the fact that it never happened. Four years ago, Republicans said John Kerry's military background didn't necessarily mean he was right about national security, and didn't necessarily make him qualified to be president. Sunday, Clark made the same argument about McCain.

The feigned, coordinated outrage here is transparent. The way in which the media is buying into the outrage, and exaggerating it, makes me wonder if the McCain campaign will have to report today's coverage as an in-kind contribution.

By Steve Benen

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