Despite all the feigned outrage fanned by the mainstream media and the right-wing noisemakers, Wesley Clark — retired four-star general, former supreme commander of NATO, wounded and highly decorated veteran of ground combat in Vietnam and a military man to his core — assuredly did not denigrate the war record of John McCain when he talked about the Republican candidate on television last Sunday.

Instead, perhaps naively, Gen. Clark stated a very simple fact. McCain’s service in Vietnam doesn’t prove his aptitude or competence to serve in the nation’s highest office. Or as he told “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer on CBS: “I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.”

Nor, with all due respect, is withstanding long captivity and torture by the North Vietnamese. “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,” said Clark. The reservations he expressed were clear and honest, requiring no apology and no scuttling repudiation by Barack Obama.

Supporters of McCain insist that his military service should be exempt from discussion, except when they feel like bringing it up to prove some point about national security, terrorism or the presidency that it really doesn’t prove at all. But of course he was not the only soldier, sailor or airman to survive such experiences with courage and nobility. There was once another former POW whose candidacy for high office vindicates the Clark argument.

Or has everyone forgotten Adm. Stockdale?

The late James Bond Stockdale epitomized the bravery and idealism of the Americans imprisoned and tormented, both physically and mentally, by their captors in Hanoi. Captured and beaten after his Navy jet was shot down, he lived in leg irons for two years and in solitary confinement for four years between September 1965 and February 1973, when he was finally released. His many honors and citations included the Medal of Honor, and he rose to vice admiral. He was a man of indisputable intelligence who taught philosophy at Stanford University and wrote several books before he died of Alzheimer’s disease three years ago.

Yet the sad truth is that Stockdale lived out his final years in the shadow of his disappointing independent candidacy for vice president as industrialist Ross Perot’s running mate in 1992. He knew little about policy or politics, as roughly 70 million Americans discovered with a wince as they watched a televised debate that pitted him against Al Gore and Dan Quayle.

“Who am I? Why am I here?” were his opening lines, a bid to acknowledge his inexperience that left audiences laughing at him. Although he sounded refreshingly unscripted by comparison with his opponents, Stockdale’s evident confusion and unreadiness left him looking like a “bewildered grandfather,” as Maureen Dowd put it. Everybody liked Stockdale, but nobody thought he should be running for vice president, and the notion that he might sit a heartbeat from the Oval Office raised serious questions about Perot’s judgment.

Stockdale was too honorable and too wise to claim that the answer to his own question — “Why am I here?” — should be found in his matchless military record or his epic POW experience. After his humiliation in the debate, he liked to say that he was the candidate of “the people,” but although the people liked him, they didn’t vote for him.

The Stockdale episode also highlights the bias and hypocrisy behind the fury over Gen. Clark’s comments. In the days following the October 1992 debate, Stockdale was roasted from all sides, with much of the most withering commentary emanating from the self-styled superpatriots of the far right, who were angry about the Perot candidacy and worried that Bill Clinton would win the election, as he did.

So a headline in The Washington Times called Stockdale a loser, and conservative columnists denigrated him as “geezerish,” “lame” and “the big loser.” Rush Limbaugh, who evaded the Vietnam draft thanks to an inflamed boil on his behind, devoted nearly an entire broadcast to mocking Stockdale. After playing a clip of the admiral defending abortion rights, the radio host described him as “intellectually vacant” and “pandering” and suggested that his pro-choice views were insincere.

Incidentally, the Limbaugh show’s producer back in October of 1992 was none other than Roger Ailes, who now heads Fox News Channel, where the faked anger over the Clark comments has swiftly reached a seething boil. He’s a phony, and so is this latest eruption of right-wing indignation.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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