It is hard to blame John McCain for mocking Barack Obama as an “elitist” following that silly remark about bitter folks who cling to guns and religion. Rarely does the Arizona senator — one of the wealthiest members of Washington’s most exclusive club — encounter such a tempting chance to masquerade as a populist.

Making the most of that opportunity, elder statesman McCain delivered a brief history lecture to the young upstart from Illinois. “During the Great Depression,” he said in a statement released by his campaign, “with many millions of Americans out of work and the country suffering the worst economic crisis in our history, there rose from small towns, rural communities, inner cities, a generation of Americans who fought to save the world from despotism and mass murder, and came home to build the wealthiest, strongest and most generous nation on earth.

“They suffered the worst during the Depression, but it did not shake their faith in, and fidelity to, America. They did not turn to their religious faith and cultural traditions out of resentment and a feeling of powerlessness to affect the course of government or pursue prosperity. On the contrary, their faith had given generations of their families purpose and meaning, as it does today.”

Now this is all standard-issue rhetoric, designed to insinuate that Obama disdains traditional American culture and religious piety (although he probably attends church at least as often as McCain). Harking back to the era of the Depression and World War II, the Republican may have unintentionally emphasized both his own advanced age and the perilous condition in which his party and president have left the country and the world.

The inspiring story of the “greatest generation,” in which he seems to be claiming honorary membership, is not only a narrative of faith and patriotism. The brave men and women who rose from America’s towns and cities to defeat fascism had a stake in a democratic society “worth the fighting for,” to borrow the title of McCain’s last best-seller. Despite the terrible rigors of the Depression, they remained confident in democracy’s future because a progressive government acted vigorously on behalf of them and their families — and acknowledged their service when they returned from war.

When those soldiers came home to build the nation that dominated the 20th century, they achieved unprecedented prosperity and security, thanks not only to their own work and faith, but also to liberal policy that guaranteed their education, health care and access to credit. The original 1944 GI Bill ranks among the greatest legislative works in American history, with beneficial effects on the U.S. economy that repaid its cost many times over. (Incidentally, the benefits of the original bill included low-interest mortgages with no down payment — not so different from the “subprime” loans that working-class homeowners are now criticized for signing.)

Of course, McCain knows all this history, too, which raises the tough question of why he refuses to support Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans with commensurate benefits. Having built his own career on his service and suffering in Vietnam, he surely must be aware that the new generation of vets receives nothing like the assistance made available to those who served with him — because the landmark bill has not been updated for so many years. The current level of benefits doesn’t cover even half the cost of state college tuition for most soldiers.

That is why Sens. James Webb of Virginia and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska wrote the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, whose cost is estimated at less than $4 billion, or approximately one-tenth of 1 percent in the total expense of the current war. They have gathered 53 co-sponsors, including nine Republicans and three of the four other Vietnam veterans in the Senate, but they need 60 to defeat a likely filibuster by conservatives who’ve never served.

Incredibly, McCain has so far refused to add his name to the sponsors. His startling excuse is he has not had any time to read the bill during the past year or so. He has time to barbecue sausages for journalists. He has time to take a bus tour glorifying his own service. And he has time to hold fundraisers in Atlanta, New Orleans, Phoenix, St. Louis, New York, Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas and even London.

But he has no time for today’s soldiers. If that isn’t the worst kind of elitism, what is?

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

© 2008, Creators Syndicate Inc.

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