In an Onionesque piece ahead of Memorial Day, The Wall Street Journal reported that the White House had urged the U.S. Navy to relocate the USS John McCain from its mooring in Japan.
President Donald Trump was slated to address the troops from a vessel next to the warship, named for the late GOP Sen. John McCain, and his father and grandfather, both of whom were Navy admirals. Trump and Sen. McCain fought a long, ugly public feud that pre-dated Trump’s presidency and only ended with McCain’s death last August. Without Trump’s knowledge, a White House staffer told Navy commanders the ship must be “out of sight” so the president wouldn’t be upset.
For the Fourth of July celebration in Washington this week the liberal group VoteVets sought to needle Trump by distributing thousands of T-shirts featuring an image of the USS McCain, with the words “Big Bad John” written underneath in all caps.
“It’s really a way to honor a family that, through multiple generations, has shown that the country is bigger than any one individual,” Peter Kauffmann, VoteVets vice chair and a Navy veteran, told HuffPost.com about the shirts.
On Tuesday, the group noted Meghan McCain, the late senator’s daughter, apparently had endorsed the project. She had tweeted symbols of a red heart and an American flag with a story about the shirts.
Meghan McCain -- understandably and justifiably so -- has fiercely defended her father’s honor, reputation and legacy against Trump’s petty and asinine attacks. So one certainly could see why she might support giving Trump a political rabbit punch.
But what’s odious about this swipe at Trump is that VoteVets, much like the president, once found little good to say about Sen. McCain.
VoteVets was founded in 2006 by military vets who denounced President George W. Bush for the war in Iraq. The group quickly became a go-to anti-war voice for liberal media. But VoteVets didn’t target just Bush for his Middle East misadventures. As the 2008 presidential campaign got underway, the group went after the man who might succeed Bush as president, Sen. McCain.
In 2008 MSNBC reported that VoteVets had engineered a $20 million ad campaign “attacking” McCain during the election.
Jon Soltz, an Army veteran and then, as now, chairman of VoteVets, and others from the group were careful to recognize McCain’s service in Vietnam and praise him as a war hero -- something Trump had stupidly ridiculed, especially since he had avoided serving during Vietnam.
But clearly absent a decade ago was the warm regard that VoteVets now shows for John McCain.
For instance, VoteVets worked overtime to depict McCain as a blinkered warmonger whose jingoistic policies would hurt troops and crash the domestic economy.
In one ad, an Iraqi war veteran named Jason Bensley is quoted as saying McCain did not support vets the way he himself was supported after Vietnam. McCain’s “palling around with lobbyists, buying 7 houses and 13 cars just made him forget about what it is to be a brother in arms,” Bensley said in the ad.
The group also ripped McCain for disrespecting Iraqi vets because he opposed an update of education benefits under the GI Bill -- even though McCain had proposed his own version that increased the benefit, albeit to a lesser degree. In a TV ad, one veteran says, “McCain thinks covering a fraction of our education is enough,” while another, depicted as recovering from head wounds, adds, “We didn’t give a fraction in Iraq. We gave 100 percent.”
In August 2008, following comments McCain made at a town hall meeting, Soltz accused the senator of wanting to reinstitute the military draft, “whether America likes it or not” in order to fight “wars he is looking to get into.” Soltz, however, left out that McCain, as president, simply couldn’t restart the draft. Congress must do so.
In October 2008 the Miami New Times reported that VoteVets had assembled “dozens of instances” since 1987 where McCain had voted against veterans programs. “John McCain is all talk when it comes to supporting veterans, and his voting record shows it,” Brandon Friedman, a former Army officer and then VoteVets vice chairman, told the New Times.
McCain lost the election and once the White House was safe from his clutches, VoteVets saw fit to side with him at times. The group even tweeted in honor of his service on John McCain Day last month.
Still, it’s utterly cynical and disgraceful for VoteVets to use him now. To them, Sen. McCain was unacceptable to serve in the White House, but is a perfectly acceptable prop to harass its current occupant.
Bill Thompson is the editorial page editor of The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida.