Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Qualifications for President

It appears that the American people are determined to remove all substance from political contests in this country and to fill them with junk.

The top news story in the Presidential race for the past two days has been retired general Wesley Clark's statement that, "I don't think that being shot down and being a prisoner of war is a qualification to be President," on Face the Nation

This is a worthless statement to spend time on. However, since the nation is spending time on it, I want to pull something substantive out of it. I want to look at the qualities that a President should have, and the qualities of being a hero. Over the course of this presentation I will argue that Clark's statement is true. However, I will go further and look at the criteria that is relevant to making these types of judgments.

The thesis that there is nothing in being shot down and being a prisoner of war that makes one more qualified to be President springs from the fact that being shot down and being held at the Hanoi Hilton was not an intentional action. It was not something that McCain choose to do. Therefore, it tells us nothing about his character or about the quality of the choices that he will make as President.

In general, we apply the principle that a person acts so as to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires, given his beliefs. With this principle, we look at the intentional actions of an individual and, from this, we create a theory of beliefs and desires. We look for the set of beliefs and desires that best explains past actions. That theory can then be used to best preduct future actions.

We are constantly employing this technique. For each of us, a lot depends on doing this well. We use this to predict the behavior of our bosses and our spouses, to run our businesses, to negotiate with our neighbors, and to run political campaigns. From the first instant we lay eyes on somebody we look at their clothes and appearance. We see the way they have decided to dress and groom themselves as intentional actions that instantly lead to conclusions about what that agent believes and desires. From those theories, we begin to draw predictions of how that person will act in various circumstances (whether to trust them, or whether to run away).

Being shot down and being a prisoner of war is not an intentional action. It does not allow us to infer anything about the beliefs and desires of the agent. Therefore, it does not allow us to infer anything about how that agent will behave as President of the United States.

By the way, as an aside, the same analysis applies to those who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11 – at least for those who worked there. I constantly hear these people referred to as heroes. They were not heroes, they were victims. They made no intentional choice to put themselves in danger. Instead, danger came to them – unknowingly. If they had known what was going to happen, we can trust that few of them would have gone there. They were not heroes.

There were heroes at 9/11. Those were the first responders who entered the World Trade Center after it had been hit. These people performed intentional actions that put them in danger. This allows us to say something about the beliefs and desires of those people – and we find in them desires worthy of our admiration and respect – desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others.

Also, there were people who became heroes after the airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center. These were people who responded to the attack with action – actions that considered the well-being of others.

In fact, it diminishes the claim that these first-responders are heroes to give the term as well to those who made no intentional choice to face danger. When we give an honor to those who do not deserve it, we insult all of those given the same honor but who did deserve it.

The passengers who died bringing down Flight 93 are heroes. They performed an intentional action – an action that proved to be a benefit to others. We may cynically assert that they acted only to save their own lives. Yet, history has told us of great numbers of people who refused to act even when they were being killed off (or enslaved) in huge numbers. We have every reason to believe that in addition to any desire for self-preservation, these agents knew that if they did not act their plane would be used as a weapon against innocent people. The passengers of Flight 93 qualify as heroes.

Those who died at the Pentagon also belong in a different category from those who died in the World Trade Center. Military buildings are military targets. People who join the military are people who are willing to put themselves at risk for the well-being of others. The Pentagon is a military target, occupied by people who voluntarily accept risks to life and limb in the defense of this country. They get credit for that intentional action.

In this sense, the same is true of John McCain. For choosing to put himself in a situation where he might be shot down and held as a prisoner of war, he deserves our admiration and respect. However, he shares this right to our admiration and respect with every other fighter pilot who flew combat missions during Vietnam without being shot down. His intentional action was the same as theirs, and so the respect and admiration that is his due is the same as theirs.

The same applies, in fact, for anybody who joins the police force, fire department, search and rescue, coast guard, or the military. This act of joining is an intentional act that tells us something about the character of the individual – something positive – something we generally have reason to praise.

When a person puts himself at risk for the sake of others, and suffers a huge cost because of it, we owe him a debt of gratitude. If a person takes a risk for my benefit, and suffers as a consequence, then I owe him some form of compensation for what he lost. It would be selfish and cruel of me to simply say, "Thank you," and to walk off.

So, we do owe McCain a greater debt of gratitude than we owe to the fighter pilot who did not get shot down and tortured. However, this is not the type of debt that gives McCain any claim to the keys to the White House. It gives him a claim that we make his life more comfortable – a decent set of veterans' benefits that properly convey to these people that, "We are grateful for what you gave up and we are more than eager to share the burden." McCain has no right to point to the White House and say, "You owe me."

Yes, Mr. McCain, we owe you, but the White House is not on the list of things that you may ask from us. We owe that office to the person who will do the best job promoting the well-being of the American people on the whole, and in particular promoting certain values on which that well-being depends.


Anonymous said...

FAIR news recently ran a piece on this as well:

As you can see, the mainstream media has a hard time actually listening to someone's statements before trying to slander them.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

There is certainly strong evidence for a lack of honest reporting in the main stream media.

Anonymous said...

I am no fan of John McCain and normally I think your logic is right on, but I have to take issue with part of your thesis. I agree with your analysis vis-a-vis the intentionality of Mr McCain's imprisonment (assuming that he is sane and any sane person would not intentionally put himself through such a process), but how he acted DURING the imprisonment is another matter. Particularly his refusal for early parole and better treatment. These are intentional acts and therefore grounds for analysis. Just like the passengers on flight 93 are not heros for being unlucky enough to be on the plane in the first place, but rather for being willing to fight back, Mr. McCain can claim the same mantle, not for being shot down, but for his behavior during his captivity. All that said I certainly agree that he can't claim the White House as his prize for this behavior.

anticant said...

The only relevance of McCain's Vietnam record for his fitness or otherwise to be President is, surely, his behaviour during his captivity.

If it's true, as I've read in various places, that he was given privileged treatment, and even collaborated with his captors, because his father was a senior American officer, he is clearly unfit to be President.

The truth about this is a matter of fact, not theoretical speculation, and should be ascertainable by those with an interest in doing so - meaning the entire US electorate.

Anonymous said...

anticant: If it's true, as I've read in various places, that he was given privileged treatment, and even collaborated with his captors, because his father was a senior American officer, he is clearly unfit to be President.

While it is true that he was *offered* privileged treatment and early release by his captors because of his father's position, it is also true that he declined this offer. We could infer that this was out of fairness towards his comrades, or out of the fear that his release out of priviledge would be used as propaganda by his captors, or both.

He initially refused collaboration with his captors, but eventually broke under torture and signed statements prepared by his captors.

This said, I do not think this entitles him to the White House, but it is supporting evidence in evaluating his character.

For the record: I am an Obama supporter.


Alonzo Fyfe said...


Your points are certainly consistent with my argument. As I wrote, many people in the World Trade Center became heroes after the attack because of the intentional actions they performed after the attack.

Similarly, McCain's choices in captivity are intentional actions that we can evaluate.

I would caution anybody against adopting beliefs about McCain's actions during captivity based on political expedience. Being too eager to believe that McCain acted dishonorably during captivity is as morally culpable as believing too eagerly that Obama turns his back on the flag whenever the Pledge of Allegiance is recited.

Anonymous said...


the relevant part of McCain's biography at wikipedia:


Anonymous said...

Alonzo, I concur. I was just picking at nits.

anticant said...

I don't believe anything "too eagerly" - I just raised the issue saying that it would be good to know the facts. As a mere outsider Brit, it does matter to us on this side of the pond what sort of a person becomes your next president.

If, as heisenberg says, "He initially refused collaboration with his captors, but eventually broke under torture and signed statements prepared by his captors", this experience should make him an ardent opponent of Guantanamo Bay, waterboarding, etc. etc., but I haven't seen any statements of his to this effect.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

McCain worked specifically to get a law passed banning torture and other forms of abuse of prisoners. He negotiated with the White House to get it signed.

Bush, then, signed the law, but issued a signing statement that said, in effect, "This law can be ignored at the discretion of the Commander in Chief."

McCain went through a lot of work to get that bill passed and signed against the wishes of the Administration. Yet, I do not recall any outrage over the signing statement that accompanied it.

Hume's Ghost said...

One of the most appalling political spectacles I've ever witnessed has been the same cretins who denigrated John Kerry's war service feigning outrage over Clark's statement despite Clark not denigrating McCain's service, but making a true statement.

Michelle Malkin - who went on Hardball and suggested that John Kerry self-inflicted his wonds ... a slander not even the swift-boat veterans were making - has managed to find the nerve to be indignant over Clark's statement.

Rush Limbaugh has done the same.

It is stuff like this that forces me to repeat the motto of Emperor Marcus Aurelius:

"There is but one thing of real value - to cultivate truth and justice, and to live without anger in the midst of lying and unjust men."

That quote might be slightly off

Hume's Ghost said...

Ug. That's "wounds" not "wonds"

And the quote isn't off. I had quoted from memory but then googled it to get it correct, then forgot to delete that part.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Hume's Ghost

I am very much pleased to see you commenting again.

One of the things that I have noticed, and that bother me, is that the public supports a group of people who are blatantly hypocritical and dishonest. These people would not have the position (or power) they have without a segment of the population that cares nothing about truth or integrity that they actually listen to these people.

Meanwhile, others, who make honest claims that they make with integrity cannot get an audience.

America, as a nation, gets what it pays for.

JMRM said...

How was fighting in Vietnam worthy of "admiration and respect"? Who were they defending? And from what?
Your respect for people who were in the military sems to come from emotion (nationalism) and not reason.

PhillyChief said...

It seems so cut and dry - being a prisoner of war does not equal being qualified to be Commander in Chief. The outrage people have with people who say this is absurd. They take it as if it's a slight, an insult, which couldn't be further from the truth.

I will say though that if that experience of his as a pow can't make him realize that he should both object to Bush's little signing statement and object to water boarding not being called torture, than none of his experience should be trumpeted since it's evident his ability to learn from experiences is quite dubious.

Christopher Hitchens undergoing waterboarding

Sheldon said...

"The same applies to John McCain. For choosing to put himself in a situation where he could be shot down and held as a prisoner of war for 5.5 years, he deserves our admiration and respect. However, he shares this right to our admiration and respect with every other fighter pilot who flew combat missions during Vietnam without being shot down."

Well I beg to differ on this point. How often these types of statements are made without critically examining what those combat missions probably entailed.

McCain was shot down after about 20bombing missions over North Vietnam. Seems to me that a legitimate question would be what were the effects of those bombing missions to people on the ground? Did that aerial bombardment terrorize the people below? What is the likelihood that more than a few innocents were killed or maimed from the bombs McCain and others dropped?

Another question relevant to McCain's qualifications is whether he is more likely to order similar attacks on Iran, and recklessly expand a regional war, and cause even more bloodshed and human suffering.

I am pretty tired of this admiration for so-called "war heroes".

The real war heroes are those with the moral courage to speak of the truth about what they have seen, done and experienced. Which can be found at this link: