WASHINGTON — Retired Gen. Wesley Clark threw a rhetorical grenade into the campaign this week with the suggestion that Sen. John McCain's military experience does not necessarily qualify him to be president.
On CBS's Face the Nation on Sunday, Clark praised McCain for being "a hero" and acknowledged the Arizona senator had extensive experience as a member of the Armed Services Committee.
"But," Clark said, "he hasn't held executive responsibility."
McCain's campaign quickly fired back. Friends and colleagues who have known McCain since his days in the Navy said he is well qualified to be commander in chief.
Yet Clark, a Democrat who has endorsed Barack Obama, had zeroed in on a weakness in McCain's resume. He served 22 years in the Navy, and 26 in Congress, but McCain, 71, has not been a mayor, a governor or a chief executive. He did serve as commanding officer of a large pilot training group after he returned from Vietnam. Clark dismissed that as an inconsequential noncombat assignment.
"He hasn't been there and ordered the bombs to fall," Clark said.
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McCain's political career has been entirely in the legislative branch, so — though he oversees a staff of about 60 — he is a legislator, not an executive.
McCain's naval career is legend: He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1958, became a fighter pilot and was shot down over North Vietnam, where he was a POW for 5 1/2 years.
After he returned to the United States, McCain served at the air group in the role he cites as his executive experience. His 13-month command of Replacement Air Group 174 in Jacksonville shows how he manages and provides clues about what he might be like as president.
In 1975, McCain became executive officer of the group, which trained pilots and crew members for aircraft carrier service. The RAG, as it was known, had 1,000 people and 75 planes, the Navy's largest aviation squadron.
Eyebrows were raised when he became commanding officer a few months later. Some suspected favoritism because he was the son and grandson of famous Naval officers.
But according to people who served under McCain in the training group, he earned high marks for invigorating a unit that had been struggling with a fleet of broken planes.
"He was very inspirational," said Bob Stumpf, a student pilot at the RAG who later led the Navy's Blue Angel team. "He was always personally involved. He didn't hide in his office."
Carl Smith, who served as a flight instructor with the group and is a Washington lawyer and lobbyist, said McCain was a savvy manager who got rid of ineffective employees, hired talented people, set goals and kept his workers motivated.
"He gave the old crowd a chance to perform. When they didn't, he fired them," said Smith.
McCain inherited a squadron that had many crippled planes. He set a goal of getting them all repaired and achieved it in just more than a year.
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Clark's larger point is correct: McCain has accomplished a lot in his career, but has little executive experience. But Clark, who ran for president in 2004, was incorrect to say McCain "hasn't held executive responsibility." McCain not only held an executive post over a large training unit, but earned positive reviews. When McCain departed, the unit was given its first Meritorious Unit Citation.
Washington bureau chief Bill Adair can be reached at [email protected] or (202) 463-0575.