Hey, have you heard the news? Sen. John McCain was a POW in Vietnam. He was there for five and a half years, and he was brutally tortured.
In all likelihood, that is not news to you. In fact, you would have to have been on Venus to have missed hearing about McCain's experience in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp.
It is, in fact, an immensely inspiring story of bravery, willpower and triumph over unbearable circumstances. McCain is a true patriot who has endured more pain and hardship than most of us ever will.
But, having acknowledged that, it has become tiresome to hear about it every time McCain gets himself into a political fix. He and his campaign operatives have milked this episode in his life to the point that they are in danger of cheapening it.
McCain will always be entitled to claim his POW experience as a gruelling test of character that he passed. But it is not an all-purpose answer to every criticism leveled at him.
McCain and members of his campaign have been playing the POW card with alarming frequency lately, even regarding trivial matters. For example, when he was good-naturedly gigged about naming "Dancing Queen" by ABBA as his favorite song, his campaign explained that his taste in music "stopped evolving when his plane intercepted a surface-to-air missile."
He was shot down in 1967. "Dancing Queen" was a hit in 1975.
During the primary campaign, Elizabeth Edwards, wife of former Sen. John Edwards, took issue with McCain's health-care plan. McCain staffers shot back that McCain knew plenty about getting poor health care "from another government."
During the recent civil forum at Saddleback Church, host Pastor Rick Warren told the audience that McCain was in a "cone of silence" where he could not hear the questions being asked of Sen. Barack Obama. In fact, as the New York Times later reported, McCain was in a motorcade on his way to the forum.
When asked about McCain's whereabouts during the show, one of his spokespersons responded that "the insinuation from the Obama campaign that John McCain, a former prisoner of war, cheated is outrageous."
Most recently, McCain has played the POW card in response to questions about his multiple houses. During an appearance Monday on the "Tonight Show," McCain was asked by Jay Leno in a joking manner: "For $1 million, how many houses do you have?"
His reply: "Could I mention to you, Jay, that, in a moment of seriousness, I spent five and a half years in a prison cell. I didn't have a house; I didn't have a kitchen table; I didn't have a table; I didn't have a chair ... "
Lest we forget that McCain was a POW, the South Carolina Republican Party this week released a 30-second advertisement entitled "Home" that reminds us that McCain's home for five and a half years was an enemy prison cell. "So," the ad concludes, "the next time Barack Obama talks about one of John McCain's homes, remember this one."
In each case, reference to McCain's POW experience is meant to shut down any criticism of him, regardless of the issue. But what relevance does his war record have to the fact that he could not, when asked, recall how many homes he has?
I don't begrudge McCain and his wife, Cindy, their eight homes. This is America, where you can buy as many homes as you can afford.
But the McCain campaign has done everything it could to portray Obama as an out-of-touch elitist. McCain, meanwhile, has struck the pose of the down-to-earth regular guy, just your average American.
Except that, unlike most average Americans, he can't remember how many homes he has. Nor do most average Americans have eight homes. So, it's legitimate to point out that the carefully crafted image might be a sham. It's also legitimate to ask who the real out-of-touch elitist is -- the guy with eight homes, the private jet and a wife worth in the neighborhood of $100 million, or the other guy with only one home?
And, sorry, but the answer to that questions is not: "I was a POW."