A season for American heroes


February 20, 2000|By C. FRASER SMITH

In this presidential election year, a soldier from North Laurel and a naval officer from Arizona are setting the tone.

In their unique ways and on different stages, Alfred V. Rascon and Sen. John McCain, have what Americans crave: courage, humility, determination.

In different ways, they started toward the year 2000 from the war in Vietnam and suddenly find themselves headed toward the White House -- to be honored for the sacrifices they made for comrades and for country.

Mr. McCain, of course, is a Republican running for president.

Mr. Rascon is a Medal of Honor winner, having received that tribute last week -- 34 years after the deeds for which it was awarded.

Mr. McCain may be hoisted into the role of commander in chief by a legion of veterans and their families. He has far to go, but his journey is capturing the flag of public imagination.

Mr. Rascons medal came as the result of a push from buddies who struggled against the bureaucracy as if it were some impenetrable Southeast Asian jungle.

Now an inspector general with the Selective Service System, the 54-year-old Mr. Rascon lives quietly in North Laurel -- or did until his buddies decided the man they called Doc was over due for a trip to the White House.

Born in Mexico, the son of immigrant parents who worked in California packing houses, Mr. Rascon was not even a U.S. citizen when he went to war. As a medic, he would venture through what he called ten minutes of pure hell, repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire to save wounded comrades. That was on March 16, 1966 -- 34 years ago.

When President Clinton presented the medal, he said Mr. Rascons honor had been lost in a thicket of red tape. When they discovered the award had not been given, Docs buddies overcame a rule that says the award must be given within three years of the heroic action.

Mr. Rascon stood with great military bearing as Mr. Clinton draped the medal with the light blue ribbon around his neck. He was proud, Mr. Rascon said, to accept it on behalf of his friends, his comrades -- the men he served with, was willing to lay down his life for.

He seemed as stoic a figure as Mr. McCain must have been as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Severely beaten during his years of imprisonment, the senator cannot raise his arms much higher than his shoulders.

Yet many Americans have begun to believe he is strong enough to carry the nation into 2000 and beyond.

If we are suffering from what some call Clinton fatigue, John McCain would seem the candidate best positioned to be an antidote. One has to hope that he has the characteristics that made Mr. Clinton good at his job -- a grasp of issues and problems and a commitment to solve them.

Mr. McCains political advantage derives much from the disabilities of the current White House occupant. He and Mr. Rascon served while Mr. Clinton opposed the war and resisted induction into the military service, attempting even as he stayed out to maintain his political credibility; the canny Mr. Clinton knew that Americans find candidates with war records particularly appealing as leaders.

The validity of Mr. Clintons calculation could hardly be demonstrated more clearly than it is this year.

By staying in the political fight when few thought he had a chance, Mr. McCain showed he knew something about the American people, about this year and about his ability to lead.

Win or lose, he is writing yet another chapter in a remarkable American story.

The son and grandson of admirals, Mr. McCain came to the race with a widely known personal story. Naval Academy grad, fighter pilot, prisoner of war for five years -- and a reformers outrage.

His view of moneys malignant impact on Capitol Hill could make him the perfect opponent for the Democrats and those in his own party who stand knee-deep in cash. He wants to reduce the power of money in elections and that makes him the immediate enemy of those who helped his chief Republican rival, George W. Bush. The more people see of Mr. Bush, the more questions they seem to have of him and his bankroll. The opposite seems true of Mr. McCain.

The man from Arizona has a bit of Harry Truman in him and might begin to accumulate the sort of appeal that made Gen. Dwight Eisenhower unbeatable after World War II.

The beauty of the McCain story -- and the story of Mr. Rascon -- is the rough-hewn visceral credibility of both. Could money buy what they have? What spin doctor or ad man could improve on either?

Maybe our malaise (if we have one) has to do with hype -- polling and consultants and endless rounds of fundraisers. Men like Alfred Rascon and John McCain make us feel better about ourselves and our country.

C. Fraser Smith writes editorials for The Sun from Howard County.

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