Republican presidential nominee John McCain has a campaign bus called the "Straight Talk Express." It is the literal embodiment of McCain's message: He's a "maverick" who tells the truth even if it hurts his chances to win an election.
The real truth is that McCain, like almost all politicians, hedges his bets, tailoring his message to fit whatever group he's trying to appeal to on any given day. He's flip-flopped on abortion, off-shore drilling, privatization of Social Security, the Confederate flag, the G.I. Bill, and dozens of other issues.
But it didn't stop McCain from saying Democratic opponent Barack Obama "can't be trusted," because he flip-flopped on accepting public campaign financing. And Obama, who is lately showing that he's read the Bill Clinton playbook, is moving to the center on issues such the FISA bill, gun control, and government support of "faith-based" assistance programs.
The truth is that real straight talk from politicians is as endangered as the ivory-billed woodpecker. Or maybe as extinct. And when someone actually breaks the rules and speaks candidly, the spin machines from all sides move in for the kill.
A recent case in point came from General Wesley Clark, who, while being interviewed by CBS' Bob Schieffer, had the temerity to say that McCain's being shot down in a plane over Vietnam did not necessarily qualify him as an expert on foreign policy and military affairs.
The Republican spin machine swung into action, flooding the media with statements of outrage at Clark's simple declaration of the truth. Clark was accused of not "honoring" McCain's service (which he very much did do in prefacing his "controversial" comment). The media took the bait, and we were treated to a 24-hour news cycle devoted to analyzing whether the general's comments were "fair."
To his credit, Clark — who left Vietnam on a stretcher and needn't take lessons in honoring military service from anyone — stood by his comments. To his discredit, Obama immediately issued a statement saying he rejected Clark's point of view.
It is good to remember incidents such as this one when taking the measure of those who aspire to lead us. Maybe real "straight talk" is too much to hope for, but a little common sense would be nice. And a little backbone.
Exactly seven years ago this week, I wrote a column decrying a proposal by city engineers to turn the Overton Park Greensward into an 18-foot-deep "detention basin" designed to stop flooding in Midtown. The engineers claimed we'd hardly notice the football-field-sized bowl. "Except," I wrote then, "when it rains hard, at which time, users of Overton Park would probably notice a large, 18-foot-deep lake in the Greensward. Or afterward, a large, muddy, trash-filled depression."