March 31, 2008 -- In early January, at a town hall-style campaign event for Sen. John McCain in Derry, N.H., a man in the audience stood to ask the Republican presidential candidate a question about his support for the war in Iraq.
What followed was an extraordinary discussion that lasted six minutes. McCain predicted that Gen. David Petraeus' counterinsurgency strategy would eventually make Iraq more secure, allowing economic, social and political progress to take place.
"What happens is American troops withdraw and they withdraw to bases and then they eventually withdraw, or we reach an agreement like we have in South Korea, with Japan," he said. "We still have troops in Bosnia."
The man in the audience wasn't satisfied. We weren't at war in those countries, he said. And he questioned whether the troop surge in Iraq was truly succeeding, as McCain had asserted.
"I do not believe that one U.S. soldier being killed almost every day is success," he said to McCain. "There were three U.S. soldiers killed today. I want to know how long are we going to be there?"
Back and forth it went until the man started to ask another question. "President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for 50 years --"
Handing Ammo to War Critics
McCain interrupted with words that have haunted him ever since.
He said either "Maybe a 100," or "Make it 100."
McCain continued: "We've been in South Korea, we've been in Japan for 60 years. We've been in South Korea for 50 years or so. That'd be fine with me as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed. Then it's fine with me. I would hope it would be fine with you if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world where Al Qaeda is training, recruiting, equipping and motivating people every single day."
With that comment, McCain handed his Democratic opponents and war critics a weapon with which to bludgeon him all the way to Election Day in November. And it didn't take long for the bludgeoning to begin.
By early February, as it became clear that McCain would emerge the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, the Democratic National Committee sent out a fundraising letter portraying McCain as favoring "an endless war" in Iraq.
Last week, Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean blasted McCain as "a blatant opportunist who doesn't understand the economy and is promising to keep our troops in Iraq for 100 years."
Sen. Hillary Clinton's camp continually blasts him for the 100-year remark. The Democratic presidential candidate said this month McCain "is willing to keep this war going for 100 years." She vows to remove U.S. troops from Iraq. But a year ago, she told The New York Times that as president she would leave some unspecified number of U.S. forces to protect "remaining vital national security interests in Iraq."
The article said: "She declined to estimate the number of American troops she would keep in Iraq, saying she would draw on the advice of military officers." That position does not appear to be much different than what McCain was saying in Derry, minus the 100-year quip.
Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said, "We are bogged down in a war that John McCain now suggests might go on for another 100 years."
This weekend, the Republican National Committee fired back at Obama.
Committee spokesman Alex Conant said, "Barack Obama is deliberately misleading voters by asserting that John McCain wants to fight the Iraq was for another 100 years, when it's well-documented that John McCain never said that."
McCain's Wright, McCain's Tuzla
The attacks on McCain aren't coming just from his Democratic opponents. A scathing anti-McCain video posted on YouTube, entitled "No, We Can't," uses select lines from what McCain said to give the distinct impression that he would actually enjoy it if the war went on for 100 years. His words are edited to make him to say: "Make it (or, maybe) 100 years. That'd be fine with me."
Google the words "McCain" and "100 years" and you will be treated to a menu of blogs attacking McCain for wanting to wage war for another century.
Several political analysts said they sympathized with McCain's predicament. They say he tried to give a detailed, textured reply to a serious question and his opponents conveniently dropped the context and qualifiers and used to draw a withering caricature of cavalier warmonger.
Democratic strategist Bob Shrum said it was clear to him what McCain really meant -- after all, McCain spelled it out at length. His candor gave his opponents a huge opening to portray it otherwise.
"It's his Rev. [Jeremiah] Wright [Obama's controversial former pastor]," Shrum said. "It's his Tuzla [the Bosnian city where Clinton erroneously claimed she had landed in a helicopter under sniper fire]."
McCain: All's Fair in Politics
Former Bush political strategist Matthew Dowd said the problem for McCain is that the distorted version of what he said plays precisely to his vulnerability: his ardent support for an unpopular war.
"For the Democrats, it's a gift because it's a shortcut version to say this guy is going to support the Bush war and he's going to do it for some crazy period of time," Dowd said. "In politics, nuance and truth are unfortunately not very often rewarded. So, whether it's fair or not, that obviously never seems to be a question in politics. It's whether it's effective or not."
Several weeks ago as he rode in his campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express, McCain was asked how he felt about his 100-year comment being turned against him, McCain shrugged. "Life isn't fair," he said.
But the attacks have stung. More recently, McCain has tried to rebut them, calling them "distortions." When asked, he painstakingly tries -- but rarely volunteers -- to explain what he actually said and meant.
"As we know, all's fair in politics," he said in Aurora, Ill. "But the fact is as everybody knows, and the media who follows me and spends a lot of time with me, I was talking about after the war is over."
In Columbus, Ohio, he said, "The point is the surge is succeeding. We can bring our troops home with honor and we can bring them all home or we can have an arrangement, a security arrangement [with Iraq] much along the lines that we have with other countries."
McCain fired back at one his potential general election opponent, Illinois Sen. Bararck Obama, for saying McCain had not offered a clear definition of what could be viewed as success in the war torn country. McCain hit Obama with some of the sharpest language he's used against Obama to date.
"Well then in all due respect he does not understand the elements, the fundamental elements of national security and warfare," said McCain.
Obama, he said, "displays a fundamental misunderstanding of history and how we've maintained national security, and what we need to do in the future to maintain our security in the face of the transcendent challenge of radical Islamic extremism. And I understand that because he has no experience or background in any of it."
Dowd says McCain would be well-advised to not even try to keep explaining what he meant.
"Anytime you try to say it's out of context, they took my words and all that, you're losing, so you better get off of it," he said. "I just think you shut up and move on and say: 'what's your solution? What are you going to do? What's your plan?' You go [to] them and try to put them on the defensive. He's not going to be able to burn that away, it's going to exist till Election Day. His best thing is move on."