Can we (still) talk?

“Prometheus had a hard career,” the columnist George Will once noted. “An eagle nibbled his liver for thousands of years. Running for president is sort of like that.”

There seem to be more than a few things nibbling at John McCain’s spleen in his second quest for the Republican presidential nomination. But perhaps nothing has irritated the senator from Arizona more than the now infamous ad that appeared in The New York Times just before the testimony of Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, to congressional committees.

The “General Betray Us” ad created a significant backlash with its tasteless play on the general’s name and its claim that Petraeus would tell members of Congress nothing that the White House did not want them and the public to hear. That, fumed many Republicans and not a few critics in the news media, constituted on assault on the integrity of the general and the entire military establishment.

We have yet to see or hear, however, a reasoned argument that the ad falls outside the protection of the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. But, then, reasoned argument is not a frequent visitor to the campaign trail, as was evident when Senator McCain brought a mock-up of the ad with him when he spoke to a group of veterans here in Hudson. Not content to denounce the content of the ad, the senator went on to say that “ should be thrown out of this country.”

His campaign soon after tried to soften and “clarify” the statement. But McCain is no stranger to the effort to silence unwelcome speech. Among his most heralded legislative achievements is the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which includes a ban on ads that mention the name of any candidate on the ballot within 60 days of a general election or 30 days before a primary. It is hard to imagine a clearer violation of the First Amendment ban on any law “abridging the freedom of speech” – unless, of course, the name-ban periods were lengthened even further.

No one questions the patriotism or loyalty of John McCain, who served so heroically and endured so much suffering as a Navy pilot and a prisoner of war decades ago. Nor do we question his sincerity. But he appears occasionally to exhibit what can charitably be referred to as “discomfort” with the freedom of speech in the United States. And considering how much he personally sacrificed to protect our Constitution, that’s unfortunate.