WASHINGTON - Real estate tycoon Donald Trump has a serious problem with American war heroes. He says he doesn't like them if they're captured.
The New York billionaire said so last week about one of our most famous war heroes: Arizona Sen. John McCain, who was taken prisoner during the Vietnam War after his Skyhawk dive bomber was blown out of the air over Hanoi, shattering his arms and one of his legs.
His parachute landed him in a lake where Vietnamese soldiers dragged him to shore and took him to a prisoner of war camp called "the plantation."
McCain was thrown into a small, filthy, window-less cell, beaten, starved and tortured during the more than five years of his imprisonment. A cellmate told him later that he wasn't expected to live. But he survived and on March 14, 1973, returned to the U.S., a virtual cripple, barely held up only by his crutches.
During this same time, Trump, who had graduated from the Wharton Business School, was working for his father's real estate firm, collecting rent from families along several blocks of low income New Yorkers.
In his autobiography about that period, Trump wrote, "suddenly here I was in a scene that was violent at worst and unpleasant at best."
But McCain encountered real violence in North Vietnam, not the make believe kind imagined by young Trump. And for his heroic bravery, never once buckling and giving the enemy the information they wanted, was awarded a Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross.
He was elected congressman, then U.S. senator, and in 2008 the Republican Party nominated him for president.
But now Trump, who has an ego the size of the Grand Canyon, and who has an embarrassing history of making inflammable, exaggerated statements, has decided to go after John McCain during a presidential campaign speech in Iowa.
"He's not a war hero," Trump said flat out last week. "He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured."
What is Trump saying here? That America's warriors who were captured in combat -- as tens of thousands were in World War II -- are not true heroes?
That our best and bravest soldiers who fought for their country, bled, lost limbs, and returned physically broken, but because they had been captured, were not true heroes?
That seems to be what he's saying. That McCain is a war hero only because he was captured, not for anything else he did. That in Trump's eyes, the true heroes, the ones he likes the best, were "people that weren't captured."
It was a stupid, ignorant, senseless, insensitive and thoughtless remark – unbecoming of any candidate for the presidency of the United States who wants to be taken seriously and is seen as someone who carefully chooses his words. A candidate who understands that a wrong or careless reply can get our country into war or further enflame a delicate national security issue.
Is this the kind of president we want speaking for our country? Someone who doesn’t think before they shoot off their mouth?
And Trump isn't backing away from his remarks. When ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz asked himon Sunday's"This Week" program if he thought he should apologize to McCain, Mr. Straight Talker replied, "No, not at all."
Instead, Trump sought to change the subject by accusing McCain of having "done nothing" for veterans. When she read statements from veterans leaders who condemned Trump, he said, "Well, maybe they don't speak to the same vets that I speak to."
Trump's political style of combat -- and the reason that he gives for his latest attack on McCain -- sounds like a school boy's excuse for name-calling.
He said, for example, that he became angry when he read that McCain, in a New Yorker interview, called his supporters a bunch of "crazies."
When asked by Raddatz if he intends calling people he disagrees with a "loser" or "dummy," he said,"Look, when people attack me, I let them have it back."
"You know… people are constantly attacking my hair. I don't see you coming to my defense." Then he continued to call McCain "a dummy."
Politics is in some ways a verbal contact sport that can get rough at times, but the trick is to appear "presidential" and tough at the same time – and Trump can't quite get the hang of it.
Ronald Reagan was a master at the game when he was running against President Carter. Reagan kept saying that the economy was in a recession, as Carter's advisers said Reagan didn't even know the definition of a true recession.
"Well, if it's definition they want, I'll given 'em one," he said at a rally launching his fall campaign. "A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose your job, and recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his."
For Reagan, it was a soft one, two, three punch, but it knocked Carter out of the ring.
Trump has moved to the front of the GOP primary race, with 24 percent in the latest Washington Post/ABC poll, followed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (13 percent) and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (12 percent), with all the others in single digits.
But it's early yet, and Trumps' opponents are going to be reminding Republicans, especially veterans and our soldiers here and abroad, about The Donald's remark that John McCain is "not a war hero."
Personal attacks can get you only so far in presidential politics, but then it can turn against you and bite you in the behind.
Attacking one of America's true war heroes will likely result in a very big bite.