John McCain is a brat. I'm not casting aspersions on his behavior as a youth. I'm simply using the common vernacular given to those of us who are sons and daughters of professional soldiers, sailors, and airmen (subspecies: army brat, navy brat, etc.).
Everyone knows, of course, that he is the son and grandson of four-star admirals and that he had a distinguished career as a naval aviator, and was a POW, before leaving the service to enter politics. What people might not know, or fully understand, is what it means that he is a military brat.
The presumptive Republican Party presidential nominee has completed a tour to highlight the places and early personal experiences that have helped to shape the kind of person he is and the kind of president he might be.
Americans have elected many veterans to the presidency; we have elected a few professional soldiers, such as Dwight Eisenhower. But we have never elected a military brat; McCain would be the first. The last army brat with presidential aspirations was Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
What makes a military brat different?
For one thing, we brats have very little sense of our roots, although perhaps as a way of compensating, we do seem to have a greater sense of the nation as a whole and, to an extent, the world. The easiest way to flummox a brat is to ask the simple question: "Where are you from?"
Usually we stammer out something like, "Well, um, I moved around a lot as a kid."
Like many other military kids, McCain wasn't even born in the United States. He was born on a base in what was then the Panama Canal Zone. It doesn't have quite the down-home ring of Plains, Ga., or Hope, Ark.
Few civilians realize that growing up in the military – not to mention serving in the military – is the closest to pure socialism you can come in America.
Nationalized healthcare? We've had it from Year 1. As a teenager living on an air force base in Japan, I even had my teeth straightened at US taxpayers' expense. Housing is provided free of charge – and it's pretty nice for admirals – or, if we have to live off base, it's subsidized with a housing allowance.
Food is also subsidized. Well into retirement, my parents found it worthwhile to drive 50 miles from their Florida retirement home, past multiple civilian supermarkets to McDill Air Force Base to stock up on groceries at the commissary.
Schooling is free in the US, of course, and through the defense school system it's free abroad.
McCain's parents paid to send him to an expensive private school in Virginia (where he stopped to praise teachers during his biographical tour) but saved on college expenses when he attended Annapolis, one of the tuition-free service academies, as many military brats do, following in their parent's footsteps.
Many of the military perks in the 1950s-'60s era were meant to compensate for the generally low base pay in the pre-all-volunteer Army period.
Does any of this matter? Consider the fact that the base pay of a four-star general, such as Gen. David Petraeus, is about 12 times that of a buck private, whereas the chief executive of a large corporation today makes about 430 times the salary of a production-line worker.
McCain probably drew on his military brat background when he recently criticized excessive pay packages for corporate executives, saying: "I think it is outrageous when someone who is the head of Bear Stearns cashes in millions and millions of dollars in stocks."
Conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh were quick to condemn McCain for his egalitarian instincts. "This is just who he is," said Limbaugh, not realizing the full import of his remarks.
As the race for president speeds up, it's good to remember that the military does not only inculcate conservative ideals. There's a worthy mix of values and life experiences that a military brat can bring to the office of president.
Todd Crowell is a freelance writer in Japan. He is the son of a career Air Force officer.