The dodo. The passenger pigeon. The crested sheldrake. Birds driven to extinction and known only to history.
Conservation groups in the United States have done an outstanding job in recent decades raising public awareness about endangered species, preventing more feathered creatures from becoming museum artifacts. This week, the Interior Department announced another success story when it proposed removing the brown pelican from the endangered list.
Yet for every success, there are countless failures. Americans care about the beloved bald eagle. Yet how many of us even know about the Kittlitz's murrelet or the Gunnison sage-grouse? When it comes to endangerment, ignorance is an agent of extinction.
So it is with another bird that is rapidly disappearing from the American political landscape almost without notice the chickenhawk. A search of the Nexis database reveals 263 sightings of the fair-weather fowl in U.S. newspapers in 2004, 116 in 2005, 85 in 2006 and 123 in 2007. Yet two months into 2008, there have been only eight references to this once prolific predator.
What accounts for such an astonishing decline? John McCain.
Four years ago, Democrats selected a presidential candidate who made military service his singular credential. At the same time, friendly forces denigrated the service of George W. Bush in the Texas Air National Guard.
That's when the liberal chickenhawk meme really hatched. If you hadn't fired a weapon in combat or been fired upon, you had no business making decisions about war as chief executive or even voicing an opinion about it as a citizen that is, if you were favorably disposed to deposing homicidal dictators and ending genocidal regimes. If you were opposed to military action, any credential would suffice.
It was a stunning and cynical reversal for Democrats. For the better part of the 1990s, they vouched that studying at Oxford and not inhaling made Bill Clinton every bit as suitable to be commander in chief as George H.W. Bush, a decorated combat naval aviator, in 1992 and Bob Dole, a decorated soldier, in 1996. In 2004, however, guard duty was dismissed as cocktail hour for the country club set.
In the aftermath of the election, chickenhawk references declined as recriminations against the Kerry campaign took flight. Chickenhawk sightings rose in 2007, as Democrats retook control of Congress and debates raged about withdrawal from Iraq.
Later in the year, chickenhawks were purportedly spotted in the campaign of Mitt Romney, none of whose five sons had enlisted in the military.
As John McCain became the presumptive GOP nominee, however, chickenhawk sightings all but disappeared.
Flying 23 combat missions, getting shot down over enemy territory, being beaten within a hair of your life, tortured and held in captivity for 51/2 years, having one son in the Marines and another at the Naval Academy may not give McCain absolute moral authority on issues of national security. But by the standard set by Democrats in 2004, he has an unquestionable superiority.
Neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton has ever served in uniform, not even the Illinois Air National Guard. Obama's children are too young to enlist. But in this gender-liberating election, those keen observers who spotted chickenhawks in the Romney camp might just as well be asking why Chelsea Clinton isn't in uniform.
McCain is to the chickenhawk purveyors of the political world what "Dirty Harry" Callahan is to the mobs of mayhem in the movie world. Picture a gang of MoveOn and Code Pink types roaming through an urban wasteland, blocking entry to Marine recruiting offices and harassing people in uniform while professing to support the troops. Until McCain happens on the scene.
"Go ahead, make my day. Call me a chickenhawk for supporting the surge. You've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punks?"
Military service has never been and never should be a prerequisite for public office or to engage in public debate about military matters. And the best way for the chickenhawk mongers to relearn this civics lesson is for John McCain to teach it to them the hard way.