The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Real John McCain

In recent days, the McCain campaign has taken to asking, “Who is the real Barack Obama?” Unable to make headway in the debates or polls on differences over the issues in light of the recent financial crisis, McCain declared last week he was determined that the final month of the campaign would be about Obama’s character. What has evolved since says loads about the character of the Republican Party.

The effort began by Vice-President candidate Sarah Palin, who questioned Obama’s relationship with William Ayers. Four decades before Obama first met him, Ayers was a member of the violent, radical Weather Underground movement. Palin said that made Obama guilty of “palling around with terrorists.” She made it clear that Republicans should also resurrect Obama’s past relationship with Reverend Wright and use it against him, in her opinion.

Cindy McCain, the candidate’s wife, went after Obama on the subject of Iraq, accusing him of disloyalty to the troops and saying she was “chilled” when he voted against war funding while her son was serving in harm’s way.

At a Palin rally in Estero Florida, introductory speaker Sheriff Mike Scott of Lee County, once again referred to Obama as “Barack Hussein Obama,” with stress on his middle name, a practice that McCain had previously denounced.

At a McCain rally in Davenport Iowa, the Reverend Arnold Conrad of the Grace Evangelical Free Church offered an opening prayer in which he stated “millions of people around this world” were praying to other gods – such as the Hindu pantheon, Buddha, and Allah – for Obama to win “for various reasons.” Conrad concluded, “And Lord, I pray that you would guard your own reputation, because they're going to think that their gods are bigger than you if that happens.”

Bobby May, McCain’s campaign chairman in Buchanan County Virginia wrote a column in a local paper, The Voice, entitled, “The (Clarified) Platform of Barack Hussein Obama.” In his article, May opined that, once elected, Obama would hire rapper Ludacris to paint the White House black and change the national anthem from the “Star Spangled Banner” to the “Black National Anthem.”

Yesterday, FOX News aired a program hosted by Sean Hannity, called “Obama & Friends – The History of Radicalism.” It examined Obama’s past ties with Ayers and others and included highly provocative and unsubstantiated accusations, such as Obama’s work as a community organizer was really “training for a radical overthrow of the government.”

The impact of all this on Republican voters is to take anger and frustration over the current state of the election and bring it to the boiling point against Obama in a very personal way, at least if the crowds at McCain/Palin rallies last week were any indication. Cries of “traitor,” “terrorist,” “treason,” “liar,” and even “off with his head” and “kill him” have been heard at various gatherings in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and elsewhere.

To be clear, McCain and Palin neither directly encouraged such comments nor said anything so incendiary themselves. However, these outcries went unchallenged by them, leaving the implication that the GOP candidates consented to or even approved of such sentiments.

Indeed, at a rally last Thursday in Waukesha Wisconsin, when a man in the crowd told McCain “I'm really mad” because of “socialists taking over the country,” McCain voiced agreement. “I think I got the message,” he said. “The gentleman is right . . . We need to know the full extent of the relationship [with Ayers].”

McCain stoked the fires of personal attack again in Albuquerque New Mexico. “Whatever the question, whatever the issue, there’s always a back-story with Senator Obama,” he said. “My opponent’s touchiness every time he is questioned about his record should make us only more concerned.”

The intensity of conservative voter anger has begun to worry the media’s liberal and moderate pundits. David Gergen commented to Anderson Cooper on CNN the other night about “free-floating sort of whipping-around anger that could really lead to some violence.” Added Gergen, “I think we’re not far from that.”

Rather than change the tone of the election in his favor, McCain is drawing criticism from many different quarters.

David Brooks kicked things off Friday, talking about the “class warfare mentality” that has sprung up in the GOP, whereby the middle-class and middle America are taught to fear educated progressives as dangerous. “But no American politician plays the class-warfare card as constantly as Palin,” he writes. “Nobody so relentlessly divides the world between the ‘normal Joe Sixpack American’ and the coastal elite.”

His New York Times colleague, Frank Rich, followed him the next day, fuming, “The McCain campaign has crossed the line between tough negative campaigning and inciting vigilantism.”

Novelist Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, fretted in the Washington Post on Sunday over the Republican tendency to paint Obama as a Muslim and then conflate that with something evil. “Do they not understand the kind of fire they are playing with?” he asked.

Today, Hendrik Hertzberg admonishes in the New Yorker, “But ‘negative’ hardly does justice to the mendacity of the [McCain/Palin] campaign of vilification that bracketed Nashville.”

But perhaps the most damaging reproach was delivered by Democratic Georgia Representative John Lewis, a civil rights leader and someone McCain once described as one of the “wisest” men he knew and whose advice he would seek as President. Lewis posted in Politico that Alabama Governor and Presidential candidate George Wallace “never threw a bomb” but “created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks.” In much the same way, Lewis continued, “Senator McCain and Governor Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division.”

It is easy to accuse McCain of irresponsibility and even baiting over all this. However, I think we have been seeing an internal struggle between what I have previously described as the two camps within the GOP. The first of these camps, once personified by McCain, seeks moderation and bipartisan cooperation. The other camp, increasingly personified by Palin, pursues a strident extremism that condemns all opposing views as debauched and disloyal.

For about a week, McCain acquiesced to the tactics of the latter camp, just as he has modified or repudiated so many of his pervious moderate views in an attempt to curry the favor of the Party’s far right-wing base. Yet by last Friday, after he and Palin had gone their separate ways campaigning, he seemed to lose his heart for it and he stood up against his own Party.

At a rally in Minnesota, a woman in the crowd told McCain, “I don't trust Obama. I have read about him. He's an Arab.”

McCain tiredly shook his head in reply and said, “No, ma’am. He's a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign is all about.”

He told the same crowd, “I have to tell you, [Obama] is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as President of the United States.”

Later, at a different rally in Lakeville Minnesota, McCain confronted another angry group of supporters and told them, “If you want a fight, we will fight but we will be respectful. I don't mean that has to reduce your ferocity. I just mean to say you have to be respectful. I admire Senator Obama and his accomplishments. I will respect him, and I want everyone to be respectful.”

In response to this plea of viewing Obama not as a monster but as a human being, his own Republican supporters loudly booed McCain. For my part, this simple act of decency was the first hopeful sign of I have seen from McCain since he first announced his candidacy. This is not a person seeking to incite others to fanaticism and violence but rather a candidate who has been incited by the worst elements of his own Party to win at all costs and abide no ideology but their own myopic worldview.

Officially, the McCain campaign has not officially disavowed its “gloves off” approach. When the Obama campaign objected to crowds threatening to kill him at Republican rallies, the McCain campaign said that proves Obama “doesn’t understand” voter outrage. A statement issued by McCain characterized Congressman Lewis’s criticisms as “a character attack against Governor Sarah Palin and me that is shocking and beyond the pale.”

Nevertheless, there are some signs that McCain is backing off. Palin has dropped the association with Ayers from her stump speech, although she has replaced it with a diatribe against Obama’s support of late-term abortions for women whose life or health are at risk, drawing cries of “killer” from her audience on Sunday. McCain eventually repudiated the comments of the sheriff in Florida. The McCain campaign has dropped Bobby May in Virginia.

I do not know what the next three weeks will bring. However, if McCain loses this election, I hope he has begun to realize that, much like in Iraq, it is not winning or losing but rather the manner in which the battle was conducted that allows a soldier to walk away from a hard-fought war in pride rather than disgrace. And if McCain should win in November, I see the first flicker of hope that he might govern like the candidate and public servant I came to admire in 2000 rather than the sellout of 2008.

Who is the real John McCain? I dearly hope it was the man booed by an irate mob last Friday.

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