John McCain at the Craps Table of History

What matters is what John McCain and Sarah Palin are not saying.

For weeks --- starting well before the recent surge in xenophobic and racially charged attacks on Barack Obama that now have become a stock feature of the McCain campaign --- McCain's friends in the news media defended McCain himself as someone who could not be held responsible for his campaign's increasingly negative tone. This nasty turn was not, they assured us, the "real" John McCain. The real McCain was an Honorable War Hero who never would sign off on such mean-spirited attacks. John McCain just was getting bad advice.

Obviously, those media friends --- the people who, over the last couple of years, McCain only half-jokingly had started referring to as "my base" --- believed that, at some point, McCain himself would step in and call off the dogs. When McCain didn't do that, his friends increasingly felt --- and acted --- frustrated and betrayed.

It was against that backdrop that, during a town hall meeting three weeks ago, John McCain adopted a more civil tone. He did so knowing that, however poisonous his campaign had grown, many "journalists" long since had priced in to their coverage of him such a strong presumption of "maverick"-y "do the right thing"-ness that any sign of softening from him --- any sign at all --- likely would be reported as proof that the "real" McCain was "back."

Sure enough, many took the bait. Even Matt Stoller of Open Left wrote:

Finally. He's returning to the man he was before this campaign.... Finally, finally, McCain stands up to the mob and tells them "enough."


  • Where did John McCain "stand up to the mob" and say the words "No, Barack Obama is not an Arab --- he is an American"? (In fact, his response was "No, ma'am, he's a decent family man." To which Andrew Sullivan correctly replied: "Are Arabs not decent family men?")
  • Where did McCain "stand up to the mob" and denounce, in explicit terms, the words --- "hooligan," "terrorist," "traitor," "socialist," --- that he, Palin, and his supporters continue to use to describe Obama? Where did McCain "stand up to the mob" and denounce his supporters' other words --- words harboring calls to torture Obama ("Waterboard" him, said the Web site of the Sacramento, Calif., GOP) or, better yet, to "kill him" (or, to be more explicit, have "off with his head")?
  • Where did McCain "stand up to the mob" and say that both he and Palin were wrong to use any of these words in the first place, and wrong not to denounce the words on the spot, wherever anyone else used them?
  • Where did McCain "stand up to the mob" and say that "This stops right now" --- that these words (or any words like them) no longer will be tolerated at his and Palin's events, nor will the words --- or the ideas behind the words --- be used or implied or defended by his campaign?
  • Where did McCain "stand up to the mob" and say that, from now on, anyone at his and Palin's campaign events calling out these kinds of words --- or wearing them on clothing or signs or pins or stickers or stuffed monkeys --- will be escorted from the event; have their paraphernalia confiscated; or be denied entrance in the first place?
  • Where did McCain "stand up to the mob" and take any responsibility whatsoever for his and Palin's fueling of racist and xenophobic anger?

The depressing answer --- in every case, apparently --- is: Nowhere.

Yes, McCain in that town hall offered up a few warm, fuzzy lines about being "respectful" and pushed back (minimally) on the "Obama is an Arab" meme; and, yes, since then he generally has pared back his on-the-stump references to Bill Ayers (while keeping Ayers very much alive in television ads and robocalls).

But the real measure of McCain's sincerity about all of this is less what he says than about what he continues to leave unsaid and unchallenged and on the table.


He already was pulling his punches, during the town hall:

After a week of trying to portray... Barack Obama as a friend of terrorists who would drive the country into bankruptcy... John McCain abruptly changed his tone on Friday and told voters at a town-hall-style meeting that Mr. Obama was "a decent person" and a "family man" and suggested that he would be an acceptable president should he win the White House.

But moments later, Mr. McCain... renewed his attacks on Mr. Obama for his association with... William Ayers and told the crowd, "Mr. Obama's political career was launched in Mr. Ayers's living room."

And for days after that, nearly every day brought from some McCain supporter at least one new anti-Obama outburst or talking point or Web posting. McCain and his campaign quickly answered each of these with another round of defensive, self-righteous non-denial denials --- which, more often than not, were layered with false umbrage over how it was Obama who was at fault for trying to stifle racist smears and murderous death threats that were the patriotic birthright of every ordinary, regular, hardworking, gun-toting, Jesus-loving, free-speech-loving, angry American.

Immediately before McCain's town-hall civility maneuver, Obama publicly chided McCain for the tone of his campaign. Look at how McCain's top staff responded to Obama's remarks, and to the events of the previous few weeks.

McCain campaign manager Rick Davis:

I don't think it's that big a deal.... I think political rallies have always attracted people who have an emotional connection to the outcome of an election.

McCain senior adviser Mark Salter:

I think there have been quite a few reporters recently, who have sort of implied, or made more than implications, that somehow we're responsible for the occasional nut who shows up and yells something about Barack Obama.

McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds:

The tone of this election is not fueling voter outrage, it's that Americans are frustrated knowing that Barack Obama's plans... are the absolute wrong answers to our economic crisis.

McCain spokeswoman Nicole Wallace:

Barack Obama's assault on our supporters is insulting and unsurprising. These are the same people Obama called "bitter" and attacked for "clinging to guns" and faith. He fails to understand that people are angry at corrupt practices in Washington and Wall Street....

McCain spokesman Brian Rogers:

Barack Obama's attacks on Americans who support John McCain reveal far more about him than they do about John McCain. It is clear that Barack Obama just doesn't understand regular people and the issues they care about. He dismisses hardworking middle-class Americans as clinging to guns and religion, while at the same time attacking average Americans at McCain rallies who are angry at Washington, Wall Street and the status quo.

That was just three weeks ago. Look at how McCain responded, the very next day, to John Lewis's lament about the tone of McCain's campaign. Doubling --- or was it, by this time, tripling? quadrupling? --- down, McCain said that his campaign was engaging simply in "legitimate criticism of Senator Obama's record and positions," in light of which...

John Lewis's comments represent a...shocking and...brazen and baseless attack on my character and the character of the thousands of hardworking Americans who come to our events to cheer for the kind of reform that will put America on the right track....[T]hese outrageous and divisive comments...are...clearly designed to shut down debate 24 days before the election. Our country must return to the important debate about the path forward for America.

Really, Senator?

  • Smearing, as a "terrorist," a 63-year-old man whose youthful idea of "revolution" prompted him to do things that most people would, in the wake of 9/11, qualify as no more than extreme vandalism --- and whose last vandalistic demonstration against government property was 36 years ago, when he was 27 --- is "legitimate criticism"?
  • Neglecting to mention that this same man, Bill Ayers, has been a college professor for more than 20 years and has written numerous books on education is "legitimate criticism"?
  • Pretending that Ayers still was a "terrorist" in the late 1990s --- when Obama met him, sat with him on a few charity boards and academic panels, and said something nice about one of his books --- and that he remains a "terrorist" today is "legitimate criticism"?
  • Using all of this to suggest that Obama is a "dangerous" character, while whitewashing from the record your own "terrorist" friends --- here and here --- is "legitimate criticism"?

Taking exception to these lies is "shutting down debate"?*

And when your supporters respond to these lies by pegging Obama as a "terrorist" and a "traitor"? When they call for his assassination? Exactly which part of "cheering for reform" is that? Which part of the "important debate" that you think "our country must return to"?


During the final debate, McCain reasserted the blamelessness of his supporters --- and exonerated himself, too:

Every time there's been an out-of-bounds remark made by a Republican, no matter where they are, I have repudiated them.

. . .

I'm proud of the people that come to our rallies. Whenever you get a large're going to have some fringe people. You know that. And I've --- and we've always said that that's not appropriate. But...I'm not going to stand for people saying that the people that come to my rallies are anything but the most dedicated, patriotic men and women that are in this nation and they're great citizens. And I'm not going to stand for somebody saying that because someone yelled something at a rally....

. . .

The point is that I have repudiated every time someone's been out of line, whether they've been part of my campaign or not, and I will continue to do that. But the fact is that we need to absolutely not stand for the kind of things that have been going on. I haven't.

But what about that opening prayer just a few days earlier --- the one in which Pastor Conrad introduced McCain at a Davenport, Iowa, campaign event, by telling the Lord, "in Jesus's name," that "there are millions of people around this world praying to their god --- whether it's Hindu, Buddha, Allah --- that [Obama] wins, for a variety of reasons. And Lord, I pray that you will guard your own reputation, because they're going to think that their God is bigger than you, if that happens"?

The McCain campaign's total response?

While we understand the important role that faith plays in informing the votes of Iowans, questions about the religious background of the candidates only serve to distract from the real questions in this race about Barack Obama's judgment, policies and readiness to lead as commander-in-chief.

Notice that, just as McCain did not put in his own mouth the declaration that "Obama is not an Arab, he is an American," this statement carefully avoids correcting the prayer and saying that "Obama is a Christian" --- a silence that not-so-subtly endorses the preacher's insinuation that McCain is the Christian in the race, while giving oxygen to the right-wing campaign to portray Obama as a closet Muslim.

What about Virginia GOP chairman Jeff Frederick, who compared Obama to Osama bin Laden, saying: "Both Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden have friends that bombed the Pentagon"?

Asked whether that was "appropriate for a state party chair to be saying," McCain said:

I have to look at the context of his remarks. I have always repudiated any comments that have been made that were inappropriate about Senator Obama.

But how much "context" does McCain need to, at the very least say: "It would be not only inappropriate but inexcusable for anyone --- state party chair or otherwise --- to draw any comparison whatsoever between Senator Obama and Osama bin Laden. If that's what has happened here, I will do everything in my power to make sure that it doesn't happen again"?

What about the supporter who, at Palin's event in Virginia Beach, the day after McCain's dodge on Jeff Frederick, shouted: "Obama bin Laden!"

What about the two big "Obama bin Lyin'" signs, at that same event? Republican blogger Jonathan Martin said that these signs were "off-message." But surely, given McCain's "Frederick-quivocation," the message was right down the middle. Indeed, how do two big signs like that get inside a Palin event, in the first place, unless the McCain campaign lets them in (and wants them waved)?

Asked by CBN reporter David Brody whether she felt "a say, 'Enough of this type of thing,'" Palin said (emphasis mine):

Absolutely. But what we have heard through some mainstream media is that folks have hollered out some pretty atrocious and unacceptable things like "kill him"...we have not heard that. If I ever were to hear that standing up there at the podium with the mic, I would call 'em out on that, and I would tell these people, no, that's unacceptable....We haven't heard that....but it is unacceptable if we were ever to hear the shout-outs that are so negative that we have heard being reported, if I were to hear that I would say no, we don't stand for that.

First, this almost certainly is a lie. Second --- and leaving aside Palin's insinuation that reports of bad behavior at her and McCain's rallies are part of a mainstream media plot --- was Palin saying that she and McCain are responsible only for what they personally see or hear in real time?

What about audio or video video documentation --- that video, for example, of the Ohio house with a McCain-Palin sign on the front lawn, right next to a ghostlike Obama effigy noosed and hanging from a tree, with an upside-down Obama sticker, "Husain" scribbled across its chest, and a Star of David on his head?

In the same breath that he told Fox News's Chris Wallace, two Sundays ago, that his Ayers robocalls were in-bounds, McCain said --- again --- that he had "repudiated every" inappropriate comment.

John McCain has not repudiated the Obama effigy in Ohio (or the ones in Kentucky and Oregon).

Nor has he repudiated the illustration that appeared in the October newsletter of a Republican women's group in Southern California: a $10 "Obama Bucks" food stamp that features a photo of Obama's head on a donkey, surrounded by a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, a slab of ribs, a slice of watermelon, and a pitcher of Kool-Aid.


In his response to Matt Stoller a couple of weeks ago, Paul Rosenberg, another front-pager at Open Left, offered the most succinct explanation I've seen for why John McCain is doing --- or, rather, not doing --- all of this:

[McCain] wants Obama attacked, all right, but he doesn't want to be the one to do it.

Rosenberg was almost right. More accurately, though, it's simply that McCain doesn't want to be seen to be the one who did it. For, just as McCain could have minimized the persistent display and the certain influence of the racist and xenophobic attacks against Obama, had he actually "stood up to the mob," his cowardly refusal to stand up to the attacks --- to repudiate them --- is what created the mob, in the first place.

The fact is: For some time now, John McCain has been the one supplying the oxygen for the xenophobic and racist attacks against Obama. In becoming the Republican nominee, McCain became personally responsible for tamping down such attacks. And while he might not want to be seen as the one who launched the attacks of the last weeks and months, he has --- in remaining silent, even in the face of the very worst of these attacks --- been the most influential actor in enabling them and giving them his stamp of approval.

Of course, Media Friends of McCain like Mark Halperin said that we should "stop the presses," when McCain, at one event --- were there any others? --- called Obama "decent" and gave lip service to being "respectful." Halperin called the McCain campaign's response to that Iowa prayer a "repudiation," and called McCain's "new" greatest-hits-from-the-stump compilation, a couple of days later, a "comeback" speech.

McCain allies said that all of this amounted to "hitting the reset button." But McCain's "suspension" was not a suspension. His "repudiations" have never been repudiations. And his "reset" was not a reset. It's just that the campaign now is using different words to say what it already was saying.


The word of the moment is "socialist." Evidently not convinced that race baiting alone is sufficient to do the job, McCain now has traded up to red baiting, as well.

Last week, the chair of a Republican women's group in New Mexico wrote a letter to the editor calling Obama a "Muslim socialist." Also last week, a county GOP office in Missouri posted an anti-Obama flyer that included an illustration similar to the "food stamp" that appeared in the Southern California newsletter --- this time, printed with "In Ahla We Trust," "socialist," and communist symbols.

Meanwhile, Sarah Palin insinuated that Obama's tax policies would put us on the slippery slope to a communist America. And even Peggy Noonan rolled out the "s"-word, writing in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago that

if [Obama] goes left --- if it comes to seem as if the attractive, dark-haired man has torn open his shirt to reveal a huge S, not for Superman but for Socialist...that won't yield success.

That's the kind of rhetorical turn that has made Noonan famous. But in using her position, as a powerful white person with national media access, to raise --- to an equally powerful, predominantly white readership --- the false specter of a "socialist" Barack Obama, Noonan is breathing new life into a shameful, racially coded practice that should have remained a relic of Cold War America, only to be preserved by historians as a cautionary reminder of how never to treat a fellow citizen and human being.

For this is not the first time that powerful white people in this country have used the "socialist" epithet as part of a coordinated strategy to try to marginalize a black leader and cling to their own power. The word was a particular favorite of J. Edgar Hoover --- Red-Scared, cross-dressing Edgar --- who used it against leaders from W.E.B. Du Bois to Paul Robeson to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Never mind that each of these men held at least some views that could be categorized as "socialist" by those who knew what "socialism" actually meant. Hoover wasn't engaging in an academic debate about the relative merits of an economic theory. Hoover's point was to manipulate white racist fear --- to give whites who harbored those fears reason to think that Du Bois and Robeson and King were even more Other, more Foreign, and more Dangerous than they already believed.

Perhaps also to give those people permission to do things that he did not want to do himself.

John McCain knows the history. He knows that Martin Luther King, Jr., was called a "socialist," and he knows that King was killed. He also knows that there is at least a possibility that these two facts are related. Given all this; given McCain's long history as a gambler; and given that McCain presumably is well aware of the xenophobic and racist "energy" that his own campaign continues to catalyze and mobilize --- watch here
(8 October) and here (27 October)...

McCain's and Palin's continued determination to brand Obama as a "socialist" gives new meaning to the phrase "crap shoot," does it not?


The fact is, John McCain is not "standing up to the mob." He's using the mob, just like before.

McCain continues to assert that he has "repudiated" every anti-Obama statement or act that was inappropriate, whether or not it could be traced to one or more of his supporters. In fact, McCain consistently has refused to repudiate these statements and acts, even as both he and Palin have continued to pour fuel on the fire, feeding their supporters the very words --- "dangerous," "terrorist," "socialist" --- that those same supporters have parroted back, time and again, in the form of the most xenophobic and racist and anti-American attacks of this campaign.

It doesn't matter what McCain himself thinks about any of this. McCain could whisper into his cell phone or whistle through his teeth, every day, to Rick Davis that "They really shouldn't say those things" or that "I wouldn't go that far" --- but if he didn't say it out loud, the result would be the same as if he'd never said it at all.

What is required is public repudiation. This means that McCain must issue incident-specific statements --- sent both to the media and to his supporters --- rejecting every xenophobic or racist attack on Obama that can be traced to McCain-Palin supporters, and explaining why, both on the facts and in terms of American ideals, these attacks are wrong.

It means that he must stand in front of live crowds and declare the same thing.

What it really means, of course, is that McCain must do everything in his power to make sure that these attacks don't happen in the first place. For that, he must control his crowds, control his campaign staff (and his running mate), and, most of all, control his own tongue.

In short, McCain must prove that he knows how to lead.

All of this, McCain must do. Anything less --- anything at all --- is reckless sabotage.


John McCain likes to tell us all what a "fighter" he is. Indeed, he says that it is his "lifetime" of being willing to "fight for America" that should assure the American people that he has the "character" --- perhaps the core McCain theme --- to be President.

But as McCain himself said, in his nomination acceptance speech in September (emphasis mine):

In the end, it matters less that you can fight. What you fight for is the real test.

And when presented with an opportunity, in the person of Barack Obama, to fight for the great American ideals of expansiveness and diversity and tolerance, McCain didn't fight. He folded. He chose to become a very small man --- a coward --- and he asked the rest of us to do the same.

Barack Obama was John McCain's biggest test of character since Hanoi --- and he failed. Miserably.

Sadly, McCain's failure likely will have some effect on the outcome of this election. We can hope that it won't be enough to swing the result --- that, as Frank Rich argued in his must-read New York Times piece last Sunday, "white Americans" aren't as racist as they used to be.

Ironically, the surest way for McCain to prove that he agrees with Rich would be for him to offer the most powerful repudiation of all. Namely --- in light of all that he has said as the Republican nominee and, more important, all that he has left unsaid --- to apologize and assume complete responsibility for using his presidential campaign to feed the beast of racism and xenophobia in this country. To repudiate himself.

McCain should do this before next Tuesday.

Of course, this almost certainly would guarantee his defeat. But in the course of losing the election, McCain might get back a little piece of his own soul.

America's, too.


* Given that John McCain actually put his name to this ridiculous argument, it should come as no surprise that Sarah Palin --- confirming her total ignorance of, and contempt for, what the First Amendment says and does --- suggested on Friday that the fact-checking scrutiny to which the press has subjected her attacks on Barack Obama were themselves "attacks" that threatened her Constitutional rights.