America on the road to dictatorship (10.13.2008)

The Lewis-McCain-Obama exchange

It has been a difficult month for the McCain campaign. Obama solidifies his lead as the days pass and McCain confronts an electorate which fears what the future could bring, a future largely generated by the policies of George W. Bush.

Its response: The McCain campaign went 'negative,' presumably in order to recapture the momentum it lost when America's long-simmering financial crisis boiled over and ignited a global economic crisis.

The McCain campaign's attacks on Obama's character were such that the naturally compliant media felt obliged to criticize the McCain campaign for its divisive identity politics. Both the McCain campaign and the country as a whole were embarrassed by the rhetorical excesses of some McCain supporters, at least one of which violently threatened Obama.

One of the more notable responses to this situation can be found in a message written by the one-time Hillary Clinton supporter Representative John Lewis (D-GA). His statement:

"As one who was a victim of violence and hate during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, I am deeply disturbed by the negative tone of the McCain-Palin campaign. What I am seeing today reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history. Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse.

"During another period, in the not too distant past, there was a governor of the state of Alabama named George Wallace who also became a presidential candidate. George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who only desired to exercise their constitutional rights. Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed one Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama.

"As public figures with the power to influence and persuade, Sen. McCain and Governor Palin are playing with fire, and if they are not careful, that fire will consume us all. They are playing a very dangerous game that disregards the value of the political process and cheapens our entire democracy. We can do better. The American people deserve better."

Lewis' statement could only be consequential for the McCain campaign, for, as the Los Angeles Times reminds us, "[a]t a campaign forum in August, McCain named Lewis as one of the three people he would rely on most in his administration."

"McCain did not take the scolding well," as John Nichols noted.

McCain replied to Lewis:

ARLINGTON, VA — U.S. Senator John McCain today issued the following statement:

"Congressman John Lewis' comments represent a character attack against Governor Sarah Palin and me that is shocking and beyond the pale. The notion that legitimate criticism of Senator Obama's record and positions could be compared to Governor George Wallace, his segregationist policies and the violence he provoked is unacceptable and has no place in this campaign. I am saddened that John Lewis, a man I've always admired, would make such a 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.

"I call on Senator Obama to immediately and personally repudiate these outrageous and divisive comments that are so 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."

The Obama campaign's statement on the McCain-Lewis exchange:

"Senator Obama does not believe that John McCain or his policy criticism is in any way comparable to George Wallace or his segregationist policies. But John Lewis was right to condemn some of the hateful rhetoric that John McCain himself personally rebuked just last night, as well as the baseless and profoundly irresponsible charges from his own running mate that the Democratic nominee for President of the United States 'pals around with terrorists.' As Barack Obama has said himself, the last thing we need from either party is the kind of angry, divisive rhetoric that tears us apart at a time of crisis when we desperately need to come together. That is the kind of campaign Senator Obama will continue to run in the weeks ahead," said Obama-Biden spokesman Bill Burton.

It would be naïve to expect America to have surpassed racial and religious politics or, for that matter, chauvinism and xenophobia. Each has been an enduring feature of its political culture; it is too late in the game to expect a miracle cure of these problems. Nevertheless, I can only consider it a good sign that the media took the McCain campaign to task for the reactionary turn it has recently adopted. When it comes to smear tactic politics the right has gotten a relatively free pass from the media. It is time that they pay the fare for this ride.

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