Red Meat Stains McCain

Red Meat Stains McCain

By Clarence Page - October 12, 2008

What happened to the Sen. John McCain we once knew?

What happened to the jovial, optimistic war hero who promised a civil and elevating presidential campaign? Where's that campaign that would be based on real issues, not brainless emotions or partisan cheap shots?

Ah, those were the days.

That was long before the economy tanked and his poll numbers went into a slide behind Sen. Barack Obama's like the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

And McCain's campaign outlook began to look the Chicago Cubs' short-lived playoff season.

There was a time when McCain would gently argue with angry questioners at friendly town hall meetings when their rhetoric against opponents, the media or his own "maverick" positions became too extreme.

These are the days in which McCain's attacks against Democratic nominee have grown sharper and angrier. He unleashed his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, like an attack puppy. Together they pushed their conservative audiences farther right and, in some cases, right over the edge.

Of course, every campaign, even that of the saintly Obama, distorts quotes or pushes half-truths in the heat of a close campaign. Politics ain't beanbag. But the red-meat rhetoric thrown out at McCain's recent rallies stains his good name with a tinge of fear-mongering, anger-bating and xenophobia.

"This is not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America," Palin said, revealing her inner "Sarah Barracuda" against Obama in her new stump speech.

Her oratory has sparked lusty boos, jeers and chants of "Nobama! Nobama!" Shout-outs from the crowd have included "terrorist," "socialist" and "treason."

A Washington Post report said a man yelled, "Kill him!" at a rally in Florida last week as Ms. Palin delivered the aforementioned line, and that an epithet was shouted at a black sound technician with a TV news crew.

Palin smiled her way past the "kill him" shout. Maybe she didn't hear it. Nevertheless, the contrast between the old and new McCain appearances is striking. At times when McCain used to calm down ugly passions, he and Palin now toss more meat.

That's dangerous and dumb. Some critics have charged the duo with race baiting. I think that's too easy. McCain voters can offer plenty of reasons more legitimate than race to oppose Obama. That's their choice and their right, even when the "He's not like us" rhetoric makes it difficult for some onlookers to tell the difference.

But pointed suggestions from Palin, in particular, that Obama is a terrorist and the like come perilously close to dangerous speech, if not an outright incitement to violence.

The chilling "kill him" shout, for example, was heard after Palin said Obama "sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country."

That's a gross exaggeration of Obama's ill-advised but long-past association with William Ayers, a founder of the 1960s' radical Weather Underground. The confessed bomber has since become a college professor, respected school reformer and fellow board member with Obama in some philanthropic organizations.

Major media investigations, including a recent New York Times report that Palin cited, find Obama's links to Ayers, whose criminal acts were committed when Obama was 8, have been greatly exaggerated by the right in their desperate attempts to squelch Obama's popularity.

His past associations, like those of Palin and McCain, are a legitimate issue. But the Ayers card is old news. It didn't work for Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries and it is not likely to work now. It fires up the conservative base, but turns off the undecided swing voters that McCain needs to win.

Thanks to McCain in the campaign's final month, the presidential race pits anger against hope. Which would you rather have? That's why the polls in battleground states show "No Drama" Obama, as members of his team call him, has been winning.

McCain's self-admitted reputation for treating opponents like enemies in a tough fight showed itself. In a race in which the stakes were not so high, that might work. In these times, Amerians are looking for calm, confident reassurance. They seek a steady hand like that offered by Franklin D. Roosevelt when he said "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."

By contrast, McCain and Palin seem be saying that we do have something to fear -- and it's them!

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

Copyright 2008, Tribune Media Services Inc.

Clarence Page

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