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,” Lewis said in a statement. “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.”
John Lewis is an interesting and formidable character. He endorsed Clinton early on; was perhaps the first elected official to raise the possibility of impeaching George W. Bush; and is widely acknowledged as the conscience of the elected Left on civil rights. None of this means he doesn’t enjoy bi-partisan respect; in 2007 he received none other than the Dole Leadership Prize from the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. And even McCain has expressed his admiration for Lewis on numerous occasions. Munging that all together, I can’t imagine that he took this next rhetorical step lightly:
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 were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights. Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed on Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama.
So much for admiration. McCain’s answer was standard-issue shock and outrage that
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
My first reaction to McCain’s reaction was dismiss it as vinatage McCain sound and fury signifying, well, not very much. For a self-styled tough guy, McCain’s capacity for having his feelings hurt has proven bottomless; his skin has become so thin as to render him practically translucent. And of course none of the Schmidt line of attack has the slightest to do with Obama’s “record” or “position.” Instead, it’s all about positioning him as “the other,” someone a little too brainy, too effete, too–well, different and therefore dangerous. (See “Inside the Republican Mind” for a discussion of why this is a reliably effective tactic for conservatives.)
And besides, that rally footage. “Off with his head?” “Kill him?” Who are these nutjobs, and are they as dangerous as they sound? So Rep. Lewis’s condemnation of McCain seems justified. Or does it?
Ask yourself this question: what if somebody else had been the Democratic standard bearer in 2004, and John Kerry were the candidate today? The McCain campaign would be running a play almost identical to the one they’re running against Obama: associate him with the media elites; play up his private schools and his command of French (Fred Thompson’s brie and Chablis line would be in tremendous demand); and use Sarah Palin to convince the conservative base (like they need convincing) that “he looks down on you.” And just think of the Rovian tableau contrasting McCain’s brave service with the one-two punch of the Swift Boat ads and footage of Kerry throwing away his medals. Plenty, plenty of hateful people would show up and scream nasty, scary things about John Kerry.
My point is that McCain’s approach to painting Obama as “the other” has been based almost exclusively on class. And while those on the receiving end of the message are more than welcome add race to taste and stir vigorously, the only honorable part of the McCain campaign has been that he hasn’t encouraged this. Of course, there’s also the little detail that he’d become immediately radioactive if he had.
So that brings us back to Rep. Lewis. If McCain were running the same divisive, hateful campaign against Kerry that he is running against Obama, would Rep. Lewis have made the Wallace comparison? I think I know the answer, which makes it a comparison that I wish he wouldn’t have made. Race may be the great unspoken issue remaining in the campaign, but I’m not sure that there is any percentage in being the one to speak of it. Wallace? A bit much. McCarthy? Now that would be fun.