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Backlash: Six Challenges to McCain's Racist Fearmongering

Carl Bernstein, Kai Wright, Robert Dreyfuss, Campbell Brown -- and more -- take McCain's fearmongering to task.
 
 
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In the minutes following the second presidential debate last week, CNN analyst and former Reaganite David Gergen was gripped by an apparent fit of honesty. Amid the prevailing view that Obama had come out ahead, Gergen warned that it was still too soon to say that Obama had the race in the bag. "I think it's too early to declare victory," he said. "because Barack Obama is black."

Gergen's blunt analysis acknowledged what many Americans know to be true, but have not vocally admitted in this historic presidential campaign. "Until we play out the issue of race in this country," Gergen said, "I don't think we'll know (how Obama's race will affect him)." So much for "post-racial" America. As we see the country "play out the issue of race" in these closing weeks of the presidential campaign, fearmongering attacks from the McCain camp have spiked to obscene new levels. While forced recently to push back against some of the most blatantly racist public remarks about his opponent, McCain is largely responsible for stoking mistrust for Obama, repeatedly calling Obama "too risky" for America, asking "Who is the real Barack Obama?" and approving campaign ads that plumb the lowest depths of racist fearmongering. Even the often-repeated claim that Obama will "kill jobs" characterizes Obama as a predator politician who will endanger Americans.

McCain may be the one who "approved this message," but much of the dirty work has been carried out by the campaign's resident pit bull, Sarah Palin. On Oct. 4, at an appearance at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., Palin warned about the Democratic presidential candidate:

"This is not a man who sees America as you and I see America. We see America as a force for good in this world. We see America as a force for exceptionalism. … Our opponents see America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who would bomb their own country."

The well-documented result has been a chillingly heightened lynch mob atmosphere at McCain/Palin rallies, where McCain's lines asking, "Who is Barack Obama" now meet with shouts of "terrorist!" and "kill him!" At an event in Allentown, Penn., according to MSNBC, "At one point one man could be heard yelling, 'Off with his head,' when McCain spoke about Obama's tax plan."

This "is the Willie Hortonization of Obama," University of San Francisco associate professor James Taylor told the San Francisco Chronicle . Or perhaps more accurately, it is the "Osamafication" of Obama -- a brutal and nasty campaign to appeal to Americans' basest instincts and worst fears.

The following are recent responses to the race-baiting attacks that have come out of the McCain campaign over the past week. Most of the responses come from journalists, including opinions by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, who asks whether the country is "witnessing the re-emergence of the far right as a power in American politics," and by Carl Bernstein, writing for the Huffington Post, who turns Palin's "palling around with terrorists" charge on its head by pointing out McCain's unsavory -- and by all appearances, current -- connection with G. Gordon Liddy, who, "during the same period that Bill Ayers was a member of the Weather Underground … was making plans to firebomb a Washington think tank, assassinate a prominent journalist, undertake the Watergate burglary, break into the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist, and kidnap anti-war protesters at the 1972 Republican convention." Other contributors include Kai Wright writing for The Root.com, Robert Dreyfuss writing for The Nation , Andrew Lam at New America Media, and more. And for good measure, we've included a video of CNN's Campbell Brown, who this week used her corporate media perch to ask what so many progressives have been saying for months: "So what if Obama was Arab or Muslim? … We've all been way too quick to accept the idea that calling someone Muslim is a slur."

-- Liliana Segura, Editor, Rights & Liberties Special Coverage

E.J. Dionne, TruthDig

Are we witnessing the re-emergence of the far right as a power in American politics? Has John McCain, inadvertently perhaps, become the midwife of a new movement built around fear, xenophobia, racism and anger?

McCain has clearly become uneasy with some of the forces that have gathered around him. He has begun to insist, against the sometimes loud protests from his crowds, that Barack Obama is, among things, a "decent person."

Yet McCain's own campaign is playing with powerful extremist themes to denigrate Obama. When his running mate, Sarah Palin, first brought up Obama's association with 1960s radical Bill Ayers, who has become a centerpiece of McCain's attacks, she accused Obama of "palling around with terrorists." What other "terrorists" was she thinking about?

Since Obama was a child when Ayers was part of the Weather Underground, and since even Republicans have served on boards with Ayers, this is classic guilt by association.

Ayers has been dragged into this campaign because there is a deep frustration on the Right with Obama's enthusiasm for shutting down the culture wars of the 1960s.

Precisely because Obama is not a baby boomer, he carries none of that generation's scars. Most Americans (including most boomers) are weary of living in the past and reprising the 1960s every four years.

Yet culture war politics is relatively mild compared with the far right appeals that are emerging this year. It is as if McCain's loyalists overshot the '60s and went back to the '50s or even the '30s.

What we are now witnessing is the mainstreaming of the far right, a phenomenon that began to take shape with some of the earliest attacks on Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

False claims that Obama is a Muslim, that he trained to overthrow the government, that he was educated in Wahhabi Muslim schools, are a standard part of the political discussion. These fake stories come from voices on the ultra-right that have dabbled in other forms of conspiracy, including classic anti-Semitism. McCain and his campaign do not pick up the most extreme charges. They just fan the flames by suggesting that voters don't really know who Obama is, hinting at a sinister backstory without filling in the details. That is left to the voters' imaginations.

The tragic irony here is that McCain was the victim of some of the very same extremist forces in the 2000 South Carolina primary.

To bring McCain down, some of George W. Bush's supporters on the far right peddled all manner of falsehoods about McCain, raising despicable charges about his time as a POW and suggesting (again falsely) that he had fathered an illegitimate child of color. In the past, McCain publicly condemned some of the very people who are now going after Obama.

McCain cannot be blamed for all of the crazies who see in Obama a chance to earn fame and fortune by concocting lies about him. And yes, we should defend the speech rights even of those whose views we find abhorrent.

But the angry McCain-Palin crowds, and particularly those who threaten violence or shout racist epithets, should be a wake-up call to McCain. The dark hints about Obama that McCain's campaign is dropping dovetail too nicely with the nasty trash floating around the Internet and the airwaves.

We are in the midst of what could become -- and here's hoping it doesn't -- the worst economic downturn in decades. The last thing we need is a campaign that strengthens fanaticism, tarnishes the authority of the next president and whips up the worst kinds of prejudice. This works both ways: Obama should not be delegitimized if he wins, and McCain should not want to win in a way that would undermine his own capacity to lead.

When Christopher Buckley, a novelist and former speechwriter for George H.W. Bush, announced last week that he would vote for Obama (his first vote ever for a Democrat), he referred to words once spoken to him by his late father. "You know," the conservative hero William F. Buckley Jr. said, "I've spent my entire lifetime separating the Right from the kooks."

McCain has an obligation, to his own legacy and the country he has served, to separate himself and his campaign from the kooks. Extremism in defense of liberty may be no vice, but extremism in pursuit of the presidency is as dysfunctional as it is degrading.

Carl Bernstein, Huffington Post

Does John McCain "pal around with terrorists?"

Certainly McCain's continuing "association" and relationship with convicted Watergate burglar and domestic terrorist G. Gordon Liddy might suggest that is the case, if we are to apply the standards drawn by the McCain campaign.

In 1998, Liddy gave a fundraiser in his Scottsdale, Ariz., home for McCain's senatorial re-election campaign -- the two posed for photographs together; and as recently as May 2007, as a presidential candidate, McCain was a guest on Liddy's syndicated radio show. Inexplicably, McCain heaped praise on his host's values. During the segment, McCain said he was "proud" of Liddy and praised Liddy's "adherence to the principles and philosophies that keep our nation great." From the program:

Liddy: Your experience in the Hanoi Hilton is remarkable. I mean, I put in five years in a prison (for masterminding the Watergate burglary, and associated crimes), but it was here in the United States, and they didn't torture -- the only torture that I had was being forced to listen to rap music from time to time.

McCain: Well, you know, I'm proud of you. I'm proud of your family. I'm proud to know your son, Tom, who's a great and wonderful guy. And it's always a pleasure for me to come on your program, Gordon. And congratulations on your continued success and adherence to the principles and philosophies that keep our nation great.

Which of Liddy's "principles and philosophies" was McCain referring to? Liddy's advocacy of break-ins? Firebombings? Assassinations? Kidnappings? Taking target practice with figures nicknamed Bill and Hillary?

During the same period that Bill Ayers was a member of the Weather Underground, Gordon Liddy was making plans to firebomb a Washington think tank, assassinate a prominent journalist, undertake the Watergate burglary, break into the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist, and kidnap anti-war protesters at the 1972 Republican convention.

Re: Liddy's "continued success and adherence to the principles and philosophies that keep our nation great:" Did McCain mean to include Liddy's instructions to listeners of his radio show in 1994 (around the time Ayers and Obama were on a board together discussing education programs and other plots) on how to shoot Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents (aim for the head)?

If ATF agents attempt to curtail a citizen's gun ownership, Liddy counseled, "Well, if the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms comes to disarm you and they are bearing arms, resist them with arms. Go for a head shot; they're going to be wearing bulletproof vests."

More recently, Liddy explained making the Clintons objects of shooting practice: "I did relate that on the Fourth of July of last year, when I and my family and some friends were out firing away at a properly constructed rifle range and we ran out of targets, and so we -- I drew some stick figure targets and I thought we ought to give them names. So I named them Bill and Hillary, thought it might improve my aim. It didn't. My aim is good anyway. Now, having said that, I accept no responsibility for somebody shooting up the White House."

The Liddy-McCain symbiosis has been mentioned in a number of posts on the Internet -- mostly by bloggers and sites identified with the Left. But the documentation of their interaction (Liddy has also contributed financially to McCain's presidential campaign) is not a matter of Left or Right: It is astonishing that, given the prominence of the Ayers matter accorded by virtually every "mainstream" news outlet in America, there has been virtually nothing on the subject in the major newspapers and broadcast networks. This is a real journalistic failure and abrogation of responsibility.

Is Liddy any less a domestic terrorist than Bill Ayers? It is a zero-sum argument, for sure. I do not believe, incidentally, that John McCain shares the most abhorrent of Liddy's values, as expressed in Liddy's actions during the same period that Ayers was a Weatherman -- and which Liddy continues to express, unapologetically, to this day.

But McCain has now become so unmoored from the principles he once espoused, so shameless in his courtship not only of the Republican "base" but in his eagerness to unleash a poisonous arsenal of character assassination and guilt by association -- and plain and simple incitement of people's fears and prejudices -- that, now, inevitably his and Sarah Palin's rallies and campaign events have taken on the aura of mobs at times.

"Kill him," a man in the crowd responded last week, when Palin declared -- yet again -- "He's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country." In Virginia, the state Republican chairman announced a set of talking points to campaign volunteers -- stressing the incendiary connection, reported Time magazine, between Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden: "Both have friends that bombed the Pentagon. That is scary," the Republican chairman said.

The most recent McCain ad on the subject shouts, "Obama worked with terrorist William Ayers when it was convenient" -- perhaps suggesting, indeed, even that the candidate was there planting bombs.

The intended message of the McCain campaign is, of course, that Obama is less than patriotic -- enunciated even by the candidate's wife, Cindy: "The day that Senator Obama decided to cast a vote to not fund my son when he was serving sent a cold chill through my body," she recently told a crowd of several thousand, which also heard her husband and Palin sound similar notes. (The chairman of the Lehigh, Pennsylvania, County Republican Party, William Platt, "implored the crowd to work hard to elect McCain or wake up Nov. 5 to see 'Barack Obama, Barack Hussein Obama,' as the president," reported the Washington Post .)

Like Cindy McCain, the campaign's "Ad Facts" also trumpet -- misleadingly -- the only troop funding bill that Obama voted against, in 2007 -- without noting that Obama first voted for the bill, in a version that included a timetable for withdrawal. Nor did Cindy McCain mention that her husband, too, voted against the troop-funding bill -- in the version that contained withdrawal language.

Thus has John McCain embarked on a scorched-earth death struggle for the presidency -- cultural warfare that knows no bounds, exceeding perhaps even the mendacity and ferocity of the campaign waged against him by George Bush in 2000, and of which McCain once said there was "a special place in hell" for the Bush operatives who smeared him. (McCain also said of the Swift boat attacks against John Kerry by Republicans in 2004: "I deplore this kind of politics. I think the ad is dishonest and dishonorable.")

The lethal weapon of the McCain campaign's dreams is the explosive allegation that, in Palin's words -- Obama "pals around with terrorists." McCain, wisely, did not raise the matter himself in the last presidential debate. Why?

At the time, much of the commentariat attributed the omission to McCain's purported concerns that Obama would respond by reciting the history of McCain's "association" with the S&L swindler Charles Keating, for which McCain was cited by the Senate Ethics Committee early in his career, for exercising "poor judgment" for intervening improperly with federal regulators on behalf of Keating, as part of the infamous Keating Five scandal.

But the more likely explanation of why McCain avoided a debate confrontation about "palling around with terrorists" is McCain's very real -- and recent -- symbiotic association and praise for another (not Ayers) domestic terrorist emblematic of the Vietnam era: G. Gordon Liddy.

Robert Dreyfuss, The Nation

Some pundits have intelligent things to say, even if now and then they let their emotions step all over their better judgment. Some pundits have little or nothing intelligent to say, and they bask in the spotlight that shines on provocateurs and rabble-rousers. Still other pundits are just loudmouths, like Sean Hannity of Fox News.

But there is one pundit in a class by himself. That would be Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy, a right-wing think tank, and columnist for the Moonie-owned Washington Times . Gaffney might very well be insane. Want evidence? His latest column in the Times, titled "The Jihadist Vote."

Gaffney starts with the premise that there is a well-coordinated effort by assorted evildoers -- from the Muslim Brotherhood, the Wahhabis, jihadists of all kinds -- to take over the United States. Their vehicle? You guessed it: Barack Obama. "The next three weeks afford the American people -- and the media, the courts and the FEC -- an opportunity to get to the bottom of Barack Obama's ties to and affinity for jihadists," he writes.

Before I get into the specifics of Gaffney's deranged charges -- charges, I should add, that are consistent with Gaffney's long history of making extremist accusations -- let me say that it is also true that Gaffney can get away with this nonsense because of the climate of fear, hatred and racism that has been created by John McCain and Sarah Palin's despicable campaign tactics. (Note, for instance, the proliferation of signs, buttons and other paraphernalia in McCain campaign events reading: "Obama Bin Lyin'.")

But Gaffney ventures deep into woo-woo territory.

According to Gaffney, conspirators from the Muslim Brotherhood have provided the Obama campaign with up to $100 million in clandestine donations. He writes:

A Federal Election Commission (FEC) employee has reportedly been warning for months about evidence that the Obama campaign has received as much as $200 million, almost half of his total donations, in amounts less than $200. …

Of the $200 million, between $30 million and $100 million are from the Mideast, Africa and other places Islamists are active. It is unclear whether -- as seems likely -- these funds come not only from Wahhabis, Muslim Brotherhood types and jihadists of other stripes but from non-U.S. citizens.

It gets better:

There is evidence Mr. Obama was born in Kenya rather than, as he claims, Hawaii. There is also a registration document for a school in Indonesia where the would-be president studied for four years, on which he was identified not only as a Muslim but as an Indonesian.

And this:

Its "Arab-Americans for Obama" effort is recruiting Muslim Brotherhood elements to enhance turnout, the Obama campaign is trolling for voters in problematic places. Some are felons in prison systems long used by Islamists as centers for recruiting converts to their causes.

Are you scared yet? You'd better be, because these secretive Obama supporters -- many of whom live in "Washington's northern Virginia suburbs, the heart of what has been dubbed the 'Wahhabi corridor'" -- have plans for you, says Gaffney:

The change his Islamist supporters have in mind is for global theocratic rule under Shariah, and the end of our constitutional, democratic government.

Uh oh.

Kai Wright, The Root

To everything, there is a season. If summer is the time for civil (or close to civil) discourse in presidential politics, fall is the time for blood sport. And if you're a Republican trailing in the polls, it's the season for racist fearmongering.

No one should be surprised by the assault John McCain launched this week. His campaign is flailing -- dropping out of once-contested states, defending newly insecure ones and, by one adviser's reckoning, "looking forward to turning a page on this financial crisis." Those hard realities set the stage and, on Monday in New Mexico, McCain stepped into its center with a sneering performance before a crowd that sounded more like a mob than a rally.

"There are essential things we don't know about Sen. Obama," McCain warned, a charge that is as pointed in divisive sentiment as it is unsubstantiated in fact. His supporters responded with the roar of a fight-night audience eager for gore -- "Take those gloves off, John!"

McCain obliged, rattling off a series of catchphrases that sound all too familiar when hurled at "elitist" Negroes. "It's as if the usual rules don't apply," he huffed in complaint about Obama's refusal to respond to smears masquerading as questions. "What does he plan for America? In short, who is the real Barack Obama?!"

The crowd was ready with an answer. "A terrorist!" is the cry several observers heard from at least one McCain fan. Similar slurs flew at McCain camp rallies all week. Someone at a Sarah Palin event in Florida hollered "kill him!" when she repeated her now-infamous smear about Obama "palling around with terrorists." (It's unclear whether the supporter meant Obama or '60s-radical-turned-academic Bill Ayers, the terrorist pal in question.) The crowd eventually turned on the press galley covering the speech, shouting threats and taunts. A black camera crew member was told, "Sit down, boy."

By yesterday, Team McCain had cooled things down a bit. They at least kept the race-baiting out of McCain and Palin's mouths -- even if they still haven't stopped others on the platform from conspicuously repeating "Barack Hussein Obama." But the crowd's reactions this week lay bare the coded language McCain and Palin have deliberately used. The message from the McCain camp was clear: This Obama guy is different than you in "essential" ways. He represents people who aren't like you. Don't trust him. He is other.

There's nothing new about this line of attack. It's familiar to American politics in general and this campaign in particular. Right-wing bloggers and Fox News have peddled the Obama-as-scary-other narrative all year, and both Clintons flirted with it during the Democratic primary. But what's unexpected is that no less a bastion of mainstream journalism than the Associated Press called McCain out for his loaded words. "Whether intended or not by the McCain campaign, portraying Obama as "not like us" is another potential appeal to racism," an AP analysis of the campaign's tone-shift declared last weekend.

Perhaps the primary campaign's obsession with Jeremiah Wright has ironically primed political reporters for racism that usually goes unflagged. Or maybe the AP was prodded by lefty charges that its coverage has been pro-McCain. But whatever prompted the AP story, it generated as much buzz as the campaign itself because it was a unique thing: an example of the Washington press corps abandoning "objectivity" long enough to tell the naked truth. That's just what the McCain campaign is betting won't happen widely, but it's precisely what must occur -- not only if we are to have a fair election, but if we are to ever have an honest conversation about race in America.

Too often, journalists concerned about being labeled biased work to create balance where there is none. When the McCain camp began telling plain, demonstrable lies about Sarah Palin's record in Alaska, for instance, too many journalists covered it as tit-for-tat, citing mischaracterizations from Obama that paled in comparison. As the ground war turns negative, many will be tempted to do the same when covering McCain and Obama's jabs. But there is a meaningful difference between tarring your opponent's record and demagoguery. The former is ugly; the latter is dangerous, and journalists have a responsibility to point it out.

Americans have notoriously short memories, so it's often assumed that the critical clamor journalists hear from both Left and Right is new. It actually began with Southern segregationists browbeating Northern news organizations covering the Civil Rights Movement. Both sides of the Jim Crow battle knew the news media would shape how the country viewed them, so segregationists did all they could to make reporters part of the story. The liberal-media trope was their brainchild, and they used it to provoke the sort of false moral equivalencies that today's political reporters too often draw.

Those ghosts haunted the airwaves all week as outlets ranging from the "Today" show to National Public Radio tried to balance the Obama and McCain attacks. Reporters pointed to the Obama campaign's dredging up of the decades-old Keating Five scandal. (The campaign produced a 13-minute video on McCain's role in the failure of Lincoln Savings & Loan that must have made Oliver Stone jealous.) Others noted Obama ads calling McCain's behavior "erratic" and speculated that the ads were exploiting his age.

But neither of these Obama attacks is similar to McCain's new tack. The Keating video is pure-grade negative campaigning, to be sure, but it remains focused on McCain's record as a policymaker, not his place in American society and culture. And if McCain's behavior during the bailout debate can't be called erratic, the word has no meaning -- not to mention what you'd call his last-minute selection of an unvetted vice presidential candidate he hadn't even met in person. Obama is calling him impetuous, not senile.

Meanwhile, Palin spent the week repeating the assertion that Obama is "palling around with terrorists," citing his loose association with Ayers. (Ayers speaks for himself, by the way, here.) Obama's ties to Ayers are coincidental at best and, in any case, he long ago denounced Ayers' actions as part of the Weather Underground. But Ayers isn't so much the point as are the lines that always follow his invocation in Palin's speeches. "This is not a man who sees America like you and I see America," she told donors in Colorado. "I am just so fearful that this is not a man who sees America the way you and I see America," she repeated to a Florida crowd. And on it went. By the time the "sit down, boy" and "kill him" shouts were uttered, the rally had taken on the tenor of a lynch mob.

Maybe these tactics will rile up the conservative base enough to save McCain's campaign from a crashing economy and a war everyone hates. Maybe they won't. But whatever they mean to the political arena, they are deeply corrosive to our society and must be covered as such.

Conservative reactionaries have hidden their demagoguery behind coded rhetoric for decades, and journalists are as responsible for breaking that code as we are for translating any other insider-speak. We must not only tell people what political players said today, but why they said it and what it meant. We do it with complex financial jargon. We do it with the delicate language of international diplomacy. And we should do it with the wink-and-nod of divisive electioneering because outcomes larger than even the presidency hang in the balance.

Chris Crews, RaceWire, The ColorLines Blog

For several years now I have worked with Muslim friends trying to raise awareness about anti-Islamic rhetoric and the dangers of demonizing a growing population of American citizens. Sometimes that took the form of interfaith dialogues with Jews and Christians; other times it focused on highlighting the democratic and social justice contributions of American Muslims. During all of that time, and now even more today, I have been aware of an ever-present and pervasive hostility from certain portions of the American public to my Muslim friends, be they American citizens or international visitors.

With the presidential election campaign of Barack Obama entering the final election stretch, the force of attacks on Muslims and Islamic identity have become more pervasive, and more vicious. And this is due, in part, to the efforts of certain elements within the conservative electorate to portray Obama as a Muslim candidate (which he is not) and -- in extreme cases -- as a terrorist or terrorist sympathizer worthy of death (a la Bill Ayers and "terrorist" or "kill him" comments at recent Palin and McCain rallies).

And this is just the tip of the iceberg, as the Southern Poverty Law Center has been documenting since early February. There have been a growing number of hate-related incidents in the past month, many explicitly linked to presidential election politics.

Here are just a few examples that I am aware of, and I am sure there are many more. It's also important to note that these incidents are spilling over beyond just anti-Muslim rhetoric into outright racist attacks in general. In September, Adele Stan reported on racist images of Barack Obama appearing on a cereal boxes being sold by a vendor at the 2008 Values Voter Summit (a major evangelical gathering linked to the Family Research Council). Then on Sept. 23, a cardboard effigy of Barack Obama hung by its neck from a tree on the George Fox University campus, a Christian university in Oregon.

Also last month, a shadowy group calling itself the Clarion Fund was responsible for distributing some 28 million copies of an anti-Islamic propaganda DVD titled "Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West." This DVD was distributed in key election swing states. The group, as Omid Safi documented in an excellent investigative piece, has ties to both right-wing evangelical and Zionist organizations both in the United States and in Israel. The situation has gotten serious enough that a group of Muslim scholars this week released a document titled "Statement of Concerned Scholars about Islamophobia in the 2008 U. S. Election Campaign."

Earlier this week, there was an incident in London where a white man shot Dube Egwuatu -- a black man who was wearing an Obama T-shirt -- three times with a ball-bearing pistol in broad daylight. Then there was the story about a Louisiana man screaming at election officials over a voter registration card delay, telling them that he had to "keep the nigger out of office" and threatening that he had a gun stashed in his house. The San Francisco Chronicle also had an excellent story on racial attacks on Obama; it described the campaign as "part of a recent stream of attacks on his background, including his religion and his connections to a former '60s radical."

What I see as the most troubling trend in all of this is the polarization that is occurring within the country, a trend that I don't see changing or going away with an Obama victory in November. And at that point, a much more serious question is likely to present itself: Will an Obama victory lead to increased incidents of violent racist attacks?

Andrew Lam, New America Media

This weekend John McCain turned into John Macbeth. At a rally recently he was confronted with the vitriolic rage of his supporters who screamed "Off with his head!" "Terrorist!" "Traitor!" and, the old lynch mob's favorite, "Kill him!" in reference to Senator Obama. He was repeating his criticism of his presidential candidate rival, but upon hearing those nasty chants the senator cringed and grew perceptibly older, his shoulders drooped.

As he struggled to find the words to pacify the angry horde, McCain went off script. "I admire Senator Obama and his accomplishments," he said. "I will respect him and I want everyone to be respectful, and let's make sure we are." The crowd, not surprisingly, booed him.

At that moment the senator seemed to have stepped off American political theater and onto a Shakespearean stage -- McCain as the tragic figure of Macbeth.

Esteemed as a military general for his bravery in battles, Macbeth otherwise harbored kingly ambitions that blinded him. When three witches prophesied that he would be king, his wife hatched a plan to put him on the throne. It involved regicide. Macbeth hesitated, but Lady Macbeth challenged his manhood until he relented. She murdered King Duncan when he visited their castle. Macbeth then killed the king's guards, claiming that they did the killing, took the throne, and proceeded to have his friend Banquo, who knew about the prophecy, assassinated.

On the throne, however, Macbeth was wracked with guilt. He saw Banquo's ghost sitting in his place. His wife, Lady Macbeth, likewise haunted by the blood on her hands, suffered from sleeplessness and apparently committed suicide. As his subjects defected, with the prince's army at his castle's door, Macbeth went into battle with another nobleman, Macduff, whose family was murdered by Macbeth, and was finally slain.

As critic Kenneth Muir observed of the tragedy, "Macbeth has not a predisposition to murder; he has merely an inordinate ambition that makes murder itself seem to be a lesser evil than failure to achieve the crown." In his desire to be king, Macbeth destroyed the kingdom itself and brought chaos to the moral order. So obsessed is he with his vision to be king that he compromised all that was good about him.

The parallels with McCain are striking. Descendant of Navy admirals, and a war hero, his presidential campaign, unlike any in recent memory, has gone over to the dark side by stoking the fire of racism. With ads calling Obama "dangerous" and "dishonorable" while Sarah Palin, his running mate, went on the offensive with phrases like "This is not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America," and "palling around with terrorists," the once-veiled racism became overt. As Lady Macbeth, she is full of glee and smiles as she goes about her task of character assassination.

No doubt McCain must be in deep conflict as he watches the fringe of political right rally to his cause. Along with "McCain for President," his supporters put up signs that said "Vote Right, Vote White," and "Vote McCain not Osama or Hussein."

After all, "Bomb Obama" and "Off with his head" sound more like sound bites from the KKK and Islamic fundamentalists -- the very terrorists McCain claims the surge is working against in Iraq -- rather than American chants at rallies for U.S. presidential candidates.

Facing possible defeat in the election, fearing the loss of his ultimate prize, McCain opened a door to deep hatred and fear in this country. Now as the demons come out into the light, he recoils. But it might already be too late. To fan the fire of racism is easy when one has the bully pulpit. To put it out when it spreads, on the other hand, is always nearly impossible, no matter where one stands.

No wonder that Frank Schaeffer, a lifelong Republican who worked on McCain's campaign in 2000, wrote a stinging op-ed piece in the Baltimore Sun recently: "If your campaign does not stop equating Sen. Barack Obama with terrorism, questioning his patriotism and portraying Mr. Obama as 'not one of us,' I accuse you of deliberately feeding the most unhinged elements of our society the red meat of hate, and therefore of potentially instigating violence."

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights leader, followed suit with his condemnation of the hateful rhetoric by McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin, accusing them of "sowing the seeds of hatred and division."

The story of McCain is of one who endured the worst of war -- torture and injuries -- to return a hero and a patriot, a maverick and flyboy who has a knack for literature. In his well-received memoir, Worth Fighting For, he admits admiration for Hemingway's character, Jordan, in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Jordan, wrote McCain, was "a man who would risk his life but never his honor."

The senator should heed those words lest the seeds he is now sowing bear strange fruit in a new American tragedy

 
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