The Tragedy of John McCain
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 Sen. 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. He murdered King Duncan 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, he compromised all that was good about him.
The parallels with senator 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 Senator 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 watched 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 bytes from the KKK and Islamic fundamentalists --- the very terrorists that McCain claims that the surge is working against in Iraq - rather than American chants at rallies for US presidential candidates.
Facing possible defeat in the election, fearing the lost 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 impossibe no matter where one stands.
No wonder that, Frank Schaeffer, a life long Republican, who worked on McCain's campaign in 2000, wrote a stinging op-ed 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."
Congressman John Lewis, 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 fly boy 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.