Election 2008

Darren Hauck/AP

McCain Denounces Racist Language, But Is It Too Late?

October 13, 2008 02:40 PM
by Josh Katz
John McCain is now trying to rein in supporters who have uttered racist remarks about Barack Obama, after a week of campaign rallies that many have called troubling.

Disturbing Language From Crowd Creates Controversy

The McCain campaign has been criticized lately for leveling personal attacks against Ill. Sen. Barack Obama that may have incited racism-filled language by crowd members at some rallies. Observers have rebuked Ariz. Sen. John McCain and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for not immediately condemning such language, but the campaign now appears to be taking steps against it.

At recent campaign speeches, Gov. Palin has highlighted Sen. Obama’s associations with former domestic terrorist Bill Ayers. In response, there have been reports of people in the crowd yelling “treason!” and “terrorist,” according to the Times of London. Others have shouted, “kill him!” and “off with his head!” in reference to Obama.

On Saturday, John Lewis, a prominent advocate of civil rights in the 1960s, commented on the issue, saying that Republicans, “are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse.” He also indicated that the recent behavior of the McCain campaign calls to mind the tactics of George Wallace, the Alabama governor and presidential candidate who defended segregation and “whose rhetoric in 1963 was blamed for a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four little girls,” according to Agence France-Presse. Lewis then backtracked on his comments, claiming he did not mean to connect McCain to Wallace, and he simply wanted to remind the public that “that toxic language can lead to destructive behavior.”

In response to Lewis’s remarks, McCain said it was a, “character attack against Governor Sarah Palin and me that is shocking and beyond the pale.”

On Sunday, Republicans contended that the McCain campaign has not been fueling “hatred,” the AFP reports. For example, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, on CBS television’s “Face the Nation,” said, “The idea that John McCain and Sarah Palin are conducting themselves like George Wallace is just incredibly offensive.”

But Palin still distanced herself from recent campaign rhetoric connecting Obama to terrorism this weekend, “using nearly-apologetic language when making criticisms of the Democratic presidential nominee,” according to ABC News. She did not link Obama to William Ayers at all in speeches this weekend, and she instead focused on Obama’s stance on abortion and her position on energy independence.

McCain also toned down “personal attacks” on Obama over the weekend, according to The Press Association. As Obama’s lead increases in the waning days of the presidential race, the McCain campaign may be abandoning the personal attack strategy, devoting more attention to the need for change in Washington.

Background: The Bradley Effect

As the issue of racism becomes an increasing concern at campaign rallies, some are worried about the “Bradley effect” come Election Day. The phenomenon traces its roots to 1982, when Democrat Tom Bradley, a black man, led his white opponent on the eve of the Los Angeles gubernatorial election by an estimated seven points in polls, but then lost the election. Some analysts say Bradley lost because voters either lied to pollsters or intended to vote for Bradley but couldn’t cast their vote for a black man when the time arrived.

Whether racism played a part in Bradley’s defeat and, if it did, whether it is still a factor today, has been a topic of much debate. But, “The most likely circumstance that could bring back the Bradley effect would be a racialized campaign,” said Harvard political scientist Daniel J. Hopkins. “If we spend the next month debating Jeremiah Wright or other racial issues, that would be the thing that would be on people’s minds.”

Opinion & Analysis: The effect of recent rhetoric

In a New York Times op-ed, Frank Rich condemns McCain and Palin for not speaking out against racist remarks uttered by the crowds at their recent campaign events. He also suggests that the McCain campaign is knowingly inciting such remarks. For example, Palin said that Obama “launched his political career in the living room of a domestic terrorist,” he is “palling around with terrorists” and Obama is “not a man who sees America the way you and I see America.” According to Rich, “By the time McCain asks the crowd ‘Who is the real Barack Obama?’ it’s no surprise that someone cries out ‘Terrorist!’ The rhetorical conflation of Obama with terrorism is complete.”

Rich also noted one particular line from Palin’s speech at the Republican National Convention. She quoted Hearst columnist Westbrook Pegler, saying, “A writer observed: ‘We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity.’ I know just the kind of people that writer had in mind when he praised Harry Truman.” Pegler was infamous for his anti-Semitism and inflammatory right-wing views. In the 1930s, Pegler expressed disappointment that an assassin missed President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and in the ’60s he said of Robert Kennedy, “Some white patriot of the Southern tier will spatter his spoonful of brains in public premises before the snow falls.”

On Theroot.com, Kai Wright expresses a similar sentiment: “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.” Wright says that it is the job of journalists to bring such instances to the fore, because America cannot revert back to pre-Civil Rights era ways.

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle does give McCain credit for ultimately speaking out against the “nasty” rhetoric this weekend. When a woman called Obama an Arab, McCain fired back by saying, “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen who I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. And that’s what this campaign is all about.”

But in Right Side News, Cliff Kincaid said McCain is not doing enough; he argues that the senator should not have abandoned the attacks on Obama’s connection to “racist anti-American preacher Rev. Jeremiah Wright,” for example.

Related Topic: Andy Martin

Andy Martin, a law school graduate denied admission to the Illinois bar in the 1970s because of an unfavorable psychiatric evaluation, is credited with initiating many of the rumors about Barack Obama’s past.

Martin, who is also known for his frequent attempts at political office, his prolific filing of lawsuits, and anti-Semitic remarks, runs an anti-Obama Web site. He has generated controversy by tying Obama to radical Islam and claiming that the senator attended Muslim Wahhabi schools as a child. Other conservative Web sites and authors have piggybacked on Martin’s information, adding some of their own findings. Martin’s rumors have not been limited to Obama, or Democrats for that matter. He “aired a television advertisement in New Hampshire that accused George W. Bush of using cocaine” in 1999, according to The New York Times.

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