Photo credit Greg Nash
The U.S. Senate has lost one of its lions, and, predictably, the coverage of John McCain’s death ranges from hagiography to screed to everything in between.
That middle ground is most interesting. For those who aren’t familiar with McCain’s long Senate career, they’re surely aware of his 2008 Presidential run against Barack Obama. And a now-iconic moment involves pushing back against a racist woman who called Obama an Arab town hall.
McCain grabbed the microphone from her, cutting her off. “No, ma’am,” he said. “He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that just I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about. He’s not [an Arab].”
He could have added, “and even if he were an Arab, or a Muslim, he’s still an honorable American, because Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans can be decent family men too.” But that’s a bit of a quibble. Especially considering how toxic the political environment has become in the past decade. And considering we have an open racist in the White House now.
You may remember the Reverend Wright controversy in the 2008 campaign. That’s where video of Obama’s longtime reverend surfaced with him saying “God damn America,” but lacked the context of why Wright said this in a sermon (Wright was denouncing America’s foreign intervention and its original sin, slavery). Campaign watchers point out that in 2008 McCain declared it verboten to mention Reverend Wright or anything about Obama’s religion. He wouldn’t play the religion card. He wouldn’t play the race card. It’s the decent and statesman-like stance to take, but can you imagine that happening in a Presidential campaign today?
But McCain had other, more complex – and some might say troubling – conflicts regarding race. During his first run for the Presidency, in 2000, the Confederate flag was a controversial issue in the pivotal South Carolina primary. At first, McCain said that the flag was a symbol of “racism and slavery,” but it up to each state to determine whether to display it or not. His rival, George W. Bush, had essentially the same position, without excoriating it as a symbol of slavery and racism. McCain lost that primary to Bush, for a variety of reasons, including a smear campaign against him suggesting he had fathered a bi-racial child. After the race, he went back to South Carolina and clarified his position and apologized for putting political interests ahead of candor.