Let's all check our rhetoric at the door, shall we?
The tone of the Presidential campaign has gotten increasingly hostile and panicky in the last couple of weeks. Though both sides have started going for the jugular, the nasty and outright false information coming out of the McCain camp has been attracting a lot of attention for the vicious agreement it has pulled from certain segments of their supporters. Sarah Palin speeches have turned into the worst kind of rabble-rousing, with audience members going so far as to shout out threats against Barack Obama and even one incident of racial epithets being hurled at a cameraman there to film the event. Videos of McCain supporters waiting outside a rally responding to questions about why they dislike Obama have revealed the worst of our country. Even if we are to try to be calm ourselves and fairly note that these people were being egged on by protesters and the obvious contrariness of the interviewers, calling someone a "commie faggot" still isn't justifiable. (video here)
I've never been naïve enough to think that racism and intolerance is a problem the U.S. has managed to conquer, and while I'm also not going to suggest that McCain is responsible for creating these opinions, I will say that his campaign has been responsible for fomenting them and for creating an environment where people feel comfortable speaking in a manner that stopped being acceptable in polite society a long time ago. McCain has been pretty careful about keeping his own hands clean when it comes to the darkest mud of the mudslinging, but I do think the fact that he has let the tenor of the propaganda reach this point does raise a question of the quality of leadership in our country. And given how much of McCain's rhetoric has been about pondering who is "fit to lead," it's a question that I think is fair game to explore.
Put simply, I don't think a commander pleading ignorance to the actions of his troops makes a very good case for himself being a good leader. Anyone in even the most basic of supervisory positions knows that anyone working under their supervision is their responsibility, and whatever actions they take reflect on you. Therefore, it is the responsibility of a leader to know what his team is up to, and even when the leader delegates, he must be prepared to take charge when things go wrong, be accountable for allowing them to go wrong, and then correct the problem. Pleading ignorance is not a tactic that reflects well on the boss. "I thought Bill could handle it" translates as, "I clearly have poor judgment when it comes to my employees," or worse, "I wasn't paying attention."
Unfortunately, I don't think either of those translations necessarily apply to John McCain. Part of me would like to think they do, as they might be slightly better explanations. If real ignorance isn't better than feigned ignorance, it's at lest more honest. What I suspect is going on here, though, is the same tactic that we have seen in the last two elections, the Karl Rove gameplan that kept McCain from bagging the nomination of his party eight years ago and that he himself denounced as cheap and dirty. If you recall, George Bush's campaigns also got very ugly, spreading misinformation about John McCain and later John Kerry (and I'm sure others that aren't coming to mind). These attacks centered on their personal life and their public service, and McCain was so riled up by them in 2000, he actually called Bush out on the subject during a roundtable of the Republican nominees, asking the future President how he could condone attacking his war record. Bush's response? Not only did he not condone it, but he couldn't, because he didn't know it was going on. (Unfortunately, I can't find a video for this.)
It's a simple maneuver: let others do the dirty work and then waltz in after the damage is done with an airtight alibi. (Video of Barack Obama asking John McCain to say it to his face.) But is that what we actually want in a leader, someone who is either willing to look the other way or to blatantly lie about it? Again, not sure which is worse, but either way, it set a bad precedent for how the Bush administration would handle problems and established a dangerous example for others to follow. Did someone in the White House reveal Valerie Plame as a CIA agent? They don't know, and it's not their fault if someone did. How could the soldiers at Abu Ghraib be allowed to perform such atrocities? Nobody knows, no one was watching, and it's not the fault of high command. A journeyman can't blame his equipment for poor craftsmanship, and a leader can't blame his troops for not knowing the right way to go. It's like a doctor who leaves a sick patient in a room full of medicine and trusts that he will figure out which pills to take to make it better. "I didn't know he'd take the wrong one" won't cut it. It's your job to know.
To John McCain's credit, he has started to try to correct the situation with mild recriminations for voters at his own town hall meetings that parrot back the rhetoric his people have put out there (video and AP article). He doesn't go so far as to admit that his people are responsible for injecting this invective into the public discourse, nor does he correct the Bill Ayers lie when it's sitting right in front of him (Read: "Over Two Dozen Lies Refuted About Ayers And Obama"), but his discomfort with the bile is obvious. The taste must be horrifically familiar. (Video of John McCain in 2000 denouncing negative campaign ads.) And no, I haven't lost all of my cynicism, I do realize that this change of heart is likely a result of the dirty politics having a negative effect on his poll numbers, but hey, at least he's listening to the public, right?
If McCain really wanted to show he's a maverick and he cares about issues, he'd pull his negative ads from television. I'd also encourage Barack Obama to do the same (he's guilty of it, too: see FactCheck.org for coverage of both sides). Stop running ads about what's wrong with the other guy and spend your time telling us what's right with you. Hell, if I had my way, I'd ban all television campaign commercials across the board. Make the voting populace work for their privilege to vote by giving the choice more than 30 seconds of thought while they are looking for their remote to flip past the commercials. I think the only television campaign choice should be more of these guys sitting in a room talking about what they are going to do, with an informed moderator that not only encourages them to talk the way Bill Moyers did in the first Presidential debate a couple of weeks ago, but with an actual fact checking staff on hand to say, "I'm sorry, but when you said you voted this way, you must have misspoke, because actually, you voted that way," etc.
I guess it's another example of how backward our world is right now that I feel it's actually up to all of us to tell these guys what we want and show them how it's all done. It's up to each and every one of us reading this to be better in how we talk politics. Us lefties can be just as bad and as intolerant as we want to believe the right-wing folks are. I think, to borrow McCain's line, we'd find that most of us are decent people who unfortunately don't shout as loud as the misguided and the fanatical. It does us no good to attack each other when we should really be exchanging ideas and trying to understand how our country can get back on track. Like Sarah Palin, I have a diverse family, and we don't all agree; if I let attacks against those with similar points of view stand, then aren't I abiding attacks against them?
So, next time you hear yourself repeating something you heard in an ad or from a pundit like it's a catchphrase from an SNL skit, stop yourself and examine what is about to come out of your mouth. Take it from me, a guy with a lifelong history of not thinking before he speaks, it's easier to correct the wrong things if you never say them at all.
* * *
And now, to end on an "up" note:
Current Soundtrack: The Jesus & Mary Chain, Darklands; Paul Weller, 22 Dreams (expanded edition)
Text (c) 2008 Jamie S. Rich