The best post-election article yet examines the transformation of John McCain from a man of honor and principle in 2000, when dealing with the smears on his character, family, and past initiated by the Bush campaign, to his debasement in 2008 when pandering to the extreme Right of the Republican Party.
John McCain’s choices.
by David Grann
November 17, 2008
A defining moment of the “old” John McCain—as many Americans, even some of his friends, have begun to refer to him as he was before his run for the Presidency in 2008—took place in February, 2000, during his first bid for the White House, when he was challenging George W. Bush for the Republican nomination in the South Carolina primary. McCain had recently upset Bush in New Hampshire and was in a buoyant mood, vowing that, like “Luke Skywalker fighting the Death Star,” he would not only defeat Bush but reform a party corrupted by “big money” and, as he later put it, “agents of intolerance.”
Within days, sordid attacks began to appear: flyers on car windows claiming that McCain, who had adopted an orphan from Bangladesh, actually had fathered a black child; recorded phone messages, or robo-calls, spreading rumors that McCain’s wife, Cindy, who had once been addicted to prescription painkillers, was a junkie; and lies, propagated by an obscure group of Vietnam veterans, suggesting that McCain had become a traitor while serving in Vietnam.
McCain’s response was decisive: he pulled from television his negative advertisements, and announced to supporters, “If we don’t prevail, my friends, we know that we have taken the honorable way.” On the evening of the primary, McCain and his family watched the returns in a hotel suite in Charleston. As the polls came in, showing that he had lost by more than ten points, Cindy wept. “How could they believe all that about you?” she said of the public
In the final weeks of the 2008 campaign, it became clear that John McCain might lose more than the Presidency. On October 6th, slipping steeply in the polls, he held a rally in Albuquerque. Rather than speak off the cuff, as he preferred, he kept his eyes on a teleprompter. During the 2000 race, McCain was known as the “happy warrior,” but now his tone was harsh. Angrily waving a finger, McCain portrayed his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, as a shadowy figure who never seemed to reveal his true identity. McCain noted that Obama’s campaign recently had to “return thirty-three thousand dollars in illegal foreign funds from Palestinian donors.” McCain urged the audience to wonder, “Who is the real Barack Obama?”
Before he even finished the speech, he and his aides had begun their now notorious campaign—sometimes in public, sometimes sub rosa—to supply insinuating answers to this question. Ads appeared accusing Obama, who had served on the boards of two charities with William Ayers, a founder of the Weather Underground, of being allied with a “terrorist.” Voters received flyers featuring a mug shot of Ayers and the words “Terrorist. Radical. Friend of Obama.” Then came the same kind of robo-calls that had savaged McCain in 2000, and that he had once denounced as messages of “hate.” McCain even hired one of the same firms that Bush used in 2000. The messages warned, among other things, that Obama had tried to stop doctors from caring “for babies born alive after surviving attempted abortions.” Meanwhile, McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, charged that Obama was “palling around with terrorists.” Other surrogates claimed that Obama was “anti-American,” a “guy of the street” who “used cocaine,” and had “friends that bombed the Pentagon.” According to Newsweek, Michelle Obama asked an aide, “Why would they try to make people hate us?”