Flashback: August 12, 2008.
It’s the presidential election season, and the rhetoric is loud and angry. For the first time in American history, a major political party has nominated a black man for the presidency; Illinois Senator Barack Obama.
His opponent is the Republican Senator from Arizona, John McCain.
McCain is conducting a campaign rally in York, Pennsylvania. To say he disagrees with Obama is an understatement. He hammers the junior senator from Illinois on his fiscal and social agenda, but attacks most aggressively on Obama’s inexperience with national defense and foreign policy.
But the crowd wants more. Was Obama really born in America? Can we trust a candidate whose middle name is Hussein?
A woman in the crowd finally asks McCain aloud what many are wondering. (The video clip is widely available.)
“I can’t trust Obama,” she says. “I have read about him and he’s not, he’s not—he’s an Arab.”
And there it is. The door swings open. All McCain has to do is take what we’d later recognize as the Trump approach and say, “well, I don’t know. Some say he’s an Arab. I don’t know.”
Instead he puts a stop to nonsense.
“No ma’am,” he says. “He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign is all about.”
Later in the rally as the partisan emotion builds McCain is forced again to remind his supporters that you can have a different point of view and still be a good person.
“He is a decent person, and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president. If I didn’t think I’d be one heck of a better president I wouldn’t be running, and that’s the point. I admire Senator Obama and his accomplishments. I will respect him. I want everyone to be respectful, and let’s make sure we are. Because that’s the way politics should be conducted in America.”
Because that’s the way politics should be conducted in America. Oh my.
Ten years have passed since that night in York, PA, and these days respect seems reserved only for those who think, act, vote, read, speak, play, pray and look like we do. Anyone else deserves only our scorn, suspicion, ridicule and rudeness.
Even the word ‘respect’ is becoming a negative, dog whistle synonym for the even more vilified term ‘political correctness,’ which in my day simply meant being courteous and polite to others.
But I digress. As you know, Senator McCain died this week. I have no problem ascribing the word ‘hero’ to his memory. I admired his pugnacity in doing what he thought was best for America, even if I didn’t always agree with him.
But mostly I admired the personal lines he would not cross. He was a fierce patriot, but stood just as strong in defending the patriotism, honor and humanity of all who worked honestly to further America’s cause regardless of their differing points of view.
Senator John McCain III was always the grownup in the room. Today we have children in control, hurling epithets at each other like so many fistfuls of muck in a soggy sandbox, to the dirtying of us all.
I’m not sure if we’ve taught our leaders to behave this way, or they’ve taught us. Either way, we are neither what we once were, nor what we should be.
In his final statement, McCain said, in part, “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they’ve always been.”
I think McCain was accurate in pointing out that today we have come to doubt the power of the noble American ideals we’ve been taught since childhood. We need grownups of intelligence, dignity and respect to show us the way out of the mess we’re in. One of those grownups died last week. Where are those ready to take his place?