John McCain stepped up to the plate recently and attacked a white guy.
Interviewed by ABC's George Stephanopoulos, McCain launched into the relationship between Illinois Senator Barack Obama, the Democrats' presidential front-runner, and William Ayers, the Illinois professor and former member of the radical Weather Underground. Ayers had come to light as both a supporter of Obama's state senate bid as well as serving with Obama on the board of the Chicago-based Woods Foundation. Ayers, famously unrepentant for his support for violence, put himself on record in the New York Times the morning of September 11, 2001, as saying, "I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough."
Said McCain to Stephanopoulos in an unprompted remark about Obama and his relationship with Ayers: "I'm sure he's [Obama] very patriotic. But his relationship with Mr. Ayers is open to question.... if you're going to associate and have as a friend and serve on a board and have a guy kick off your campaign that says he's unrepentant, that he wished they had bombed more."
McCain went on, saying this of Obama's comparison of Ayers to Oklahoma U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, a baby doctor who has taken a resolute pro-life position. "The worst thing of all, that I think really indicates Senator Obama's attitude, is he had the incredible statement that he compared Mr. Ayers, an unrepentant terrorist, with Senator Tom Coburn, Senator Coburn, a physician who goes to Oklahoma on the weekends and brings babies into life," McCain said. "It's very insulting to a great man, a great doctor, a great humanitarian.... (H)ow can you countenance someone who was engaged in bombings which could have or did kill innocent people?" When Stephanopoulos made the point that Obama has said he doesn't agree with Ayers' views, McCain snapped: "Doesn't agree with them? Does he condemn them? Would he condemn someone who says that they're unrepentant and wished that they had bombed more?"
All well and good.
Then, out of the blue, comes the news that the North Carolina Republican Party is airing a television commercial criticizing two state Democrats, Obama supporters both as well as candidates running for the North Carolina governorship. The commercial features the famously left-wing rants, much televised all over the nation by every news outlet imaginable, of another Obama booster. Like Ayers, this Obama supporter was spewing any manner of left-wing nonsense, all of it drawing immediate fire from critics. The criticism of this Obama supporter became so intense that Obama himself was forced to address the issue with a major speech in Philadelphia in the middle of the Pennsylvania primary. Obama backed away from his supporter and, in the course of the next several days, put as much distance as he felt safe in doing between them.
SO WHY DID John McCain suddenly feel compelled to demand the North Carolina GOP withdraw its ad featuring the raw language of this Obama supporter? The reason, apparently, was race. The ad did not feature Ayers -- although it surely could have done so. Ayers remarks, however, were not captured in the gold coin of today's politics -- video. So it was controversial Obama supporter number two -- the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama's minister and friend of twenty years -- who was featured in the commercial. And as it happens, this purveyor of left-wing cant is, unlike Ayers, a black man.
With a swiftness that troubles, John McCain went paternalistic. In language that was made worse by its apparent earnest sincerity, McCain telegraphed that at some level he has bought into the liberal idea of victimology, specifically in this instance as applied to blacks. Listen to the words of John McWhorter on the subject of victimology. A senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a respected academic and author of a number of books on race, McWhorter, it needs to be said in this context, is, yes, an African-American. He makes his point here in his 2000 book Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America:
Victimology channels (black) Separatism to create a sentiment that black people are still so mired in oppression that to express any real criticism of them is to kick them while they're down, like castigating a person bleeding on the ground for using foul language when he cries out in pain.
So McCain, confronted with the extremist rhetoric of Ayers, waded into the controversy in an instant, with the unerring eye of a fighter pilot targeting a munition dump in North Vietnam. Yet when he learns the North Carolina Republican Party has just joined a virtual chorus of critics zeroing in on the Reverend Wright, astonishingly for a presidential candidate in 2008 America, McCain suddenly takes on the persona of the white-shoe country club guy who generously tips the black waiter after assuring the waiter he really thinks "you people" have a point about voting rights. More astonishing still he couches this with indignant language about the Republican Party being the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
What about the idea that the North Carolina GOP simply took Reverend Wright at his word? Or words? That in fact, the language Wright speaks is not the language of black America at all but rather the same language of the white bomber Bill Ayers -- the language of the American extreme left? And that as such, Reverend Wright -- and Professor Ayers and Senator Obama and Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy and Bill Moyers and MoveOn.Org and the editorial board of the New York Times and all the rest -- deserve nothing less than to be challenged not on their race or religion but on their ideas?
To his credit, on Sunday McCain took Wright on directly. "I saw yesterday some additional comments that have been revealed by Pastor Wright, one of them comparing the United States Marine Corps with Roman Legionnaires who were responsible for the death of our savior. I mean being involved in that, it's beyond belief. And then of course saying that al-Qaida and the American flag were the same flags," McCain said.
YET WHAT SEEMED ALMOST reflexive in taking on the North Carolina GOP for doing the same thing is a McCain puzzle. What particularly disturbs about McCain's North Carolina remarks is what this might portend for a McCain Administration approach to racial issues in general. It's great that McCain has gone out of his way in recent weeks to make stops in Selma, Alabama, and the Ninth Ward in New Orleans. Bravo! But is he willing to step up to the plate and ask the tough questions about how racial politics has been used by liberals to keep the black residents not only of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans but other American cities like Detroit or Washington, D.C. in such perpetually horrific difficulty? These and other cities are places in America where political control has been held with an iron-fisted certainty for decades -- by liberals. Liberals and the ideas they worship have run the school system, the housing projects, the health care system. They have been completely in charge as urban unemployment rates in black communities not only soared but persisted.
If the Obama campaign has demonstrated anything, it is that it is Obama's own party -- the Democrats -- who have such a virulent history of playing racial politics. Black voters all across the country have watched in astonishment as the Clinton campaign has, with a casual ease that leaves some mouths agape in wonder, repeatedly played the race card, most notably in South Carolina. For the first time in decades there are black Americans who may be open to the idea of voting in numbers for the party of Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and Clarence Thomas. Voters who may finally realize the perils of identity politics and prefer a political home where the battles are over ideas, not your skin color. Voters who can suddenly see that my former boss Jack Kemp has been right all these years when he has endlessly preached about the importance to the black community of everything from reductions in the capital gains tax to enterprise zones to the income tax rate to home ownership.
What opportunity there is with voters in the key state of Michigan who may well now pay attention to McCain if he starts treating the black residents of Detroit as a seriously badly-served community not because their elected leaders are black but rather because their elected leaders have been relying on bad ideas, ideas that haven't worked in mostly black Detroit or mostly white Moscow. As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has pointed out consistently:
The Detroit public school system currently graduates 22 percent of its entering freshmen on time and fails to serve 78 percent of the young people in Detroit. And if you're an African-American male, you have a 73 percent [chance of] unemployment in your 20s if you drop out of school and a 60 percent chance of going to jail. Now, faced with a catastrophic collapse of that scale, we should basically fundamentally replace the Detroit school system with a series of experiments to see if they'll work.What an opportunity for McCain to point out that none of this has to do with the color of someone's skin but rather with the quality of their ideas.
In this framework, the insistence by McCain that the North Carolina Republican Party pull their ad linking the ideas of Obama and Reverend Wright to North Carolina Obama supporters troubles. A lot.
Decades ago, President John F. Kennedy, a century late in terms of the leadership of the Democrats on racial issues but still with a steady moral vision, looked at Americans through the television lens and said flatly that "race has no place" in American life. JFK was right.
This is a unique opportunity for John McCain to take his place alongside a Lincoln, a Theodore Roosevelt, a Ronald Reagan, and move this country once more toward the idea that America should be a colorblind nation. A nation where everyone is judged not just by the content of their character, as Dr. Martin Luther King urged, but also, in politics, by the content of their ideas.
THE REVEREND JEREMIAH WRIGHT has quite voluntarily put his ideas out on the front line of American thought. He has every right in the world to be taken seriously, as does his fellow left-winger Professor Ayers. Their opponents would be fools if they did not take the ideas of each man seriously, as Senator McCain did when seriously addressing the issue of Obama and his relationship with Ayers and as he did Sunday by finally targeting Wright. The North Carolina Republican Party has treated Wright -- and Obama and his North Carolina supporters -- respectfully by challenging them on their ideas. Not their race. America -- and North Carolina -- is one very long way from the days when North Carolina's most prominent racist was segregationist Democrat Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, the same man who was also Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt's boss.
Straight talk? John McCain must do better than this.
Readers will remember that McCain was an unhesitatingly severe critic of then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, another white guy. Fair enough. But he should realize that based on his attacks on the North Carolina Republicans he is raising a subtle -- and needless -- question:
Would McCain have been so unrelentingly tough on Rumsfeld -- if Rumsfeld had been black?
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