Once Barack Obama emerged as a viable candidate for President – given the nation's grim history of violence toward African-American political figures – the worries began about Obama’s safety, and they have not gone away.
Now, with the McCain-Palin campaign’s recent decision to go intensely negative on Obama, those risks appear to be growing, putting added pressure on the Secret Service detail assigned to protect Obama.
In particular, Sarah Palin’s reckless talk about Obama “palling around with terrorists” has helped validate the anti-Obama hate that has long obsessed the American Right. She also accused Obama of insulting American troops in Afghanistan, a twisting of Obama’s words that was then reprised in a McCain-Palin attack ad.
Though avoiding some of Palin’s most incendiary rhetoric, John McCain has played this dangerous game, too, asking ominously “who is the real Barack Obama?” – suggesting that there are dark secrets in Obama’s past that would make him a threat to the nation.
Warm-up speakers at Republican rallies have insisted on emphasizing Obama’s middle name “Hussein” as another epithet.
Not surprisingly, McCain-Palin supporters have responded to this “red meat” by shouting words like “treason,” “communist,” “kill him.” At a Palin event in Florida, some excited backers yelled ugly taunts at an African-American working in a TV crew.
For her part, Palin appears oblivious to the dangerous political storm that she is stirring up. Caught up in her new celebrity – and lost in her own ambition – she acts as if there are no consequences for putting ugly words together and spewing them into the fervid world of the angry American Right.
Many observers are more surprised about McCain, who vowed at the end of the GOP convention to become a President who would end “partisan rancor” – although his convention was filled with partisan rancor targeting Obama.
Now, facing slumping poll numbers, McCain has jettisoned what’s left of his promise to run a respectful campaign as well as his prized slogan “Country First,” in exchange for a new goal of winning at all costs.
Like Palin, McCain seems not to care that he is feeding the anger of white racists and the paranoia of xenophobes who have long recycled false allegations about Obama’s religion and his loyalty to the United States.
This “new” McCain has startled many of his old fans in the U.S. press corps who bought into his image as a bipartisan reformer who was victimized by George W. Bush’s dirty tactics in 2000. Some now shake their heads about an aging politician letting his ambition – or fear of defeat – overwhelm his larger sense of decency.
But other assessments hold that McCain is simply reverting to the real McCain, the spoiled son of one four-star admiral and the grandson of another, the brat who earned the nickname “McNasty” and who exploited his family influence to rise in military rank despite a poor record as a student and a pilot.
A new account of McCain’s life by Tim Dickinson published in Rolling Stone describes not only McCain’s playboy youth – his gambling, womanizing and tendency to crash planes – but debunks a central element of his personal narrative, that his ordeal as a Vietnam War POW transformed him into a person who puts “country first.”
The article opens with an anecdote from 1974 when former POW McCain encounters another ex-POW, Air Force Lt. Col. John Dramesi, at the prestigious National War College, where McCain had pulled strings to get in.
Dramesi, who unlike McCain had refused to make an anti-American “confession” for the North Vietnamese, describes his plans to seek an assignment in the Middle East because he fears it will become a future danger zone for U.S. interests.
McCain is dismissive of Dramesi’s plans, saying he was off to Rio de Janeiro.
"What the hell are you going to Rio for?" Dramesi asked.
McCain, who was then a married father of three, responded, "I got a better chance of getting laid."
Indeed, if one looks at McCain’s life through a single prism of self-interest, all the twists and turns of his career – including his ventures into reform, bipartisanship and even his coziness with the mainstream press – make sense.
As Dickinson observes in his biographical article, “the real John McCain ... has been hiding in plain sight. It is the story of a man who has consistently put his own advancement above all else, a man willing to say and do anything to achieve his ultimate ambition: to become commander in chief, ascending to the one position that would finally enable him to outrank his four-star father and grandfather.”
In this view, McCain is like his erstwhile Republican rival, George W. Bush, a screw-up scion of a dynastic family who learned how to come across as an “everyman” and who became adept at playing the political game. McCain, like Bush, also wanted to outdo his more accomplished father.
So, it shouldn’t be too surprising that McCain – finding himself in a political hole – would do whatever it takes to climb out, even if that means smearing an opponent, further polarizing the country and inciting some extremists with violent tendencies.
This evidence of the “real McCain” should have been long apparent, certainly since he recruited to run his campaign many of the Bush veterans who threw mud at Al Gore, John Kerry and McCain himself – the likes of Karl Rove protégés Steve Schmidt to the top job and Tucker Eskew, who smeared McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary.
Then, when McCain needed to solidify his Republican base and inject some excitement into his campaign, the 72-year-old cancer survivor selected Sarah Palin, a first-term governor of Alaska with virtually no foreign policy experience, as his running mate.
For a while, the Palin pick worked politically giving McCain a boost at his convention and in the polls. However, increasingly, American voters look at Palin as eminently unqualified to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.
But McCain is undaunted. Despite concerns among medical experts that his melanoma could recur, he continues to defend his vice-presidential choice, now unleashing her as the lead attack dog against Obama.
McCain’s ambition, which burns as brightly as Palin’s, seems to have few limits. Nor does his disdain for his Democratic rival, Barack Obama, whom McCain sneeringly referred to in Tuesday’s debate as “that one.”
But the most worrisome question in these last four weeks of the campaign is whether McCain and Palin will continue with dangerous rhetoric that might encourage some unstable character to take matters into his own hands.
If something like that does happen – or even if McCain-Palin somehow manage to turn their ugly messaging into a tainted victory – the ultimate loser will be the United States, which will be left even more deeply divided than it is today.
Instead of putting “Country First,” the ugly tactics of McCain and Palin are putting “Country Last.”
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on October 9, 2008.