For a man who once considered the press his “base,” and the truth a trusted ally, part of a package of integrity and “Straight Talk,” Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee for president, finds himself on unfamiliar terrain these days. Now, on the verge of the apex of his political career, McCain is in the dead center of a whirlwind of honesty issues that he might not have foreseen when he began this campaign.
He is a now man surrounded by a hostile press that questions his truthfulness, running a campaign that even former Bush strategist Karl Rove is calling “one step too far” in its attacks on Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee. McCain, the one-time avatar of transparency and candor, finds himself shadowed by the media –people he now tends to call ” little jerks” — yelling “Liar! Liar! Pants on Fire!”
Of course, McCain still literally rides the Straight Talk Express, both in the air and on the ground. He still belts out the same jokes about lawyers and congressional approval ratings and has deep rhetorical grace when speaking about his experiences in Vietnam and his concern for soldiers in the field. He still stumbles through prepared remarks as if racing to get to the town-hall portion, where he eagerly speaks to admirers.
But the old soldier, who watched his 2000 presidential ambitions felled by dark tactics, ugly rumors and outright falsehoods during the GOP primary campaign in South Carolina, is now orchestrating those same kind of attacks. Instead of being the one standing up to mis-truth, he is mis-truth’s master — using outright lies about his opponent’s record and stands, while exaggerating the strength of his own campaign.
This is not a statement created by the Obama campaign. This is something based, as Marlon Brando’s Jor-El once said in “Superman: The Movie,” in “undeniable fact.” The New York Times, in a news story — *not an editorial *– chronicled McCain’s misdeeds. First, the GOP campaign twisted Obama’s words regarding lipstick-gate; then it ran an advertisement suggesting Obama supported “comprehensive sex education” for kindergartners as well as complete distortions of his rivals tax, energy and health-care plans.
Both the Washington Post and The Associated Press ran pieces in a similar vein and Bloomberg News questioned — correctly — whether McCain officials had begun over-estimating the crowd size at McCain-Palin events. For god’s sakes, a hapless McCain was taken — quite effectively — to task by the hosts of “The View.”
“I am always reluctant to use the word ‘lie’ — but in this case there is no alternative,” said Dee Dee Myers, the former Clinton White House press secretary who now serves as a commentator on MSNBC. “I think the McCain camp thinks the mainstream media is so discredited in the eyes of the Republican base, that they think any red flag raised will be ignored as something created by the liberal establishment.”
The more pressing question, however, is what should be the proportional level of response?
History doesn’t do Obama any favors here. Certainly he can find little that is instructive in the 2004 election, when the Vietnam career of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who had earned two Purple Hearts and a Silver Star, came into question though the facts said there should have been none. As a relative new player on the stage, Obama cannot appear to whine, though both the age and experience he brings to the Oval Office have been viewed scantly by even some within the Democratic Party.
Should Obama decide to remain above the fray and not answer these continuing attacks, he risks falling into the same dark hole that Michael S. Dukakis did in 1988. He was called a “card-carrying liberal” again and again and again, which in Ronald Reagan’s America was a label only slightly less sinister than Communist smuggling atomic weapon plans to Fidel Castro in exchange for cigars.
Only a few weeks ago, on a warm night in Denver, Obama stood before the world and declared he would not be a punching bag for the Republican Party. The question now is “How?”
“One of the problems we had is that we simply didn’t have the money to go after the Swift Boaters and for the general election,” said Robert Shrum, the Democratic political adviser who served as the campaign manager for the Kerry effort in 2004. “That’s a problem the Obama campaign simply doesn’t have.
“The fundamental challenge of the Obama campaign is to get this back to the issues,” Shrum said. “More than simply pushing back, he has to get it back to what was for at months was the center of the campaign — change, the economy, the war in Iraq. The only change McCain offers is in subject matter, not in substance.”
Gerald Rafshoon, President Jimmy Carter’s communications director, has also dealt with his share of political attacks.
“You have to respond to it and you have to knock it down,” Rafshoon said. “You can’t let his message dictate your message. He does this by coming tight back at them, as fast as he can. He does it with surrogates and he does it with advertisements and you hope it will boomerang negatively for McCain.”
Complicating matters is the way that many in this country feel about news outlets. McCain has not actually talked to the reporters spending thousands of dollars to travel with him since before mid-August. Palin herself has sat for two interviews, one with ABC and the other with Fox News, and has remained at arms-length from anyone else seeking to speak with her. Moreover, as Myers pointed out, news outlets have become the virtual bogeymen in the eyes of the GOP’s conservative base.
This makes fighting a proxy war through the press nearly futile. We — and I include TWI here — are caught in the cross-hairs of the culture wars that still burn with fury in America. We are mistrusted by both left and right.
On one hand, is the image of a scoop-driven machine gone mad, going to any lengths to humiliate conservatives, overstepping our bounds — as many would argue Dan Rather did in 2004, while investigating President George W. Bush’s time in the Air Force National Guard. To the left, we are the weak lackeys who showed no vigilance in reporting the evidence that the Bush administration used to take us to war in Iraq.
Thus, if this McCain no longer cares about the press, or, for that matter, the truth, the key could be to use these well-documented fabrications to attack something he does care for: his moral code.
“He’s based his whole campaign around ‘Putting Country First’,” Myers said. “These attacks have begun to erode at something much more important. It’s eating away at the foundation of his campaign. McCain’s not a policy guy. He’s an honor guy.
“Obama, when talking about these attacks on the stump, should use the word ‘honor.’ Use the word ‘honor’ and McCain’s head blows up. On some level he McCain knows what he’s doing. He’s going to a very dangerous place with all of this
“To question his honor, the very thing he thinks about in the dark of the night is the one thing that would work,” Myers continued. “I think for Obama to do it in person, during the debates, would be pretty powerful. You know, it would get McCain really mad, and it would have to force him to answer for his deeds. No one likes negative ads — with the exception of Paul Begala — but Obama has to show he can throw a punch. We’ve seen that he can take a punch. Now we have to see more.”
Obama’s true plans for dealing with these lies will certainly unfold quickly, for Nov. 4 is ever closer.
McCain’s ads and actions have not only damaged his reputation as a maverick and besmirched his honor, they hold greater consequences for the American people. The philosopher Sissela Bok wrote in her landmark book, “Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life,” about the consequences one faces when lying becomes part of the norm. Bok explores consequences not only for an individual, but assesses the damage on a wider level.
“I don’t think people understand how much it damages them,” Bok said on the telephone from her home in Cambridge, “maybe not in the short run. In the short run, the cost of integrity, for instance, it might not seem to matter. But they have to understand that when they lie simply to win an election, they must be prepared to sacrifice their self-respect.
“Moreover, they’re doing harm to society,” Bok said, “Once people have the notion that people in public service are all dishonest, the whole profession of public service, or journalism, is damaged. Everyone is seen as dishonest — when we know there are good, honest people who choose to serve in public duty, in public life.”
Now, McCain must ask himself the cost of such lies. Has he come all this way, run this strong campaign, to win in this way? This is something only he can answer — and something he must ultimately answer for.
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