Wednesday, January 30, 2008

McCain's Gay Baiting

If you were a member of a conservative household in Florida last week, you might have picked up the phone and heard a recording that accused Mitt Romney of being soft on gay rights. The "robocall," as these canned communications are known, featured a woman's voice reminding voters that Romney once "told gay organizers in Massachusetts that he would be a stronger advocate for [their] special rights than even Ted Kennedy."

This was the sound of the John McCain campaign taking the low road. Ironic, but not surprising. Senator McCain learned a thing or two after Karl Rove masterminded a smear operation against him in the 2000 South Carolina primary. This year, who should McCain have hired to help run his campaign but the same Bush operative who orchestrated the whispering attacks against McCain seven years ago?*

Those robocalls in Florida were aimed at stirring up anti-gay sentiment among voters by pointing out Mitt's flip-flop on gay rights. Yet McCain's own record on the issue is not entirely flip-flop-free. Four years ago he called a constitutional ban on gay marriage "antithetical to the core philosophy of Republicans." Two years later, he told televangelist Jerry Falwell that if states didn't pass laws prohibiting gay marriage, he would back a constitutional ban.

It remains to be seen whether McCain's courting of the religious right will succeed. He may be sound on abortion and gay marriage. But his anti-Mitt robocall also stressed that America needs someone who will preserve "the sanctity of marriage." It's a bit rich that John McCain thinks he can out-marriage-sanctity Mitt Romney—who, after all, is still on his first wife.

To refresh your memory, here's a recap of the McCain divorce: While McCain was imprisoned at a Vietnamese POW camp, his wife Carol, a former model, was in a serious car accident. Her injuries left her four inches shorter, considerably heavier, and disabled -- not what McCain expected when he came home, himself still suffering from severe injuries. By his own account, he "ran around" for a while. Then he met a wealthy 25-year-old from Arizona with whom he began a steady adulterous relationship. Soon after, he dumped Carol, who had reared their three children while McCain was in prison. A month after the divorce was final, he married the heiress.

Hypocrisy seems to come with the territory of being a social conservative (examples supplied on request). But how rotten do you have to be to treat another person like this? People carry on about Bill Clinton's character issues, but, really, Slick Willie seems like a stand-up guy compared to John "Sanctity of Marriage" McCain.

Friday, January 18, 2008

What Martin Knew

On April 4th, 1967, a year to the day before he was murdered, Martin Luther King delivered the second most important speech of his life. It lacked the stirring cadences of the famous "I have a dream" oration and the resolute hopefulness of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Unlike his words at Selma or his address at the base of the Lincoln Memorial, it is rarely taught to schoolchildren. Yet Martin Luther King's least-known speech is uncannily relevant today.

It was called "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence." In it, Dr. King made a passionate plea for Americans to take "responsibility [for] ending a conflict that has exacted a heavy price on both continents." He spoke from the pulpit of New York's Riverside Church to a meeting of the peace group Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam. Condemning U.S. military policy in Southeast Asia, he called our country "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." This was a controversial position and not one he took lightly. "Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war . . .. [but] my conscience leaves me no other choice."

Now, on Martin Luther King Day, 2008, we are about to enter year six of another far-off quagmire whose origins are clouded and goals obscure. It seems a good time to reconsider what Dr. King had to say on that April day 40 years ago.

Why should the Vietnam War have come into Martin Luther King's field of moral vision? Good preacher that he was, King counted "seven major reasons." Many of these are astonishingly pertinent to the U.S. involvement in Iraq, and are variations of arguments you may have heard (or may have made yourself) recently. Here are some of King’s points:

** The war was an enemy of the nation's poor:

“I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube."

** We are subjecting our troops not only to the brutalizing process that goes on in any war, but also to a deadly cynicism:

". . . [The soldiers] must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved."

** The image of America is increasingly tarnished around the world:

To make this point, Dr. King invoked the words of a Vietnamese Buddhist leader, "The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat."

In King's analysis, the American government had "[fallen] victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long." He understood that extricating ourselves from "this nightmarish conflict" would be enormously difficult. Confronted with such a daunting challenge, he said, we are always in danger of being "mesmerized by uncertainty."

Halfway through the speech, Dr. King seems almost to lean over his pulpit and speak directly to us today, in our post-9/11 confusion about what is owed us and how we should behave as citizens of the world. "We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate," he said, "or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate."

Martin Luther King paid a price for becoming one of the country's most prominent opponents of the Vietnam War. The mainstream media turned against him; Time Magazine called the speech a "demagogic slander." Even some of his own followers questioned whether Dr. King's outspoken opposition to the war would hurt the cause of his people. Such doubters saddened him, he responded, as their concerns showed that they "have not really known me, my commitment or my calling." Today "Beyond Vietnam" may not be part of the Sixth Grade curriculum but its uncompromising message is central to Martin Luther King's beliefs.

We have a choice, concludes Dr. King. "If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

Now let us begin."


Karl Rove's Black Love Child

Eight years ago this month, John McCain took the New Hampshire primary and was favored to win in South Carolina. Had he succeeded, he would likely have thwarted the presidential aspirations of George W. Bush and become the Republican nominee. But Bush strategist Karl Rove came to the rescue with a vicious smear tactic.

Rove invented a uniquely injurious fiction for his operatives to circulate via a phony poll. Voters were asked, "Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain...if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?" This was no random slur. McCain was at the time campaigning with his dark-skinned daughter, Bridget, adopted from Bangladesh.

It worked. Owing largely to the Rove-orchestrated whispering campaign, Bush prevailed in South Carolina and secured the Republican nomination. The rest is history--specifically the tragic and blighted history of our young century. It worked in another way as well. Too shaken to defend himself, McCain emerged from the bruising episode less maverick reformer and more Manchurian candidate.

The former crusader against the Republican establishment has since turned into a Bush-hugging, business-as-usual politician who has backed down from many positions that set him apart from conventional conservatives. Before, McCain supported the separation of church and state; now he wants a Christian in the White House. The confederate flag, which he once considered an offensive symbol, no longer troubles him. And he has come to believe that tax cuts are a good idea.

I don't want to say that McCain sold his soul to the devil, since I believe that religious metaphors have no place in politics. But consider this: shortly after losing the 2000 election, McCain told an interviewer that there must be "a special place in hell" reserved for the rumormongers.

Seven years later, who is running McCain's South Carolina campaign? Charlie Condon, the former State Attorney General who in 2000 helped spread the innuendo targeting Bridget. If you can't beat them, hire them--even if they've launched racist attacks against your own daughter.

Bridget McCain was a seriously ill baby in Mother Teresa's orphanage when Cindy McCain visited and decided to bring her back to the United States for medical treatment in 1991. John and Cindy adopted her not long after. Now 16, Bridget learned of her role in the 2000 campaign only when she Googled herself. According to the New York Times, when McCain entered the current race, Bridget summoned his aides and asked them to pledge that this campaign would be different.

We can't know what reassurances were offered, but Condon doesn't seem to have repented for his role in the 2000 slander. He told the New York Times reporter that he wasn't surprised about the downward spiral of the Bush-McCain race. "Our primaries have a way of doing that," Condon said. "There is a tradition of it, it is accepted behavior, and frankly it works."

John McCain is now favored to win in South Carolina. The personal attacks of the 2000 election season, he recently told an interviewer, were "long ago and far away." "I had to get over it.... I don't ever think about them or dwell on them." Cindy McCain agrees. "We're past that. We've moved on."

The McCains may have moved on, but I haven't. Bush made a decisive step toward the White House by spreading lies about an 8-year-old child. (Not to mention a couple of decorated war veterans.) These vile tactics are not OK. If something similar were to happen in a high school election, those responsible would be suspended and black marks would be entered on their permanent records. But in politics, it seems, there's no such thing as a permanent record. Consequences do not exist--however blatant the misconduct.

It's time we changed that. In the 2008 election, voters need to send a message that attention is being paid--that this time liars and cheats will be defeated, not given a free hall pass.