Race

On Second Thought ...

Do you ever find yourself regretting something you've said minutes after the words left your mouth? That's the position I find myself in about yesterday's commentary criticizing the McCain campaign for the way it is addressing the whole question about whether Barack Obama's relationship — such as it is — with former Weather Underground member (now university professor) William Ayers should be part of the presidential campaign.

You can listen here if you missed it.

It's not just that after I recorded and posted the commentary John McCain had this exchange with a supporter who insisted that Obama "scared" her because "he's an Arab."

McCain, as you can see, immediately disputed this falsehood and the woman's characterization, saying that Obama is "a decent man." Now, let's not parse words but we do have to ask whether someone should have to be defended against being an "Arab" any more than one should have to be defended against being considered black or Jewish.

This reminds me of Gentlemen's Agreement, the famous film from the 1940's. You remember it? Uber-WASP Gregory Peck goes undercover and portays himself as Jewish to write a report on anti-Semitism, and when his son is teased about it — actually harassed about it; his so called friends call him a dirty Jew — Peck's erstwhile (and soon to be ex) girlfriend does not challenge the slur but only that it applied to the boy! ("Why, you're no more Jewish than I am!")

But I take the point that McCain was trying to figure out how to respond in the heat of the moment, and that gets me to my point. I don't take back anything I said — only the way I said it. I had the same snarky know-it-all tone I can't stand when I hear it from other people, and I regret that.

Now, here's why I don't take back what I said.

The McCain campaign did not invent that Obama is a Muslim/Arab/terrorist narrative. There's a piece in The New York Times yesterday that unravels that mystery.

But the campaign and its supporters did make a decision to use that cudgel and now they have to live with the consequences.
But I do want to show some respect for how hard it is to push back when people say hurtful bigoted things. Let's face it, challenging enemies is easy. It's challenging friends that's hard.

I'll tell you a story. I was at a dinner recently to which I was very happy to be invited (with little kids and a job that starts early in the morning I don't get out that much anymore, so to have a grownup dinner with great food and smart company was something I was really looking forward to) and I was having a very nice time because there were some people there I had really wanted to meet. And then one of the guests started in on VP nominee Sarah Palin: "We can't have that woman a heartbeat away from the Presidency. I mean she speaks in tongues for God's sake."

Oh man. Why did she have to go there? Was defending Sarah Palin's religious practices (if indeed they are her practices) how I wanted to spend my evening? No, it was not. But I had no choice. Let's flip the script. If someone said, "we can't have somebody that close to the White House who actually believes that bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ, who believes that the oil in the lamp burned for eight days, who visits a Navajo sweatlodge, who chants, for God's sake...." Well, what would you do? What would you say?

I think you'd do what I did, which was make myself and everybody else uncomfortable and say: Hold on a minute. What are you saying? That's not right. That's not OK. That is bigotry. I think you'd challenge that person's comments against his or her own values or yours.

And it would not be easy; and you'd walk away feeling you did the right thing but probably feeling very awkward and maybe even sad about it.

As I said, John McCain and the GOP did not invent this narrative but having chosen to use it now have to live with it. I see that they want to make this guilt-by-association story a narrative about Obama's candor. Has he told the whole truth about his relationship with Ayers? Good luck with that.

But I respect how hard it must have been to look in the eyes of that woman whose vote he wanted, who was expecting the red meat and say, "No ma'am."

The rest of us need to ask ourselves if we'd do the same.

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