This is an excerpt of a guest column in Daily Kos, originally published on May 11, 2020.
Sometimes leaders overreach. They do not intend to put people or groups in danger, but their language has that effect. Trump seems not to care when this happens. But many leaders do. And all leaders should.
Often journalists, civic leaders, and commentators raise concerns when such language goes too far. Responsible leaders take those concerns seriously. Sometimes they do so right away. Sometimes they live in a state of denial, continuing to use such language, until some event forces them to snap out of denial and to take the concerns seriously.
Very often, once made aware, responsible leaders work to neutralize whatever damage they may have done, and to correct the impression their followers may have had about the leader’s intention. Most important, they stop using such language.
Consider John McCain in his bid to become president. By early 2008 a story began to circulate—first in American and British press and then on conservative blogs and programs—that Senator Barack Obama had a close personal relationship with Bill Ayers, a University of Illinois professor who had been active in the Weather Underground in the early 1970s. Ayers and Obama served on a charity board together, and Ayers hosted a fundraiser at his house in the 1990s as Obama was launching his political career in Chicago.
The question of Senator Obama’s connection to Ayers reached such intensity that Obama was asked about the connection during a primary debate with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in April. Obama’s general election opponent, Senator John McCain, was also asked about this alleged connection between Obama and Ayers during a television interview that month.
Ultimately, as established news organizations uncovered no evidence of a deep personal connection between Ayers and Obama, the Ayers story died down. That is, until the McCain/Palin campaign brought it back. By early October 2008, McCain was trailing Obama in the polls. McCain had long been struggling to articulate his plan to address the economic crisis facing the country. With just weeks left before the election, the McCain campaign needed to shake things up. McCain’s strategist Greg Strimple told the Associated Press,
“We are looking for a very aggressive last thirty days.…We are looking forward to turning a page on this financial crisis and getting back to discussing Mr. Obama’s aggressively liberal record and how he will be too risky for Americans.”
On October 5, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, told reporters:
“Our opponent…is someone who sees America it seems as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country… Turns out one of Barack’s earliest supporters is a man who, according to The New York Times, and they are hardly ever wrong, was a domestic terrorist and part of a group that quote launched a campaign of bombings that would target the Pentagon and US Capitol. Wow.”
This was a marked shift from earlier campaign rhetoric. A candidate for high office was suggesting that the Democratic candidate for president was not merely unpatriotic, but also in league with a terrorist and therefore a threat to the country. She defended this rhetoric by saying,
“I think it’s fair to talk about where Barack Obama kicked off his political career, in the guy’s living room.”
On October 9, the McCain/Palin campaign released a new attack ad against Senator Obama. The transcript of the ad reads:
“Barack Obama and domestic terrorist Bill Ayers. Friends. They’ve worked together for years. But Obama tries to hide it. Why? Obama launched his political career in Ayers’ living room. We know Bill Ayers ran the violent left-wing activist group called Weather Underground. We know Ayers’ wife was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list. We know they bombed the Capitol. The Pentagon. A judge’s home. We know Ayers said, “I don’t regret setting bombs.…I feel we didn’t do enough.” But Obama’s friendship with terrorist Ayers isn’t the issue. The issue is Barack Obama’s judgment and candor. When Obama just says, “This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood,” Americans say, “Where’s the truth, Barack?” Barack Obama. Too risky for America.”
What began as a story in the conservative echo-chamber now became a defining narrative of a major political campaign. Combined with rhetoric questioning Obama’s citizenship, political ideology, and religion, this new rhetoric became a volatile trigger in McCain’s and Palin’s rallies. NBC News reported:
“Shouts of ‘traitor,’ ‘terrorist,’ ‘treason,’ ‘liar,’ and even ‘off with his head’ have rung from the crowd at McCain and Sarah Palin rallies, and gone unchallenged by them.”
At one rally, someone in the crowd shouted, “Kill him,” referring to Senator Obama, and the Secret Service had to investigate the validity of that threat.
Some civic leaders recognized the danger that this shift in political rhetoric represented and called Senator McCain out for not taking that danger seriously. On October 10, New York Times bestselling author Frank Schaeffer recognized the lone-wolf whistle and wrote an open letter to Senator McCain. Schaeffer had campaigned for McCain, who had endorsed one of Schaeffer’s books. The open letter was published in the Baltimore Sun and then in the Huffington Post. It read in part:
“Senator John McCain: If your campaign does not stop equating Sen. Sen. Barack Obama with terrorism, questioning his patriotism, and portraying Mr. Obama as ‘not one of us,’ I accuse you of deliberately feeding the most unhinged elements of our society the red meat of hate, and therefore of potentially instigating violence.”
He noted that there were a lot of crazy people listening to the rhetoric of the campaign. The letter continued:
“If you do not stand up for all that is good in America and declare that Senator Obama is a patriot, fit for office, and denounce your hate-filled supporters when they scream out “Terrorist” or “Kill him,” history will hold you responsible for all that follows. John McCain and Sarah Palin, you are playing with fire, and you know it. You are unleashing the monster of American hatred and prejudice, to the peril of all of us. You are doing this in wartime. You are doing this as our economy collapses. You are doing this in a country with a history of assassinations.”
That day, Senator McCain moved to tamp down some of the consequences of this rhetoric. During a town-hall style rally, McCain told a supporter who said he was “scared” of an Obama presidency:
“I want to be president of the United States and obviously I do not want Senator Obama to be, but I have to tell you—I have to tell you—he is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of.”
At the same rally, another woman expressed a similar, but troubling concern:
“I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him and he’s not, he’s not uh—he’s an Arab. He’s not—”
McCain cut her off and responded:
“No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about. He’s not [an Arab].”
The next day, October 11, one of McCain’s good friends rebuked the senator for his rhetoric. Esteemed civil rights leader and member of Congress John Lewis was one of McCain’s heroes. In McCain’s book, Why Courage Matters, the senator had extensively praised Lewis for his role in the Civil Rights Movement, particularly the march in Selma, Alabama, at which Lewis was beaten nearly to death. McCain wrote, “I’ve seen courage in action on many occasions. I can’t say I’ve seen anyone possess more of it, and use it for any better purpose and to any greater effect, than John Lewis.”
But Lewis was concerned about the rhetoric the campaign was using. He posted a statement on Politico titled “Rep. John Lewis On Hostility of McCain-Palin Campaign.”
It noted that he himself was a victim of hatred and violence. He said he was deeply disturbed by the negative tone of the campaign, and that
“Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse.”
He referred to former Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace, who he said had created the climate and conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against Americans. He noted that such an atmosphere of hate had contributed to the bombing that killed four young girls at an Alabama church. He concluded:
“As public figures with the power to influence and persuade, Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are playing with fire, and if they are not careful, that fire will consume us all. They are playing a very dangerous game that disregards the value of the political process and cheapens our entire democracy. We can do better. The American people deserve better.”
McCain was stunned by the rebuke. According to The New Yorker, after McCain heard Lewis’s remarks, “he sat in silence inside the campaign’s official bus.”
A CNN report also noted the seriousness of this blow:
“A McCain aide described the moment that the campaign saw Lewis’ comment as an emotional one and a reality check as to ‘what the campaign is up against.’ The aide said they all stopped, delayed McCain’s flight and got on a conference call to try to figure out how to respond.”
Later that day Lewis issued a clarifying statement in response to criticism that he had equated McCain with George Wallace. He denied that he had made such a comparison. But he added,
“My statement was a reminder to all Americans that toxic language can lead to destructive behavior. I am glad that Sen. McCain has taken some steps to correct divisive speech at his rallies. I believe we need to return to civil discourse in this election about the pressing economic issues that are affecting our nation.”
The following weekend McCain received another disappointment when another friend chose to call McCain out for his rhetoric.