Say it ain’t so, John

Exploiting John McCain in a new TV commercial signals a new low for the Bush-Cheney campaign -- and, sadly, McCain himself.

Topics: John F. Kerry, D-Mass., John Edwards, John McCain, R-Ariz.,

For weeks or longer, the Bush-Cheney campaign planned to upstage John Kerry’s announcement of his vice-presidential choice by waving the magical image of John McCain, whose crossover appeal had enticed many Democrats into imagining him on their ticket. They knew the Arizona senator would let them use him.

Their new TV commercial, called “First Choice,” feeds off the rumor that McCain decided to back Bush-Cheney rather than accept Kerry’s offer as vice president. It’s a revealing production: Sen. McCain embraces George W. Bush and endorses the president with rhetorical flourishes — but there is a strangely passive aspect to his presence in this ad. He stands onstage, never facing the camera and addressing voters directly. It is almost as if he isn’t really participating, almost as if he knew that this role demeans him.

Characteristically, McCain tried to soften the ad’s impact by insisting that he would never attack Kerry or his new running mate, John Edwards. Through a spokesman he went even further, issuing a statement that said he had never been offered the vice presidency by anyone, clearly contradicting the “First Choice” commercial.

By then, however, the damage had been done — mostly to McCain himself. For a man so famously preoccupied with honor, both personal and political, his transformation into a tool of those who have consistently denigrated him signals a low moment.

While many Americans only dimly recall what his Republican opponents did to stop McCain during the 2000 primaries, it seems unlikely that the target has forgotten. The attacks on him have hardly let up since then because the outspoken senator is so often at odds with his own party’s leadership, both in Congress and in the White House. Besides, the slurs aimed at McCain during the 2000 campaign were memorable — even in a time of scoundrel politics.

Only political amnesia would allow the Bush-Cheney campaign (and the press) to dwell on Kerry’s little joke about Edwards from last winter, when the Vietnam veteran quipped that his rival had “still been in diapers” upon his return from the war. That joking jab sounds quite harmless in comparison with the vicious, stealthy attacks that the Bush campaign itself launched against McCain four years ago — attacks that everyone covering the race attributed to Karl Rove.

You Might Also Like

Watching her husband embrace the president in the new commercial must be distressing to Cindy McCain, whose former dependence on prescription drugs was highlighted in anonymous campaign leaflets the night before the South Carolina primary (before anyone knew that Rush Limbaugh would make addiction fashionable on the far right). According to Newsweek’s inside account of the campaign, she began sobbing loudly while watching the returns that sank McCain’s campaign. Trying to soothe her, her husband said, “Think of how the Bushes felt two weeks ago in New Hampshire,” where Bush had unexpectedly lost the primary. Between sobs, she replied, “We never called his wife a weirdo.”

The assault on McCain’s family didn’t spare Bridget, the little girl they had adopted from a Mother Theresa orphanage in Bangladesh. In the mouths of anonymous “push-pollers,” who called Republican voters across South Carolina to smear the maverick reformer, Bridget was transformed into an illegitimate black baby (a variation on Bill Clinton’s mythical black son). “Christian” conservatives eagerly spread baseless rumors that McCain had consorted with prostitutes (another old Clinton-bashing smear), and that he was also homosexual.

Like the right-wing veterans now seeking to turn Kerry’s distinguished Navy service against him, McCain’s faceless enemies in South Carolina twisted his heroism as a Vietnam prison-of-war to tar his reputation. Bush had the gall to stand up at a rally with Ted Sampley, the vicious pamphleteer who denounced McCain as a “traitor” and a “Manchurian candidate.” The whispering campaign said that McCain had been found “mentally unstable” after his release from the North Vietnamese prison camp. As McCain asserted in a CNN debate, Sampley had launched other nasty smears against Bush’s own father years before. “You should be ashamed,” scolded McCain. But Bush, who had urged his campaign team to go heavily negative, showed no signs of remorse.

Instead, the Bush team launched a barrage of fresh distortions against McCain. The campaign’s radio advertising in New York accused the Arizonian of slashing funds for breast cancer research — using the same kind of twisted “facts” that the Republicans now cite to claim that Kerry has raised taxes 350 times, denuded the defense budget, and tried to abolish the CIA. The vote cited in the Bush ad was a single occasion where McCain had opposed putting breast cancer funding into a military spending measure.

When he proved that he had actually voted many times to increase such funding appropriately, the Bush operatives refused to back off their phony charge. When friends of McCain angrily pointed out that his sister was a breast cancer survivor, the compassionate Bush airily replied: “All the more reason to remind him of what he said about the research that goes on here.”

“They know no depths,” McCain would complain wearily to reporters on his “straight talk” bus. “They know no depths.” Bush should hardly have been surprised when his battered opponent rebuffed his peacemaking gestures. “Don’t give me that shit,” barked McCain when Bush took his hands and suggested that their rivalry was becoming too personal. “And get your hands off me.”

Now hands have been laid on again, and perhaps all has been forgiven. McCain is a figure of character and charm, but he cannot leave the Republican Party, as his idol Teddy Roosevelt once did, and strike out against the big-business lobbyists and theocratic demagogues who now dominate the GOP. He won’t be making history or remaking politics. He will stand up dutifully, like Colin Powell, in the service of inferior men who would gladly ruin him — and leave us to wonder why.

This year he has seen already what certain ruthless Republicans are willing to do to his friend John Kerry, and he must know that this campaign will descend still further before November. The day may yet come when he feels ashamed of his alliance with his old enemies. He won’t be able to say that he didn’t know how low they would stoop to win.

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>