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.
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.