John McCain to condemn Confederate flag

Out of the media spotlight and away from the presidential crucible, the Arizona senator will take a stand on a South Carolina controversy.

Published April 18, 2000 4:18PM (EDT)

Arizona Sen. John McCain will fly to Columbia, S.C., Wednesday morning, where he will attempt to mend his one campaign regret by condemning the Confederate flag flying atop the state Capitol.

In what he is calling a "speech on conservative reform," McCain will speak Wednesday at noon at a South Carolina restaurant, flanked by Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of his chief presidential-campaign backers in the state. He will tacitly support a compromise bill passed last week by the state Senate that would move the flag from atop the Capitol dome to a Confederate soldiers' memorial on state grounds. He will support the idea that South Carolinians are solving the issue on their own, though he does not plan on supporting the specific bill, as has been
reported elsewhere.

The issue is a personal one for McCain, sources close to him say, because he feels it represents the one moment during his presidential campaign when he violated a promise he made to the American people to always tell the truth, regardless of the political consequences. After dodging questions during the campaign about his personal feelings over the appropriateness of the Confederate flag flying above the Capitol -- which he did for fear of voter backlash in the South Carolina primary -- McCain will express regret that he honored politics over principle. Personally, he believes that flying the flag over the Capitol is wrong, as it deeply offends so many blacks.

Additionally, the sources say, McCain will note that his Southern ancestors owned slaves, a fact he learned from Salon during a February interview.

The flag issue became controversial early in the campaign for the GOP nomination as the fight moved to South Carolina after McCain's stunning 19-point New Hampshire victory. Wednesday is sure to be a bittersweet return for McCain, who was handed a bruising primary defeat by the state.

During the weeks leading up to the South Carolina primary, whenever McCain was asked about the Confederate flag controversy he recited the same namby-pamby cop-out position favored by his chief rival, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, saying that the decision was best left up to the people of South Carolina. This despite McCain's much-heralded reputation for "straight talk."

During a Jan. 9 TV interview, McCain called the Confederate flag "offensive" and "a symbol of racism and slavery," though he said he could see the other side of the issue as well. Later he waffled clumsily back to the more conservative view, saying: "Some view it as a symbol of slavery. Others view it as a symbol of heritage. Personally, I see the battle flag as a symbol of heritage." But that statement was apparently more pander than principle.

Many supporters of the flag claim they're merely fighting for the preservation of Southern heritage. But to many others it's a symbol of slavery and bigotry. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is boycotting the state until the flag -- put up in 1962 as a segregationist sneer at the nation's embrace of civil rights -- is taken down. It is fairly well known -- albeit generally unreported -- that the flag is displayed outside bars and restaurants throughout the South where blacks are not welcome.

But the tide has started to turn. According to polls, a majority of South Carolinians favor removing the flag from the Capitol. On Jan. 17, William Bennett, secretary of education under former President Bush, said on CNN: "Although there were great individuals who fought for the Confederacy, and their individual memory should be honored, what the flag stood for was slavery and separation from the Union. And that, I think, is not something to be flown or to be hailed or to be saluted."

Last Wednesday, the South Carolina Senate passed a bill to remove the flag from the Capitol dome as well as from House and Senate chambers. During the debate, African-American tennis player Serena Williams honored the NAACP boycott, withdrawing from the Family Circle Cup on Hilton Head Island. The boycott, which took effect on Jan. 1, is said to have already cost the state upwards of $7 million.

A five-day, 120-mile anti-flag march from Charleston to Columbia, led by Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., also brought national attention to the issue, adding to the momentum created by the 50,000 people who marched on the Capitol on Jan. 17, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. A pro-flag rally on Jan. 8 brought out 6,000 supporters, including a pro-Bush state senator, Arthur Ravenel, who referred to the NAACP as the "National Association of Retarded People."

It is unknown whether McCain will, on Wednesday, condemn Richard Quinn, his chief South Carolina advisor, who edits a racially controversial magazine called Southern Partisan. During his campaign, McCain brushed off requests from the liberal interest group People for the American Way when it asked him to fire Quinn. According to the group, Quinn's articles have called Nelson Mandela a "terrorist" and King a man "whose role in history was to lead his people into a perpetual dependence on the welfare state, a terrible bondage of body and soul." In another piece, Quinn said of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, "What better way to reject politics as usual than to elect a maverick like David Duke?" though he did condemn Duke's bigotry.

McCain lost the Feb. 19 South Carolina primary in a bruising and ugly battle with Bush, who made his first campaign stop in the state at Bob Jones University, where Catholic-bashing is dogma and interracial dating was banned. It was an appropriate first stop for Bush, who resorted to gay-baiting, Jew-baiting and race-baiting tactics against McCain. The tactics worked for Bush, who won the primary by overwhelmingly carrying the Christian conservative vote, though he lost every other demographic group.

Bush himself did not take a stand on the flag, though, slyly, his wife, Laura, publicly stated that she does not believe the flag is racist. In the closing days of the South Carolina primary, a spontaneously generated political action committee -- the Keep It Flying PAC -- blanketed the state with anti-McCain leaflets containing the Laura Bush quote. The McCain campaign has long charged the Bush campaign with directly coordinating the birth and activities of the Keep It Flying PAC. Any such link to the PAC would constitute a federal crime, but none has been established, and the Bush campaign has repeatedly denied any linkage.

McCain has said he was dismayed by Bush's campaign, which orchestrated third-party assaults on him, his personal life, his wife and even his adopted Bangladeshi daughter. McCain did not respond in kind except with some controversial phone calls in Michigan that intimated that Bush was cozying up to bigots.

Thrust into his new role as the Republican anti-bigot, McCain embraced an inclusive campaign. But behind closed doors, he expressed regrets at his reticence and told aides that he should have taken a stand.

This isn't an entirely new evolution for McCain. Having, as a member of the House, initially opposed the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, McCain later offered a mea culpa, did a 180-degree turn on the issue and lobbied Arizona legislators to pass the holiday when it was up for a state vote.

In a Feb. 9 "Hardball" interview with Chris Matthews, McCain compared his evolution to that of one of his political heroes, former Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. "I believe that Barry Goldwater, to start with, regretted his vote on the 1964 Civil Rights Act," McCain said. "I think that Barry grew, like all of us grow and evolve. In 1983, when I was brand-new in the Congress, I voted against the recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King. That was a mistake, OK? And later I had the chance to ... help fight for ... the recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King as a holiday in my state."

As McCain returns Wednesday to the state that handed him one of the ugliest presidential primary losses in history, he will try a similar maneuver. No doubt critics on both sides will bash him -- for political expediency and for too little too late. But by now McCain's skin, at least when it comes to South Carolina politics, may be pretty thick.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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