McCain: Lewis' comments "stopped me in my tracks"

John McCain says he was shocked by John Lewis' criticism of his campaign, but so far his response is just to attack the civil rights leader.

Published October 13, 2008 11:40PM (EDT)

Given the high regard John McCain has previously said he has for Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga, the former civil rights leader, you'd think Lewis' particularly direct criticism of McCain's recent campaign tactics would have some impact. And McCain has now said that Lewis' remarks "stopped me in my tracks." But maybe not in the way you'd think.

If you missed it over the weekend, here's what Lewis said in a statement released Saturday:

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.

During another period, in the not too distant past, there was a governor of the state of Alabama named George Wallace who also became a presidential candidate. George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who only desired to exercise their constitutional rights. Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed one Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama.

As public figures with the power to influence and persuade, Sen. McCain and Governor 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.

Earlier this year, McCain had said that Lewis would be one of "three wise men" he'd consult if elected president. But he's not taking this advice. Instead, he's gone on the attack, suggesting it's the Georgia congressman who has gone past the bounds of acceptable discourse.

"It's unfair and it is outrageous," McCain said during an interview with CNN on Monday. "The accusation that Congressman Lewis made is so far out of bounds and so disturbing to me. Of course it stopped me in my tracks. I never believed that John Lewis, who is an American hero, who I admire, would every make a comment of that nature. He even referred to the bombing of a church in Birmingham. That's unacceptable. It is totally unacceptable. And of course I'm not going to accept it and I'm going to reject it ... When anybody says anything like that, it is so beyond the pale that it stuns me."

McCain also expressed indignation over Barack Obama's failure to repudiate Lewis' words.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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2008 Elections John Lewis D-ga. John Mccain