Eight years ago this month, John McCain took the New Hampshire primary and was favored to win in South Carolina. Had he succeeded, he would likely have thwarted the presidential aspirations of George W. Bush and become the Republican nominee. But Bush strategist Karl Rove came to the rescue with a vicious smear tactic.
Rove invented a uniquely injurious fiction for his operatives to circulate via a phony poll. Voters were asked, "Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain…if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?" This was no random slur. McCain was at the time campaigning with his dark-skinned daughter, Bridget, adopted from Bangladesh.
It worked. Owing largely to the Rove-orchestrated whispering campaign, Bush prevailed in South Carolina and secured the Republican nomination. The rest is history–specifically the tragic and blighted history of our young century. It worked in another way as well. Too shaken to defend himself, McCain emerged from the bruising episode less maverick reformer and more Manchurian candidate.
The former crusader against the Republican establishment has since turned into a Bush-hugging, business-as-usual politician who has backed down from many positions that set him apart from conventional conservatives. Before, McCain supported the separation of church and state; now he wants a Christian in the White House. The confederate flag, which he once considered an offensive symbol, no longer troubles him. And he has come to believe that tax cuts are a good idea.
I don't want to say that McCain sold his soul to the devil, since I believe that religious metaphors have no place in politics. But consider this: shortly after losing the 2000 election, McCain told an interviewer that there must be "a special place in hell" reserved for the rumormongers.
Seven years later, who is running McCain's South Carolina campaign? Charlie Condon, the former State Attorney General who in 2000 helped spread the innuendo targeting Bridget. If you can't beat them, hire them–even if they've launched racist attacks against your own daughter.
Bridget McCain was a seriously ill baby in Mother Teresa's orphanage when Cindy McCain visited and decided to bring her back to the United States for medical treatment in 1991. John and Cindy adopted her not long after. Now 16, Bridget learned of her role in the 2000 campaign only when she Googled herself. According to the New York Times, when McCain entered the current race, Bridget summoned his aides and asked them to pledge that this campaign would be different.
We can't know what reassurances were offered, but Condon doesn't seem to have repented for his role in the 2000 slander. He told the New York Times reporter that he wasn't surprised about the downward spiral of the Bush-McCain race. "Our primaries have a way of doing that," Condon said. "There is a tradition of it, it is accepted behavior, and frankly it works."
John McCain is now favored to win in South Carolina. The personal attacks of the 2000 election season, he recently told an interviewer, were "long ago and far away." "I had to get over it…. I don't ever think about them or dwell on them." Cindy McCain agrees. "We're past that. We've moved on."
The McCains may have moved on, but I haven't. Bush made a decisive step toward the White House by spreading lies about an 8-year-old child. (Not to mention a couple of decorated war veterans.) These vile tactics are not OK. If something similar were to happen in a high school election, those responsible would be suspended and black marks would be entered on their permanent records. But in politics, it seems, there's no such thing as a permanent record. Consequences do not exist–however blatant the misconduct.
It's time we changed that. In the 2008 election, voters need to send a message that attention is being paid–that this time liars and cheats will be defeated, not given a free hall pass.