The Ghost of George Wallace

Posted: October 12, 2008 in 2008 Elections, Barack Obama, John McCain
Tags: , ,

John Lewis went there. From NBC’s First Read:

Georgia congressman John Lewis — a civil rights leader and a man once deemed by John McCain as one of the “wisest” men he knew and one whose advice he would seek as president — today likened the “negative tone” of McCain’s campaign to that of incendiary segregation advocate George Wallace in the 1960s.

“What I am seeing reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history,” Lewis wrote in a statement first posted on Politico’s website. “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.”

Noting that Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace “never threw a bomb” but “created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights,” Lewis attributed the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church to the racial division sown by Wallace’s political rhetoric.

“As public figures with the power to influence and persuade, Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are playing with fire, and if they are not careful, that fire will consume us all,” the statement continues. “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.”

The McCain campaign responded with a strongly-worded statement calling Lewis’s remarks “brazen and baseless,” and asking that Obama “personally repudiate these outrageous and divisive comments.”

Although Lewis and others are well within their rights to attack the McCain campaign for the vitriolic rhetoric they are stoking among their supporters, Lewis went too far here. Yes, Wallace had a long and well-documented history of inflammatory rhetoric (“Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” anyone?) but to try to compare or associate McCain/Palin with it is coming dangerously close to calling them racist.

Every campaign or public figure has their fringe supporters, regardless of the issue or where they fall on the political spectrum. While the words and actions of a handful of bigoted individuals has drawn the attention of the national media and the blogosphere, their misguided views should not be attributed to the candidates they support.

At the same time, the McCain campaign need to realize that they have to be careful in what they say by energizing an angry, hyper-partisan element of their base who believe the most outlandish conspiracy theories and Internet rumors about Barack Obama. Use of specific codewords or phrases triggers a response from them similar to Pavlov’s dog experiment. They need to cool down their rhetoric before things get out of control.

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