To everything, there is a season. If summer is the time for civil (or close to civil) discourse in presidential politics, fall is the time for blood sport. And if you're a Republican trailing in the polls, it's the season for racist fear mongering.
No one should be surprised by the assault John McCain launched this week. His campaign is flailing—dropping out of once-contested states, defending newly insecure ones and, by one adviser's reckoning, "looking forward to turning a page on this financial crisis." Those hard realities set the stage and, on Monday in New Mexico, McCain stepped into its center with a sneering performance before a crowd that sounded more like a mob than a rally.
"There are essential things we don't know about Sen. Obama," McCain warned, a charge that is as pointed in divisive sentiment as it is unsubstantiated in fact. His supporters responded with the roar of a fight-night audience eager for gore—"Take those gloves off, John!"
McCain obliged, rattling off a series of catch phrases that sound all too familiar when hurled at "elitist" Negroes. "It's as if the usual rules don't apply," he huffed in complaint about Obama's refusal to respond to smears masquerading as questions. "What does he plan for America? In short, who is the real Barack Obama?!"
The crowd was ready with an answer. "A terrorist!" is the cry several observers heard from at least one McCain fan. Similar slurs flew at McCain camp rallies all week. Someone at a Sarah Palin event in Florida hollered "kill him!" when she repeated her now-infamous smear about Obama "palling around with terrorists." (It's unclear whether the supporter meant Obama or '60s-radical-turned-academic Bill Ayers, the terrorist pal in question.) The crowd eventually turned on the press galley covering the speech, shouting threats and taunts. A black camera crew member was told, "Sit down, boy."
By yesterday, Team McCain had cooled things down a bit. They at least kept the race baiting out of McCain and Palin's mouths—even if they still haven't stopped others on the platform from conspicuously repeating "Barack Hussein Obama." But the crowd's reactions this week lay bare the coded language McCain and Palin have deliberately used. The message from the McCain camp was clear: This Obama guy is different than you in "essential" ways. He represents people who aren't like you. Don't trust him. He is other.
There's nothing new about this line of attack. It's familiar to American politics in general and this campaign in particular. Right-wing bloggers and Fox News have peddled the Obama-as-scary-other narrative all year, and both Clintons flirted with it during the Democratic primary. But what's unexpected is that no less a bastion of mainstream journalism than the Associated Press called McCain out for his loaded words. "Whether intended or not by the McCain campaign, portraying Obama as "not like us" is another potential appeal to racism," an AP analysis of the campaign's tone-shift declared last weekend.
Perhaps the primary campaign's obsession with Jeremiah Wright has ironically primed political reporters for racism that usually goes unflagged. Or maybe the AP was prodded by lefty charges that its coverage has been pro-McCain. But whatever prompted the AP story, it generated as much buzz as the campaign itself because it was a unique thing: an example of the Washington press corps abandoning "objectivity" long enough to tell the naked truth. That's just what the McCain campaign is betting won't happen widely, but it's precisely what must occur—not only if we are to have a fair election, but if we are to ever have an honest conversation about race in America.
Too often, journalists concerned about being labeled biased work to create balance where there is none. When the McCain camp began telling plain, demonstrable lies about Sarah Palin's record in Alaska, for instance, too many journalists covered it as tit-for-tat, citing mischaracterizations from Obama that paled in comparison. As the ground war turns negative, many will be tempted to do the same when covering McCain and Obama's jabs. But there is a meaningful difference between tarring your opponent's record and demagoguery. The former is ugly; the latter is dangerous, and journalists have a responsibility to point it out.
Americans have notoriously short memories, so it's often assumed that the critical clamor journalists hear from both left and right is new. It actually began with Southern segregationists brow beating Northern news organizations covering the Civil Rights Movement. Both sides of the Jim Crow battle knew the news media would shape how the country viewed them, so segregationists did all they could to make reporters part of the story. The liberal-media trope was their brainchild, and they used it to provoke the sort of false moral equivalencies that today's political reporters too often draw.
Those ghosts haunted the airwaves all week as outlets ranging from the Today show to National Public Radio tried to balance the Obama and McCain attacks. Reporters pointed to the Obama campaign's dredging up of the decades-old Keating Five scandal. (The campaign produced a 13-minute video on McCain's role in the failure of Lincoln Savings & Loan that must have made Oliver Stone jealous.) Others noted Obama ads calling McCain's behavior "erratic" and speculated that the ads were exploiting his age.
But neither of these Obama attacks is similar to McCain's new tack. The Keating video is pure-grade negative campaigning, to be sure, but it remains focused on McCain's record as a policymaker, not his place in American society and culture. And if McCain's behavior during the bailout debate can't be called erratic, the word has no meaning—not to mention what you'd call his last-minute selection of an unvetted vice presidential candidate he hadn't even met in person. Obama's calling him impetuous, not senile.
Meanwhile, Palin spent the week repeating the assertion that Obama is "palling around with terrorists," citing his loose association with Ayers. (Ayers speaks for himself, by the way, here.) Obama's ties to Ayers are coincidental at best and, in any case, he long ago denounced Ayers' actions as part of the Weather Underground. But Ayers isn't so much the point as the lines that always follow his invocation in Palin's speeches. "This is not a man who sees America like you and I see America," she told donors in Colorado. "I am just so fearful that this is not a man who sees America the way you and I see America," she repeated to a Florida crowd. And on it went. By the time the "sit down, boy" and "kill him" shouts were uttered, the rally had taken on the tenor of a lynch mob.
Maybe these tactics will rile up the conservative base enough to save McCain's campaign from a crashing economy and a war everyone hates. Maybe they won't. But whatever they mean to the political arena, they are deeply corrosive to our society and must be covered as such.
Conservative reactionaries have hidden their demagoguery behind coded rhetoric for decades, and journalists are as responsible for breaking that code as we are for translating any other insider-speak. We must not only tell people what political players said today, but why they said it and what it meant. We do it with complex financial jargon. We do it with the delicate language of international diplomacy. And we should do it with the wink-and-nod of divisive electioneering because outcomes larger than even the presidency hang in the balance.
Kai Wright is a regular contributor to The Root.