Can you believe the final presidential debate was last night? Me neither. Why is that? I guess it's because, looking back, the three debates were pretty ho hum. We didn't learn anything new about the candidates beyond how they handle themselves under pressure, which actually might be what sways the American vote. Nothing substantive was said. Really, as much as I love Obama, even I got sick of hearing him start another recitation of his stump speech with, "Here's what I'm going to do for you." I guess the repetition is a good thing for Joe Sixpack Plumber (you know, the average American, an alcoholic with an affinity for low-cut pants who can't be burdened to follow the election), but for me, I wanted more.
I went into last night's debate with the knowledge that McCain was going to really "let Obama have it" regarding Bill Ayers. The relationship between these two men is so tenuous that it made me furious. Thomas Frank, a Wall Street Journal columnist and official white guy (for the record) who wrote "What's the Matter with Kansas?", about why social conservatives in middle America continually vote against their economic self-interests, is a personal friend of Bill Ayers. PRESENTLY. In fact, he wrote a column about it. Somebody please, put Frank on the official "pals-around-with-terrorists" roster. After all, he is confessing to having a friendly relationship with a man who once won the "Citizen of the Year" award in Chicago.
Ayers, an anti-war radical during the Vietnam war, had the ill-conceived impression that planting a few domestic bombs would somehow solve the atrocity of a violent and unjust war. He was clearly misguided, and he's since reformed. More importantly, Ayers has nothing to do with Obama. Their entire past is this: Obama once served on a committee with him, along with the former president of Northwestern University, Arnold Weber, and the former president of the University of Illinois, Stanley Ikenberry. Other members included Scott Smith, publisher and CEO of the right-leaning newspaper the Chicago Tribune, and Edward S. Bottum, former president and vice chairman of Continental Illinois Bank. A motley crew if there ever was one, wouldn't you say? And do you know what they were coming together on? A public school reform initiative to secure money from the Annenberg Foundation, which was founded by conservative philanthropist Walter Annenberg, himself once a U.S. ambassador to the UK under President Nixon.
When you look at the facts, all of this hubbub is, quite frankly, ridiculous. So it made me livid that McCain kept harping on the topic in his campaign, especially when his own closet is packed with skeletons. As I mentioned before, McCain is an old friend of G. Gordon Liddy, the man who masterminded the break-in at the DNC during the Watergate Scandal. Liddy, the man with a radio show who once told his listeners, "Now if the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms comes to disarm you and they are bearing arms, resist them with arms. Go for a head shot; they're going to be wearing bulletproof vests. ... Kill the sons of bitches."
Liddy has held fundraisers for John McCain. He's donated to his campaign several times. McCain has appeared on his radio show and said things like "I'm proud of you" and his "adherence to the principles and philosophies that keep our nation great."
McCain was involved with the Keating Five scandal as well. He has voiced his approval of Watergate crook Charles Colson, who is now an eminent Christian conservative. His running mate, Sarah Palin, quoted a famous anti-Semite -- pro-Nazi in fact -- in her RNC speech. Her husband was a member of the Alaska Independence Party, which wants their state to secede from the U.S., until 2002. That's 5 to 1, if you're keeping score.
So I came into last night's debate armed and ready on behalf of Barack Obama, hoping McCain would go for Ayers so that Obama could breathlessly read off his opponent's laundry list of curious and unflattering connections. It didn't matter that all of these connections are also tenuous. I don't think McCain is a terrorist, or a terrorist sympathizer. I just wanted Obama to get some justice by pointing out that McCain, on paper, could be made to look similarly faulty. But when McCain finally "went there", Obama didn't stoop to his level. Did you notice? Instead, he calmly explained his limited association with Bill Ayers. He succinctly explained the ACORN debacle, which, for the record, is a money scam where volunteers helping to register voters fill out forms with fake information so that they receive more of their commission-based money, which they receive FROM ACORN.
I was stunned by Obama's grace. He had so many opportunities to personally insult John McCain's character last night, and good lord, that vice president question was BEGGING for some Sarah Palin ridicule. He didn't bite. Instead, Obama remained cool as a cucumber and focused on how McCain's policies were faulty. His most vicious insult this election has been that McCain is misguided and out of touch. Part of me was angered by this, that he would take the "high road" when it's been shown time and time again that going for the low blow is effective.
I was uncertain how I felt last night after the debate. It felt a little disappointing. But I woke up this morning with the utmost respect for Obama. He has run the most respectful campaign I can remember, though I admit to having a very short political memory. When it's been insinuated that the man is a terrorist who should be killed, he's held his head high and instead focused on why his policies are good for America and McCain's aren't. I'm sure it's been calculated. He knows that, at this point, all he has to do is play it safe and he'll probably win. But even if Obama's campaign tactics were dictated by his advisers, there's a part of me wishing and hoping that it's a real testament to his character. I can't remember the exact phrasing he used, but last night he said something about how every campaign seeks to vilify the other person, to make them seem like a bad guy. But as one video blogger asked McCain supporters, if Barack Obama was really a terrorist, why would McCain agree to stand on stage with him, to debate with him, to shake his hand?
Every presidential election, the candidates stress their ability to work with people across party lines. They bring up senate or house bills they've supported or opposed based on morality instead of party ties. And yet, every time, popular discourse mandates that one's final opponent is made out to be the worst person in the world. What is that?
I also woke up this morning feeling incredibly sad for John McCain. I know I've said it before. I just feel like he's a great man who has collapsed under the pressure. With all the anxiety I have about the election in November, I can't even fathom how these two men are surviving. I don't think McCain thinks Obama has any terrorist connections, but he knows it's what he has to emphasize if he has any chance of winning. Last night, McCain got almost choked up talking about how offended he was at the insinuation that he's a closet racist. Unlike the Jezebel community, with all my heart, I don't think he is.
But he's also let some very dangerous rhetoric slide. After all, it was McCain's own running mate, Sarah Palin, who said that Obama "pals around with terrorists". So when he says he's repudiated every racist or terrorist association, McCain is dead wrong. And though he may not have heard those terrifying cries of "terrorist" or "kill him" at recent rallies -- he is old, after all -- I don't remember any vigilant effort on his part to call those statements wildly outrageous. I feel like McCain is just passively sitting back and letting the associations flare up, because, at this point, it's all he has left, and he's hoping the ends will justify the means. There's all this insinuation on his campaign's part that we don't "know" the "real" Barack Obama. I don't understand what that means. You can choose to know as much or as little about Mr. Obama as you want, but the information IS out there. Supposedly at one rally, someone said "we don't even know where he was BORN!" Er, it was Hawaii.
I also think it's ridiculous that he expected Obama to come out against these remarks, the ones that criticize McCain for not reacting to the "kill him!" cries. That was the one point where Obama was firm. Rational, but not emotional.
On the other hand, you can see hints of the real McCain. He came out against a sheriff who, when introducing him or Palin at a rally, willfully emphasized Obama's middle name. And at another rally, when a woman said that Obama was an Arab terrorist, McCain finally snapped and said, "No, he's not. He's a decent family man who I happen to disagree with on policy." That's great. But it was too little, too late.
Obama hasn't been perfect. The whole campagin funding thing is a sore subject for many. McCain brought it up last night, how Obama said he would take public funds and then went back on his word, but he didn't address it. I think it got lost in the fray as Obama tried to respond to many attacks at once. But on the whole, his campaign has been great.
I don't know what my point of this post is. I guess it's that, in the end, our presidential elections are always a grueling race between two people. People with families and feelings and mostly good intentions, who have made sacrifices on behalf of this country, who generally don't deserve to be denigrated into nothingness. (Although I agree with Sarah Vowell when she says that you have to be a terrible egomaniac to assume you know what's best for an entire country.) I guess what I'm saying is that I hope Obama is setting a precedent here with the way he's run his campaign. I know that smear tactics are easy, emotional, and most importantly, effective. I'm willing to admit that, at the height of my passion, I've said some pretty nasty things about John McCain in the desperate hope that it'd deter people from voting Republican. It's so easy to abstract the person so far away from themselves that they're no longer human. But these attacks don't matter in the end. They're distractions. They also hurt feelings and reputations. And I'm idealistic enough to assume that Obama avoided them out of genuine respect for his opponent, rather than some kind of statistical evidence that he'd be better off sticking to the issues. I'm also naive enough to hope that there's a chance this type of campaigning will work in the future.
I know that most liberals say that the conservatives started it, myself included. It's also historically effective. But beyond that, can you really defend this kind of mud-slinging? Can't we all just get along?