Our buddy Cliff Schecter has been hard to miss the past couple days. The buzz over his forthcoming book, The Real McCain: Why Conservatives Don't Trust Him and Why Independents Shouldn't, has been heard even beyond the sheltered garden of liberal blogdom, and is now hitting the mainstream media with the thunder of an oncoming B-52.
And well it should. Cliff's got a hell of a tale to tell. Actually, perusing my advance copy, he's got several of them. His indelicacy in chewing out his wife -- you know, the one whose large personal fortune has made McCain's career possible -- and calling her the c-word in front of reporters is the story all over the front pages right now. But there's more. Much more.
The larger point that runs throughout Cliff's book is that Senator Straight Talk has a long record of being anything but. On any issue you can name, he's hemmed and hawed and twisted himself around to fit whatever group he was currying favor with (or taking funding from) on any given day. (That, in the end, is why conservatives don't trust him, and nobody else should, either.) And that habit absolutely extends to his record where issues like race and immigration are concerned.
McCain on Immigration: Way out front -- then nowhere to be seen
McCain's home state of Arizona has been ground zero in the immigration wars, so you'd expect the state's most visible national politician would have a strong voice and a well-considered and consistent point of view on this issue. And so he has -- right up until he started running for president.
On the plus side, he seems to clearly understand that the GOP's obsession with the issue is devastating its future prospects with the growing pool of Hispanic voters. He knows that building fences is futile. He came out against a draconian 2004 state initiative in Arizona that would have denied all public services to undocumented immigrant. The state's conservatives returned the favor by trying to pass a state resolution censuring McCain for refusing to cave into their racist demands.
Two years ago, he even went so far as to co-sponsor an immigration reform bill with Ted Kennedy. But as soon as he put himself in the running for the 2008 nomination, McCain suddenly was nowhere to be seen when immigration -- an issue he could have owned, and been the country's leading voice of sanity on -- was being discussed. By late 2006, he began to back away -- from the negotiations, from Kennedy, from any relationship to his bill at all. By May 2007, the Washington Post noticed that he'd taken his name off the bill, and wasn't making the meetings any more. A "top Senate Democrat" told the Post that McCain withdrew because "he knows it's killing him in the primary."
McCain on Race: Is it "offensive," or just "heritage"?
That same lack of moral center can be seen on his mushy handling of race issues. Cliff points out that McCain's ancestors were slaveowners and fought on the side of the Confederacy -- a piece of his personal history you can be quite sure wasn't prominently highlighted on last week's "Biography Tour." Perhaps because of this -- and because he's done almost nothing to stake out a strong stance for equality at any point in his career -- his record through the years has been all over the place.
One example, which was originally reported by Steve Benen in an August 2006 post at The Carpetbagger Report, regards McCain's attitude toward Bob Jones University and its student conduct policies, which McCain attacked in the 2000 primaries as "racist and cruel" and declared belonged in the 16th century, not the 21st. At that point, he was trying to draw a favorable contrast with George Bush, who had recently spoken at BJU. According to Benen:
McCain assailed the appearance, arguing that Bush's uncritical speech at BJU was tantamount to an endorsement of the school's policies. John McCain told reporters, "If I were there, I would condemn openly the policies of Bob Jones, because I would want to make sure that everybody knew that this kind of thing is not American."But McCain changed his tune six years later, as his current bid for the nomination began to get underway. When asked if he'd accept an invitation from BJU in 2006, he left the door open, saying he'd have to look at the school's latest policies. "I understand they have made considerable progress," he said. "I can't remember when I've turned down a speaking invitation. I think I'd have to look at it."
It was hard to disagree. BJU, of course, is a rigidly Christian fundamentalist school with a record of virulent racism and anti-Catholic policies. (The school, for example, used to ban interracial dating among its students and school officials have repeatedly attacked the Roman Catholic Church, referring to the pope as the "Antichrist" and calling Catholicism a "satanic cult.")
To be fair: the school had lifted it interracial dating ban in the meantime. But it also sent Bush an effusively creepy note affirming his status as God's hand-picked gift to America -- follow the link to read it all. It's not an improvement. Really.
McCain on the Confederacy: Flapping in the breeze
On the issue of the Confederate flag, McCain also seems to wave with the slightest breeze -- and changes direction faster than the weather of a southern summer. Here's Cliff:
Nothing reveals McCain's contortionism better than his various positions on the Confederate flag. In September 1999, McCain said that choosing whether to fly the Confederate flag "should be left to the states." In January 2000, he proclaimed, "The Confederate flag is offensive in many, many ways, as we all know. It's a symbol of racism and slavery." Three days later, he said, "Personally I the flag as a symbol of heritage."About the only thing McCain been absolutely consistent on through the years has been his unwavering opposition to making Martin Luther King's birthday a federal holiday -- although he recently tried to back away from that record, too. According to a recent post at the Democratic Party's website:
It's a long journey from "racism and slavery" to "heritage" in only three days. So it wasn't surprising to learn that it was a journey McCain never actually took. He made this clear in an April 2000 speech in South Carolina. McCain told the mostly supportive crowd, "I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary...So I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth."
John McCain today brought his effort to reinvent himself for the general election to a new low by misleading the voters on his full record on a holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King. McCain tried to suggest that his opposition to a holiday honoring Dr. King was limited to his 1983 vote against a federal holiday. In reality, McCain maintained his opposition to it until at least 1989, voted against funding for the commission working to promote the King Holiday in 1994, and used divisive language about state's rights to defend himself. McCain even supported Republican efforts to repeal a holiday in his state in 1987.The website goes on to list five votes between 1983 and 1994 in which McCain consistently voted against the holiday. Way to stand tall there, John.
"It's frankly disingenuous for John McCain to try and reinvent himself for the general election by distorting his record of opposing a holiday honoring Dr. King," said Democratic National Committee Communications Director Karen Finney. "John McCain should be honest about his full record of opposing the federal holiday, opposing a state holiday four years later, using divisive language to defend himself, and voting to cut off funding for the commission working to promote the King holiday as recently as 1994."
McCain on Racists: Some of his best friends are
Finally, notes Cliff, McCain doesn't seem to mind consorting with the GOP's known racists. He campaigned heavily for George "Macaca" Allen in 2006. That same year, he hired Terry Nelson -- the guy who approved the notoriously racist "Call me, Harold," ads that tanked Harold Ford, Jr.'s senatorial bid in Tennessee -- as his first national campaign manager. In Florida, McCain's campaign co-chair was Bob Allen, who was arrested for soliciting sex from a police officer in the men's room at a Titusville city park. Allen blamed the event on the African-American police officer, who was "a pretty stocky black guy" and therefore somehow scared Allen in to propositioning him.
The overall picture here doesn't suggest that McCain is overtly or even covertly racist. In fact, it's clear that he has at least a cursory understanding of the logic of civil rights, and can speak to it when called to do so. But the record does reveal a distinct lack of conviction where racial equality is concerned. It's just not that important to him -- certainly not a matter of deeply-held principle. As far as McCain is concerned, this issue is infinitely negotiable: he'll sing whatever song the crowd wants to hear, whether it's a traditional tune of white "heritage" or a manly declaration that racism is "offensive."
That same flexibility is evident in his choice of friends: obviously, in the good-ol'-boy network of the GOP, there are any number of qualifications that will overcome a truly ugly record on the issue of race. And, given his persistent limpness on one of the country's core issues, we shouldn't doubt that those friends will push him to play the race card, over and over, starting the very moment Obama clinches the nomination. This wandering moral maverick has proven he doesn't have the will or the guts to stop them.
It's like Barack Obama said last month in Philadelphia:
We have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle - as we did in the OJ trial - or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.McCain's flaccid record on race will guarantee that, if Obama's the man, the GOP's side of the 2008 campaign will fit this exactly. We're going to see race as spectacle, as tragedy, as media fodder, as a smear tactic. We're going to see the GOP hitch the demons unleashed by Hillary to the deepest racist fears of the party's base. And we can be sure that McCain, fearful for every vote, will try to say all the right things to everyone -- but, in the end, will not lift a finger to stop it.
We can do that.
But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.
And if he wins, nothing will change.
Cliff Schecter's book, The Real McCain, is available for just $10 at Amazon.com. You're going to need these talking points between now and November.
Crossposted at Orcinus