By Farooq A. Kperogi
Barack Obama’s decisive, almost insurmountable, lead in the polls—and with it the seeming inevitability of his emergence as America’s next president—has Republicans frustrated and bewildered. The sense of helplessness that this reality has spawned among Republicans has provoked one of the rawest and meanest campaigns in America’s political history.
To be sure, negative attacks in the twilight of political campaigns are an enduring feature of American politics. However, many American pundits from a broad spectrum of political persuasions concede that the negativity of this year’s presidential campaigns—where crowds openly call for opponents’ assassination—has no parallel in recent memory.
In the last two weeks, McCain and his ticket-mate Sarah Palin have been hurling vitriolic and racially tinged personal attacks on Obama in a bid to halt what appears like the inexorable certainty of his march to the White House.
In their stump speeches, they have taken to questioning Obama’s patriotism and character by invoking his past associations with a 1960s white American radical called William “Bill” Ayers who belonged to the Weather Underground, a domestic terrorist organization that carried out bombings of government buildings, including the Pentagon, to protest against America’s involvement in the prolonged Vietnam War between 1954 and 1975.
Obama was only eight years old when the bombings took place, and he has publicly condemned and renounced Ayers’ acts as “reprehensible” and “despicable.”
Bill Ayers, who is now a key figure in mainstream Chicago political life and works as a “Distinguished Professor” of education at the University of Illinois in Chicago, is Obama’s neighbor in the Hyde Park area of Chicago.
He also served, along with Obama, on the board of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge Project, a foundation set up by a billionaire Jewish American by the name of Walter Annenberg (whose widow, interestingly, is now a McCain supporter) to reform public education in Chicago. This was between 1995 and 2001.
Again, between 2000 and 2002, Obama and Ayers served on the board of a poverty-eradication NGO called the Woods Fund of Chicago.
These bits of information about Obama’s associations with the former radical have become fodder for guilt-by-association attacks on Obama by the McCain campaign.
However, report after report by top U.S. newspapers that have bothered with the issue—the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time magazine, the Chicago Sun-Times, the New Yorker, and the New Republic—have said that their reporting doesn't support the idea that Obama and Ayers had a close relationship.
On October 3, 2008, the New York Times ran another front-page story titled “Obama and ’60s Bomber: A Look Into Crossed Paths.” The paper concluded that, based on its extensive review of records, Ayers has had no influence on Obama and that “since 2002, there is little public evidence of their relationship.”
Palin and McCain cash in on Times story to smear Obama
However, although the Times and other U.S. media didn’t find any incriminating link between Obama and Ayers, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin (who couldn’t name a newspaper when a reporter asked her what newspapers she reads to keep abreast of events in the nation and in the world), cashed in on the Times report to launch virulent attacks on Obama’s patriotism and character.
In truth, though, the McCain campaign had decided, long before the Times report, that the only way they could slow down, and perhaps permanently arrest, Obama’s frightening momentum was to dig up dirt about him from his past.
A McCain campaign official had said that the best way to turn the steam from Obama was to move the national discourse away from the economy. "We are looking for a very aggressive last 30 days," Greg Strimple, a McCain adviser told the Washington Post. "We are looking forward to turning a page on this financial crisis and getting back to discussing Mr. Obama's aggressively liberal record and how he will be too risky for Americans."
A day later, another top McCain adviser reinforced this sentiment. “It [that is, personal attacks on Obama] is a dangerous road, but we have no choice,” he told the Daily News. “If we keep talking about the economic crisis, we’re going to lose.”
The Times report on Obama’s associations with Ayers only provided a convenient opening for a well-planned attack strategy.
Obama as terrorists’ friend
On October 4, at a rally in Denver in the state of Colorado, Palin, quoting the Times, began the carefully planned assault on Obama’s patriotism and character. She alleged that Obama is friends with terrorists, is un-American, and therefore shouldn’t be trusted by Americans to be their next president.
"One of [Obama's] earliest supporters is a man who was a domestic terrorist,” she said. "[Obama] is not a man who sees America as you and I do - as the greatest force for good in the world. This is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country.”
At every subsequent rally, she has repeated the charge, before riotously animated crowds of Republican supporters, that Obama is a “friend of terrorists.” In time, the attacks got traction in the national media.
To guard against the possibility of the attacks being drowned out by the nagging concerns over a perilously faltering economy, the McCain campaign decided to release a new 90-second Web ad on October 9 highlighting Obama's relationship with Ayers—a tactic that has elongated the shelf life of the character assassinations on Obama in the national political discourse.
"Barack Obama and domestic terrorist Bill Ayers. Friends. They've worked together for years. But Obama tries to hide it. Why?" a voice says before reeling off examples of Obama's ties to Ayers.
"Obama's friendship with terrorist Ayers isn't the issue," the narrator then claims.
"The issue is Barack Obama's judgment and candor. When Obama just says, 'This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood.' Americans say, 'Where's the truth, Barack?' Barack Obama. Too risky for America."
McCain supporters call for Obama’s assassination
The notion that Obama is “too risky for America,” a borderline racist scare tactic that obliquely hints that he would destroy America from within when he is elected president, has led to overt calls for Obama’s assassination by McCain-Palin supporters in several rallies.
The Washington Post is the first newspaper to bring to public attention one such incident. According to the Post, at a rally in Florida, Palin amplified her hate rhetoric against Obama and created enough frenzy to incite a member of her audience to call for Obama’s assassination.
"Now it turns out, one of his earliest supporters is a man named Bill Ayers," Palin was reported to have said during the rally.
"Boooo!" roared the crowd.
"And, according to the New York Times, he was a domestic terrorist and part of a group that, quote, 'launched a campaign of bombings that would target the Pentagon and our U.S. Capitol,'" she continued.
"Boooo!" the crowd roared again.
"Kill him!" proposed one man in the audience.
It didn’t stop there. According to the Post, “one Palin supporter shouted a racial epithet at an African American [media man] and told him, ‘Sit down, boy’."
This was not an isolated incident. At another campaign rally in Pennsylvania, a McCain supporter screamed, "Off with his head" when Obama’s name was mentioned by McCain.
Later that day in Ohio, a man stood outside a rally holding a sign with the inscription, "Obama, Osama." And at a rally in Jacksonville, Florida, someone in the crowd wore a T-shirt portraying Obama putting on a devil mask.
Now, it has become the defining feature of rallies addressed by McCain, Palin and McCain’s wife, Cindy, for Obama to be called “terrorist,” “traitor,” “Osama Obama,” “Nobama,” by frenzied Republican crowds (or what some people here call “Rethuglican” crowds because of the thuggish behaviors of the crowds).
In all such cases, the speakers either egg the crowds on or indulgently ignore them.
In several campaign speeches, when McCain asks “who is the real Barack Obama?” someone from the crowd would often cry out “terrorist!” according to several media reports.
From a domestic terrorist’s friend to an Arab terrorist
Republican crowds are now increasingly linking Obama with international terrorism. This is the crowning accomplishment of the ruthless but successful conflation of Obama with terrorism through the ceaseless invocation of his alleged associations with a domestic terrorist whose acts took place decades ago when the word “terrorism” hadn’t assumed its current politically, religiously and racially loaded signification.
At a televised McCain campaign event last week, a woman in the state of Ohio said she wouldn’t vote for Obama because “he is an Arab.” In America, “Arab” has become a byword for “Muslim terrorist.”
A first-year Georgia State University student in Atlanta was even blunter. At a public lecture that featured eight European journalists who shared views on how they were covering the U.S. election for their European readers, the journalists asked if there were any people in the audience who would not vote for Obama because of his race.
A student stood up and said, “I have no problems with his race. But I won’t vote for him because he is a Muslim.” Her response elicited boos from the audience.
Startlingly, however, she was genuinely shocked to realize that she was wrong about Obama being a Muslim.
This was precisely the rhetorical leap the McCain campaign hoped to create in the minds of American voters when they combined three deft but devious strategies to attack Obama: circulating anonymous mass smear emails that allege that Obama is a Muslim, having Masters of Ceremony repeatedly emphasize Obama’s middle name, Hussein, at Republican rallies (which evokes the image of Saddam Hussein), and linking Obama with “terrorists” (note the plural) during rallies.
Although they only mention a 1960s white domestic terrorist to make their case, they subliminally invoke the specter of contemporary terrorism since most Americans are unlikely to emotionally associate terrorism with a white American.
Evidence that this has had some effect in the subconscious of Americans in profound ways was demonstrated in New York recently. According to the Albany Times Union, hundreds of ballots sent to voters in New York State were printed with Barack Obama's last name misspelled as "Osama." County elections officials said it was a typo, although the ballots were proofread by professional proofreaders three times before printing.
Many pundits aver that if the printing of Obama’s name as “Barack Osama” was indeed an unintentional error, it was a Freudian slip that betrayed the internalization—and interpretive extension—of the McCain-Palin attacks on Obama as a “friend of terrorists” and what New York Times columnist Frank Rich called “the poisonous Obama-is-a-Muslim e-mail blasts.”
McCain for Christians, Obama for “other faiths”
As a consequence of the foregoing, the campaigns have assumed explicitly religious overtones. Just last Friday, before McCain addressed a rally in the state of Iowa, a Reverend gentlemen by the name of Arnold Conrad who leads a church called the Grace Evangelical Free Church offered the opening prayers that framed this year’s presidential election as the contest of supremacy between Christianity and other faiths.
"I would also pray, Lord, that your reputation is involved in all that happens between now and November, because there are millions of people around this world praying to their god — whether it's Hindu, Buddha, Allah — that his opponent wins, for a variety of reasons," Conrad said.
"And Lord, I pray that you would guard your own reputation, because they're going to think that their god is bigger than you, if that happens. So I pray that you will step forward and honor your own name with all that happens between now and Election Day," he concluded.
The McCain campaign later issued a politically expedient, if insincere, statement dissociating itself from the overtly divisive tone of the prayers.
But McCain’s own personal records don’t help him. During the second presidential debate, for instance, McCain drew wide condemnation when he derisively called Obama “that one”—interpreted by many as a thinly veiled racist putdown.
And this interpretation is not a far-fetched assumption given that, some 25 years ago as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, McCain voted against the House bill that declared Martin Luther King Day a federal holiday.
McCain, Palin playing with fire
The campaign to cast Obama as an un-American “other” has outraged many in mainstream America and has attracted a gale condemnations and denunciations from both Democrats and moderate Republicans.
But by far the most biting and ponderous is the criticism by Civil Rights icon John Lewis who represents Atlanta, Georgia, in the U.S. House of Representatives.
"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,” Lewis said. “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.”
He also drew parallels between the disturbing hatemongering of the McCain campaign and George Wallace, the unrepentantly racist former governor of Alabama who is infamous for saying “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Wallace also unsuccessfully ran for president in the 1960s.
Lewis’ statement alarmed McCain not least because McCain had in the past publicly expressed lavish adoration for Lewis. In his book Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life, McCain singled out Lewis for high praise for his leadership in the nonviolent civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Similarly, at a forum in August, when McCain was asked to name "three wise men" he would consult as president, he included Lewis. "He can teach us all a lot about the meaning of courage and commitment to causes greater than our self-interest," McCain said of Lewis.
But can Lewis also teach him about the meaning of a clean and honorable campaign?
Taming the Frankenstein’s monster
Partly because of the outrage that his negative campaigning has provoked (an ABC News research showed that almost 100 percent of McCain’s political ads are negative as opposed to Obama’s 30 percent, prompting people to call McCain “McNasty”) and the fact that the FBI has commenced investigation into threats to Obama’s life at Republican rallies, McCain is now toning down the causticity of his personal attacks on Obama.
However, this effort is proving counterproductive. For instance, on Friday during an informal, televised interaction with voters in the state of Minnesota, a supporter told McCain that he was “scared” at the prospect of Obama becoming the next American president.
Mindful of the storm that his erstwhile toleration of similar Obama hate had generated, he was forced to defend Obama by assuring the supporter that Obama is a "decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as president of the United States." What happened next startled McCain: he was booed by his own supporters for saying something positive about Obama.
The Frankenstein monster he has created may be about to devour him.
The good news for Obama in all this is that while McCain’s negative campaigning is energizing the xenophobic conservative Republican base that would never vote for Obama anyway, it is repulsing Independents, women and undecided voters—the very people who decide elections in America. It has, in fact, attracted many Republican sympathizers to Obama.
Since the negative campaigning began, Obama’s lead in the opinion polls has been widening dramatically. According to the latest Newsweek survey of voters, Obama now leads McCain among men 54 percent to 40 percent and women 50 percent to 41 percent.
Even those aged over 65, a formerly solid McCain stronghold, now back Obama over McCain 49 to 43 percent.