As Americans across the political spectrum mourn the death of Arizona Senator John McCain, many have held up an incident from the 2008 presidential election as emblematic of McCain himself.
They are more right than they know.
In the video, McCain responds to a woman who says she can’t trust Barack Obama because he’s an Arab. McCain’s response is illustrative of where the Republican party was and where it is.
McCain said to the woman, “No, ma’m. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that just I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about. He’s not [an Arab].”
McCain had taken the microphone from the woman to defend Obama. She was not alone and McCain got some boos for defending his opponent.
But it clearly never occurred to him to confront the woman about the idea that she “couldn’t trust an Arab.”
John McCain stood against the forces that have taken over the Republican party. He opposed the blatant racism and hate that have become emblematic of the GOP in the age of Trump. He tried, for better or worse, to maintain the respect for the process of politics.
It was an inconsistent stance at best. He helped pave the way for Donald Trump by selecting Sarah Palin as his running mate. During one debate he arrogantly referred to Obama as “that one.”
But he wasn’t Trump or Palin, who seemed to embarrass McCain on a daily basis.
No, he was the old Republican party. He was the guy who was a veteran and a long suffering POW who rarely saw a war or military action he didn’t like. He was the guy who often advocated conservative economic positions, including support for privatizing social security and, more recently big tax cuts. He opposed many environmental protection programs and regulations. Although known for breaking with his party, sometimes in significant ways, he was a through and through right wing conservative
But of direct pertinence to this point is that McCain, as he demonstrated in this video, was the Republican who wouldn’t use the N-word or any obvious racist slur, but his inclinations still leaned toward discrimination. As we saw here, it just never occurred to him that there was anything wrong with setting the iconic “Arab” as the opposite of a “decent family man.”
It’s not the moment to criticize John McCain. But this video of him does not show his nobility. It just shows that his racism is slightly less acute than the Trump crowd.
It says something about our standards that this video is seen as cause to praise McCain. Unlike most Republicans these days, there are a number of episodes in McCain’s career that can be held up as examples of his nobility. This video wasn’t one of them and its widespread presentation as such needs to be confronted now.