The Common Good

John McCain's Soul

"I think if McCain uses these very nasty character references he risks losing his soul. This is what he said he wouldn't do in this campaign," said author and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius Sunday morning on the Chris Matthews Show.

The language has indeed gotten very scary at several campaign rallies with outbursts of "terrorist!," "kill him," and "treason," sometimes with introductions by people who slowly repeated the candidate's middle name ... Barack Hussein Obama. And the fact that Barack Obama is the first African American to have a chance of winning the American presidency brings a racial dimension to such anger that is indeed scaring many people, including former civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis who spoke out against the racially tinged climate of hostility this weekend. Then Lewis was attacked.

When I watched McCain at these rallies, especially when his running mate, Sarah Palin, was firing up the crowd, including saying Obama was "palling around with terrorists," he looked uncomfortable to me. Here is a man who has tried to build his life and political career with an appeal to honor while his campaign moves in an increasingly dishonorable direction. The atmosphere at some campaign rallies has been described as dangerous and alarming. The language used by some of those rally participants has definitely crossed the line, as murky as that line often is.

The atmosphere at Sarah Palin rallies and McCain town forums got so nasty in recent days that, on at least two occasions, McCain took back the microphone from people making angry assaults against Barack Obama to defend his opponent. In a Minnesota town hall meeting, McCain described Barack Obama as "a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as president of the United States." When a woman at the same town hall said of Obama, "he's an Arab," McCain replied that he is a "decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues" -- which is fair enough. And he reportedly has refused to let his campaign resurrect the attacks on Obama based on the inflammatory statements of Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of Obama's former church.

I hope John McCain trusts his instincts and decisively turns away from the kind of campaigning that makes politics dishonorable, as he now seems to be doing. I don't like the way that candidates from both sides (and both presidential campaigns are doing it again this time) habitually exaggerate the success of their own records while caricaturing the records of their opponents. But I realistically know that is just politics as usual, especially at this point in an election cycle. We are where we are, and both sides say the other side started it. I don't like negative campaigning, would like them both to stay on the high road, and thought these two had the capacity to do that this time around. But the angry rallies are more than just politics as usual.

John McCain has the power and the moral authority to turn off the character assassination in his own campaign and I hope he does-just like when he takes the microphone away from those who have gone too far. Instead, McCain should focus the rest of this election season around the issues of national direction and public policy that his long career shows he cares so much about. In the remaining weeks of this so hotly contested and divisive election year, we need the best from our candidates for president, which I trust is within them both.

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