As I watch John McCain's presidential campaign degenerate into a dark, disgraceful display of veiled racism unworthy of the hero who suffered in Vietnam, I'm reminded of the late J.J. "Jake" Pickle, the venerable congressman who represented Central Texas from 1963 to 1995, and a story he once told me about the toughest vote of his career.
I was 8 years old and attending illegally segregated schools in1964, when President Johnson corralled Pickle and anyone else he could to include a public accommodations provision in the historic Civil Rights Act.
We tend to take public accommodations for granted these days, but in many ways, it was the toughest part of that fight. It's hard to stand against voting rights in a democracy, and federal regulation of the financial industries gave Congress the hook it needed to usher in fair housing practices.
But the public accommodations law was tougher, because it was about common decency. It said this may be a "free country," but you aren't free to open a business to the public and offer services selectively to some people and refuse them to others. It effectively ripped down the old racist credo that hung on walls of hotels, skating rinks, restaurants and drugs stores all across the small North Texas town where I grew up.
"We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to Anyone" was catchy little code that actually meant "We don't have to wash black men's shirts at this laundry, and we don't have to let black families eat at our tables, stay in our hotels or sit in our theatres, if we don't want to." (And of course, anyone hateful enough to post a sign like that "didn't want to.")
It was a smug corollary to "I'm free, White and 21" and other rotten euphemisms tossed about in opportune conversations and at political events in those days to reinforce - often with a wink, nod or other body language - the idea that times may be changing, but we are still together against "them." Aren't we?
You don't see those racist signs or hear those caustic slogans much anymore, but the finesse is still there -- ask Harold Ford Jr. -- and the method behind them lives in the rhetoric and gestures of Sarah Palin who, as vice presidential nominee, is chief surrogate for the decorated hero Republicans have nominated for president.
When Palin squints her eyes, tells her supporters Obama "pals around with terrorists," calls him "exotic" and invites us to wonder with her who he really is, it's that code all over again. It's a rhetorical rifle shot to a malignant mindset -- us vs. them -- and anyone who says otherwise is a damn liar.
I've seen those gestures, heard those phrases and smelled that stench all my life. I recognize it, and a lot of other Americans -- in both political parties -- do, too.
The debate tonight is John McCain's last chance to change the direction of his campaign. After this debate, there are no new messages, no new issues to roll out. It's all "get out the vote" and go down in history.
That is why McCain should consider something bold, something a real maverick would do. He should apologize to Barack Obama.
He should apologize for insulting him by dismissing him as "that one" in front of 60 million Americans last week, and he should apologize for unleashing Palin to whip up that old racist division and see if he could get a vote out of it.
Believe it or not, McCain has more at stake than the presidency -- more even than the record he worked hard to achieve during a quarter century in Congress. He has a legacy as a citizen who, when he had the chance, made some very public choices his children and grandchildren will read about one day.
Which brings me back to ole' Jake Pickle, whose story has a wonderful ending.
Pickle told me that the minute he voted effectively to end segregation in public accommodations, he and some colleagues, sure they had committed political suicide, walked straight off the House floor into a nearby bar and got stinkin' drunk.
When Pickle stumbled into his boarding house around midnight, the switch board operator insisted he call the White House. Initially, he brushed off the suggestion, but the operator said Johnson told her he would be waiting for the call.
When they finally connected, Pickle said, the president had two things on his mind. The first was a suggestion that Pickle not go back to Texas for a while. The second brought tears to the old congressman's eyes 25 years later, and I remember vividly what he told me in that interview for just that reason.
It was a conversation that, according to Pickle, went something like this:
"Jacob," the president said, "I wanted you to hear tonight, on this historic night, that your president is proud of you. And when you tell your grandchildren one day about your time in the Congress, whatever you do, however long you serve, you tell them this was your greatest moment, and the President of the United States called you this night to let you know it."
Everyone makes choices in life. We're all more proud of some than others, but the choices most of us make are hardly known beyond a small group of family or friends. The choices politicians make for better or worse follow them into history. It goes with the territory.
Pickle served 35 years, but he was never a committee chairman. His legislative accomplishments were modest at best. He never reached the heights iconic Texans like Lloyd Bentsen, Henry B. Gonzalez and Barbara Jordan did, but he lived the rest of his life with this proud story to tell.
McCain has been in Congress 25 years. He has been chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and now he's his party's nominee for president. But the tone of his campaign -- the veiled racist innuendoes he and his running mate have crafted -- have tarnished an otherwise moderate legacy.
Tonight is simply McCain's last chance to change his campaign narrative -- to make right what he has chosen to tell Americans in this generation (and those who read about him in the history books) about who he is and what his values are. If he doesn't, his legacy may be summed up simply with the words of another famous Texan: "John McCain, you're no Jake Pickle."