Playing with Matches: John McCain's Game Plan

11/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In a recent email a friend asked: "How concerned are you about the dirt being hurled [in the presidential campaign]? It's getting rough out there... politics as usual or something darker and more dangerous to the fabric of our country?"

The same day I read Dana Milbank's column in The Washington Post, in which he reported on a Sarah Palin swing through Florida. A couple of items in that column caught my attention. One was the observation that:

"Palin's routine attacks on the media have begun to spill into ugliness. In Clearwater, arriving reporters were greeted with shouts and taunts by the crowd of about 3,000. Palin then went on to blame Katie Couric's questions for her "less-than-successful interview with kinda mainstream media." At that, Palin supporters turned on reporters in the press area, waving thunder sticks and shouting abuse. Others hurled obscenities at a camera crew. One Palin supporter shouted a racial epithet at an African American sound man for a network and told him, "Sit down, boy."

Later, Milbank recounted Palin's now standard riff on Barack Obama's alleged ties to 1960s radical William Ayers, to which the crowd reacted with the predictable boos. Much more disturbing was this anecdote: "'Kill him!' proposed one man in the audience." The reader is left to wonder whether the nutcase was threatening Ayers or Obama; regardless, Ms Palin, her political benefactor, and his operatives have led us into very dangerous territory.

America has a glorious -- but far from spotless -- history. Slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow and later de facto segregation have left the worst scars, but there have been other ugly, damaging chapters, as well.

The "Know Nothing" movement of the mid-19th century, with its nativist, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic sentiment was vicious and horribly divisive, as was the "Red Scare" of the 1920s. Individual demagogues have emerged periodically to inflame the sentiments of large numbers of Americans; they have included Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s, Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, and George Wallace in the 1960s. Low wattage pretenders, such as David Duke, pop up every once in a while, but they have largely been at the margins of the political process.

However, in John McCain and Sarah Palin, we are now confronted with a new and more troubling phenomenon: a major party presidential campaign which appears to be predicated on the belief that American voters will be motivated more by fear than by hope, that suspicion will trump information, that ignorance is more endearing than substance, and that bigotry will triumph over acceptance.

I tell myself -- and others -- that the negativity won't work -- not this time. I assure friends and associates that racism, while still present in the American psyche, is on the wane -- look, after all, at the many idols of pop culture, the respect afforded people like Colin Powell, Tiger Woods' transcendent popularity, an expanded black middle class, workplace and social integration, and the noticeable increase in blended families (including my own), as examples to support my contention.

But then I read about the slur directed at a black cameraman in a Florida campaign rally, and I become far less sure of my opinion. I watched Tuesday night's debate, and I winced as John McCain referred to his opponent as "that one", and I wondered if it was merely a discourteous goof, or something more sinister -- a signal, even.

I study poll results and observe focus groups which convince me that voters are sick of the negativity that characterizes most modern political campaigns, that they are disillusioned by the silly "tit for tat" that too often passes for political debate. I pay attention as the citizenry tells us that they have had it with the lack of civility in our public discourse. But then I watch in total discouragement as the candidate for vice president of one of the major parties links an opponent to "domestic terrorism." And I shudder at the memory of a poster that was displayed in Dallas, Texas in November, 1963, one that featured a photograph of JFK, and the message "Wanted for Treason".

I believe that we are, by an large, an educated people, but then I see "Jay Walking" on "The Tonight Show," read about how our students score on geography, history and civic exams, and encounter people who definitely should know better who think that Obama is a Muslim (if he were, so what?). I watch and listen with total incredulity as "serious" candidates for public office tell us that they don't believe in evolution. As a result, I begin to doubt our collective national IQ, and I wonder if we can ever adequately educate the masses.

So to my friend I say, with sadness to be sure, that what we are seeing is "politics as usual", but turned a couple of notches worse. But to myself I think, she may be right. There may, in fact, be something "darker and more dangerous" going on. I realize that I will be tormented by these doubts until the votes are tallied late on November 4th or early on the 5th, wondering, worrying, tugged in different directions by my hopes for the future versus my knowledge of the past.