11/08/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Party Watchwords: Fairness and Fear

A watchword is the familiar code used by a sentinel to tell the approach of a friend. After three debates and a protracted exposure to campaigns that show consistency on both sides, we can say what the watchwords of the parties have become. The Democrats are speaking of fairness, the Republicans are speaking of fear.

Once or twice in last night's debate, Barack Obama referred to the value of fairness in the civic life of democracy. Joe Biden, with greater sharpness and force, made the revival of fairness almost the central theme of his debate against Sarah Palin.

It doesn't seem fair that every month in Baghdad the federal government spends money it no longer has to spend in Galveston or New Orleans. It doesn't seem fair that the Republican candidate for president has come into this campaign without a semblance of a plan for medical insurance, and that, as a substitute, he palms off on voters a $5,000 check from the government, without telling us that adequate coverage now costs about $12,000 for a family of four. It doesn't seem fair that the CEOs and stockbrokers and stockjobbers who made out like bandits while they destroyed the economy are now assisted by Treasury to execute their getaway with a parachute of gold.

John McCain, a man celebrated for his courage, could not be the one to carry the message of fear which is the most infectious vote-getter of his campaign. That work has therefore been entrusted to Sarah Palin; and she does it with a credulous devotion that suits her personal style. "I am just so fearful," she said in a speech on October 6 in Clearwater, Florida, "that [Barack Obama] is not a man who sees America the way that you and I see America--as the greatest source of good in this world." And again: "I'm afraid this is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to work with a former domestic terrorist who had targeted his own country."

The repetition of the idea of fear, in the words fearful and afraid, was a carefully coached piece of rhetorical insinuation. Yet Palin's phrasing also brought an oddly disturbing echo for anyone who had seen the e-mails channeled in susceptible right-wing circles half a year ago--mailings which spoke of powerful evidence that Obama was a secret Muslim with dubious intentions toward this country. At the bottom of one such letter were the unsigned words: "I'm afraid of this one. I'm just so fearful." An unwary reader might naturally assume that the disarming confession had come--with the signature somehow erased by accident--from an anxious woman of uncertain education in her late seventies or eighties. It now seems likelier that those words came out of the workshop of Karl Rove. Anyway they have become Sarah Palin's words. She speaks for, she has become, that elderly, shaken white woman who is "so afraid" of Obama. It was noticeable too, in last night's debate, that McCain threw out a studied echo of the same letter's use of "this one" when, quite oddly, he called his opponent "that one."

Sarah Palin, as immodest as she is unqualified, has thus been put to the job of trawling for undecided voters who are racially anxious enough to be tipped into voting for McCain by one additional rumor or tremor or fear. It must be added that in this rotten cause, she received some unexpected assistance from the lead story on William Ayers which the New York Times published on October 4. The story by Scott Shane disclosed, in elaborate detail, that there was nothing much to the connection between Obama and Ayers. Other newspapers had reached the same conclusion with less fuss. The effect of the Times's 135 column-inches and the longhair Sixties photos and the fingerprints and picture of Ayers's arrest--the effect of this peculiar treatment was, by the very fact of bringing the matter into discussion, to support the idea of some connection between Obama and the word "terrorist." It was left to Palin merely to insert the word "domestic."

Why did the Times do it? There are several possible answers, all of them unpleasant. One has heard it said that the story, accurate in its details after all, was long in the works and only its timing was unfortunate. Still, the decision to run at all a very big story on the very small subject of Obama's friendship with Ayers, is not a decision that an institution like the Times, with its layers of editors and managers and ownership, could possibly have taken lightly. The same paper that says we ought to negotiate with Iran, and yet says that Iran is an "existential threat," now wants us to know that Obama is a serious candidate, yet it wants to show what a long story can be made of the threat his former associations might be felt to present.

Possibly these swings of emphasis are sincere--if we can allow an institution the virtue of sincerity. Yet "there are kinds of sincerity," wrote Camus, "so confused that they are worse than lies." By now Americans know Barack Obama about as well as they have ever known a candidate for high office. The reasons to vote for or against him turn out to be ordinary reasons. If there is a silent scandal in the campaign, as it now goes forward, it comes from nothing in his past, and nothing, even, in the legend-laden and reconstituted past of John McCain. The scandal is the presence on the Republican side of a candidate who by policy is kept away from questioning by the press. That is a story. Nor would it show imbalance or partiality for the better newspapers of this country now to declare the simple fact. To run someone for vice-president who cannot answer political questions is an abuse of civic responsibility which is rapidly becoming a national outrage.