What Did John Lewis Say and How the Candidates Responded
In Wednesday's debate, Sen. McCain said that he took great offense to the statement by Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia). In the debate, Sen. McCain said that Lewis:
made allegations that Sarah Palin and I were somehow associated with the worst chapter in American history, segregation, deaths of children in church bombings, George Wallace. That, to me, was so hurtful. And, Senator Obama, you didn't repudiate those remarks. Every time there's been an out-of-bounds remark made by a Republican, no matter where they are, I have repudiated them. I hope that Senator Obama will repudiate those remarks that were made by Congressman John Lewis, very unfair and totally inappropriate. So I want to tell you, we will run a truthful campaign.
So, let's take a look at who really said what. First, here is Rep. Lewis' actual statement:
As one who was a victim of violence and hate during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, I am deeply disturbed by the negative tone of the McCain-Palin campaign. What I am seeing today reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history. Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse.
During another period, in the not too distant past, there was a governor of the state of Alabama named George Wallace who also became a presidential candidate. George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who only desired to exercise their constitutional rights. Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed one Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama.
As public figures with the power to influence and persuade, Sen. McCain and Governor Palin are playing with fire, and if they are not careful, that fire will consume us all. They are playing a very dangerous game that disregards the value of the political process and cheapens our entire democracy. We can do better. The American people deserve better.
A few hours later, Sen. McCain issued a response:
Congressman John Lewis' comments represent a character attack against Governor Sarah Palin and me that is shocking and beyond the pale. The notion that legitimate criticism of Senator Obama's record and positions could be compared to Governor George Wallace, his segregationist policies and the violence he provoked is unacceptable and has no place in this campaign. I am saddened that John Lewis, a man I've always admired, would make such a brazen and baseless attack on my character and the character of the thousands of hardworking Americans who come to our events to cheer for the kind of reform that will put America on the right track.
I call on Senator Obama to immediately and personally repudiate these outrageous and divisive comments that are so clearly designed to shut down debate 24 days before the election. Our country must return to the important debate about the path forward for America.
And shortly after that, Sen. Obama's campaign issued a statement:
Sen. Obama does not believe that John McCain or his policy criticism is in any way comparable to George Wallace or his segregationist policies.
But John Lewis was right to condemn some of the hateful rhetoric that John McCain himself personally rebuked just last night, as well as the baseless and profoundly irresponsible charges from his own running mate that the Democratic nominee for president of the United States ‘pals around with terrorists.’ As Barack Obama has said himself, the last thing we need from either party is the kind of angry, divisive rhetoric that tears us apart at a time of crisis when we desperately need to come together. That is the kind of campaign Sen. Obama will continue to run in the weeks ahead.
And the next day, Rep. Lewis issued a further clarifying statement:
A careful review of my earlier statement would reveal that I did not compare Sen. John McCain or Gov. Sarah Palin to George Wallace. It was not my intention or desire to do so. My statement was a reminder to all Americans that toxic language can lead to destructive behavior. I am glad that Sen. McCain has taken some steps to correct divisive speech at his rallies. I believe we need to return to civil discourse in this election about the pressing economic issues that are affecting our nation.
I will admit that when I first read Rep. Lewis' original statement, I was initially shocked as I too thought that Rep. Lewis was comparing Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin to George Wallace. But then I, apparently unlike Sen. McCain or his campaign, took the time to go back and read Rep. Lewis' statement again, this time more carefully. Did Rep. Lewis really compare Sen. McCain or Gov. Palin to George Wallack or compare their actions to "segregation, deaths of children in church bombings" as Sen. McCain claimed in the debate? No, he did not. What Rep. Lewis actually did was to compare the results of hate speech and divisive rhetoric in political campaigns.
Remember that over the last week or two, McCain-Palin rallies have been punctuated with cries of "terrorist", "kill him", and "traitor" to name a few. And the hate speech has spilled over. At a Georgia debate, someone yelled out "Bomb Obama". During a canvassing training session in Virginia, the chair of Virginia's Republican party told volunteers to emphasize the comparison of Sen. Obama and Osama Bin Ladin, saying: "Both have friends that bombed the Pentagon". Those are the words that Rev. Lewis is talking about. When politicians use hate and division as tools, some supporters will take their speech at face value. And when politicians don't listen to what their supporters are saying, they can't help either control those supporters or try to keep a lid on the actions those supporters may take. And should Sen. Obama win the election, then one can only wonder what disaffected McCain supporters will do, especially those supporters who have felt emboldened to shout "kill him" or "Bomb Obama". It is precisely that worry that Rep. Lewis was discussing.
Also during the debate, Sen. McCain said: "Senator Obama, you didn't repudiate those remarks". But isn't that precisely what Sen. Obama's statement did? "Sen. Obama does not believe that John McCain or his policy criticism is in any way comparable to George Wallace or his segregationist policies." In other words, once again, Sen. McCain simply lied. Fortunately, Sen. Obama was on the stage with Sen. McCain and was able to correct Sen. McCain's lie:
[I]f we want to talk about Congressman Lewis, who is an American hero, he, unprompted by my campaign, without my campaign's awareness, made a statement that he was troubled with what he was hearing at some of the rallies that your running mate was holding, in which all the Republican reports indicated were shouting, when my name came up, things like "terrorist" and "kill him," and that you're running mate didn't mention, didn't stop, didn't say "Hold on a second, that's kind of out of line." And I think Congressman Lewis' point was that we have to be careful about how we deal with our supporters.
I do think that he inappropriately drew a comparison between what was happening there and what had happened during the civil rights movement, and we immediately put out a statement saying that we don't think that comparison is appropriate. And, in fact, afterwards, Congressman Lewis put out a similar statement, saying that he had probably gone over the line.
To repeat: Sen. McCain claimed that Sen. Obama didn't repudiate the statement and Sen. Obama pointed out, correctly, that he had done precisely that.
And just in case one lie wasn't enough, Sen. McCain followed it quickly with two more lies:
Every time there's been an out-of-bounds remark made by a Republican, no matter where they are, I have repudiated them.... we will run a truthful campaign.
I have not yet heard Sen. McCain repudiate the remarks of supporters yelling "kill him" or "Bomb Obama" or "terrorist". I have not heard Sen. McCain repudiate the remarks of the Virginia GOP chair comparing Sen. Obama to Osama Bin Ladin. It wouldn't be hard for Sen. McCain and Gov. The closest that Sen. McCain has come is to tell a voter that Sen. Obama is not an Arab and to tell voters that he wants to run a respectful campaign. By contrast, when Sen. Obama's supporters simply boo Sen. McCain, Sen. Obama tells them not to boo, just to vote.
The other lie? Yesterday, the McCain campaign started using a robocall (automated phone calls) that claims that Sen. Obama "has worked closely with [a] domestic terrorist...". Another new McCain campaign robocall says that Sen. Obama "Barack opposed a bill requiring doctors to care for babies born alive after surviving attempted abortions". Of course, that robocall completely ignores the fact that Sen. Obama, in Wednesday's debate, demonstrated, clearly and simply, that the claim is completely false. And PolitiFact examined this claim back in September and also found it to be completely false. Remember Sen. McCain's claim that he would be running a "truthful campaign"? Yet the day after making this statement, his campaign is sending automated lies to voters in numerous states.
The Straight Talk Express went off the rails weeks ago. Lately, it has had to resort to incitement ("pals around with terrorists") and divisive speech while ignoring the violent rhetoric of its own supporters. And when that seemed to just drive more independent voters away, the Straight Talk Express went right back to what it does best: Lies.
Rep. Lewis was worried about the results of the way that Sen. McCain has conducted his campaign. Given the fact that a report appeared this afternoon that two Obama supporters were beaten up at a Palin rally, it appears that, perhaps, just perhaps, Rep. Lewis' concerns are justified.