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Should McCain Start Being a Coward Now?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Given that the most well-known fact about Senator John McCain is his war record of courageous endurance in a prisoner camp, why do some commentators suddenly seem to want the Arizona Senator to start being a coward now? I only ask because people are saying that McCain could have just kept his mouth shut instead of challenging the not-so-subtle name-smearing of Senator Obama by Bill Cunningham. They think this would have been easy to do since McCain had the convenient cover of not actually hearing the comments himself. This would make it easier for conservative talk radio hosts to continue to persuade their frustrated “red-meat” listeners to swallow the less bitter pill of the McCain Presidency. But that explanation sounds a lot like cowardice to me.

Instead of being ashamed of a man who has, for whatever other faults of his we might agree about, led the way on honorable campaigning, this should be one of the great rallying points for moral conservatives. Cunningham played the fool, and McCain rightly and properly rebuked him for it. I hope I’m wrong, but it seems like the talk radio wing of the Republican Party has suddenly decided that a key platform point for conservatives is the right to imply slander through the highly witty second grade tactic of name abuse.

“It’s his name. His mamma gave it to him. I’m just honoring him the same way we would honor John Fitzgerald Kennedy or Franklin Delano Roosevelt or William Jefferson Clinton.” Oh, yes, Mr. Cunningham, I’m quite sure that, in a speech which also referred to, “CBS, the Clinton Broadcasting System; NBC, the Nobody But Clinton network; [and] the All Bill Clinton channel ABC,” your references to Barack Hussein Obama were meant as a display of profound and sincere respect. Of course, I suppose it’s possible that some people believe you, but I’m hard pressed to believe that you actually believe your own explanations on this one.

Let’s be clear and say out loud what everyone knows about this particular middle name. The only reason to use it in referring to Senator Obama is because doing so panders to a noxious combination of anti-Arab/anti-Muslim sentiment and gives life to the ongoing slew of false allegations concerning Obama’s upbringing or secret religious affiliations. “See, he’s really just one of them … just look at his name.” I wonder if you would be so bold if the name happened to be Adolf or Aidid, although given your willingness to lie to America’s face about your motives, I have to figure you’d find that equally entertaining.

Just for a moment, consider this episode as a case study on the virtue of courage. On the one hand, Bill Cunningham engages in a cowardly ad hominem slur against a man based on the unfortunate historical timing of his middle name. When he is called on it publicly, he acts as if he is didn’t do anything wrong, nobody saw him, and you can’t prove anything. Bart Simpson would be proud. Not to put too fine a point on it, this is conduct unbecoming a public figure.

On the other hand, Senator John McCain immediately repudiates such behavior when he becomes aware of it. He does so while certainly knowing that this might alienate legions of angry conservatives who love to imitate Cunningham’s vitriol, but he seems to care not a whit about such foolishness. As people are pointing out, he surely had other options, most of them more politick. But what does courage do? It does the right thing, regardless.

So why are others so upset with McCain’s courage? Well, I have a simple theory. When you scold one shoplifter, all shoplifters become outraged. When you criticize speeding, all speeders get defensive. And when you publicly rebuke one of the cherished but immoral tactics of conservative talk radio, well, who gets upset?

We ask moderate Muslims to repudiate the Islamo-fascists. We demand that Christians condemn those who bomb abortion clinics or kill gays. We asked Mitt Romney to repudiate the ugly past of his own religion. We even ask Barack Obama to distance himself from Louis Farrakhan. All rightly so. Why do we suddenly think that John McCain should keep quiet about the sleaziest race-baiting behavior of some members of his party? Is such behavior a helpful element of modern conservatism? No. And saying so is the sort of response that we should celebrate rather than apologize for.

I have never been a McCain supporter, but it would seem to me that courage is one of the defining elements of his life. Thus I am absolutely baffled why anyone would suddenly prefer him to pander like a coward to the worst elements of our right wing. Millions of Americans believe that conservative talk radio is nothing more than hate-filled bigotry. As a member of the profession, I have a hard time imagining how slandering the nation’s first serious black candidate for President through the abuse of his given name is the best strategy for proving them wrong.

To me, recent days have offered a stark contrast in political tone alternatives. On the one hand, we have the ridiculously inflammatory and deceptive excesses of one sort of political commentary embodied in Bill Cunningham’s I-can-throw-a-bigger-narcissistic-fit-than-Paris-Hilton express. On the other hand, we have the passing of William F. Buckley, Jr., whose loss has been noted and lamented by people across the political spectrum. What’s the difference between them? As even the New York Times noted, Buckley was special because, “Yale’s angry young man turned out to be not so angry after all. He hated most of what the liberals stood for. He didn’t hate them.” To Christianize this phrasing, Bill Buckley hated the sin but loved the sinner.

Talk radio and political discourse in general have two icons we can honor with our emulation: William F. Buckley, Jr. and Bill Cunningham. To embrace the one is to reject the other, regardless of the political views we are advocating. The fork in this road requires a choice, and I not only admire John McCain for forcing us to realize this, but I for one think that the best way to honor the passing of the father of modern conservatism would be to follow the trail that he blazed.

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