Ballot Box

The Pot and Kettle Primary

Most of John McCain’s complaints about the way George W. Bush conducted his campaign in South Carolina are entirely valid. Bush ought not to have visited Bob Jones University without denouncing its prejudicial policies. The governor also introduced a new level of nastiness into the election when his campaign initiated anti-McCain phone calls. But these and other criticisms sound enitrely hollow in light of the McCain campaign’s own increasingly noxious tactics.

Let’s start with the phone calls. McCain pitched a fit in South Carolina when he heard the story about a 14-year-old Boy Scout who received an anti-McCain advocacy call from the Bush campaign. This incident prompted McCain to yank all his negative advertising from the airwaves and to call upon Bush to do the same. But in Michigan, the McCain campaign initiated advocacy calls about Bush that were far worse than Bush’s South Carolina calls about McCain in a number of respects. These calls were not merely negative, as Bush’s calls about McCain were, but also deceptive and misleading. Instead of hearing the voice of a human being who identified himself as being from the Bush campaign, recipients in Michigan heard a recorded voice than implied the existence of a phony organization called “Catholic Voter Alert.”

Worse, the text of the message distorted the substance of Bush’s actions. “John McCain, a pro-life senator, has strongly criticized this anti-Catholic bigotry, while Gov. Bush has stayed silent while seeking the support of Bob Jones University,” the recording said. It’s true that Bush stayed silent about anti-Catholic bigotry while he was at Bob Jones University. But to say he “has stayed silent” is a significant distortion. Bush criticized Bob Jones’ racial policies later the same day, after his visit, and has since slammed BJU’s anti-Catholicism at every opportunity.  

The other ethical difference between these two episodes is that when accused, the Bush campaign promptly accepted responsibility and released the script for its South Carolina calls. On Election Day in Michigan, McCain spokesman Howard Opinksy denied that his campaign was behind the “Catholic Voter Alert” messages. I don’t think that Opinksy was intentionally lying, but the truth is equally damning. McCain’s campaign manager Rick Davis–who also played a role in Bob Dole’s negative advocacy calls against his primary opponents in the 1996 campaign–kept the McCain phone-banking operation secret, so secret that even other high campaign officials didn’t know about it. Even now, the McCain campaign refuses to come clean about its calls. Despite repeated requests, the campaign won’t release the scripts for the two other advocacy calls it acknowledges making in Michigan. McCain’s only defense is that Bush has been doing more or less the same thing as he has by not demanding that his ally Pat Robertson cease making calls attacking McCain supporter Warren Rudman as “a vicious bigot.” But while the Robertson calls about Rudman are obnoxious, they aren’t anonymous and there’s nothing technically inaccurate in them. I don’t think that Rudman’s saying that some members of the religious right are bigots makes him a bigot, but the charge is a matter of opinion, not fact.

McCain displays a similarly egregious double standard when it comes to his contention that the Bush campaign courted bigots in South Carolina. All the time he was blasting Bush for campaigning at Bob Jones, McCain himself was paying $20,000 a month to South Carolina political consultant Richard Quinn, a neo-Confederate revanchist who is one of the leaders of the state’s pro-flag faction. Quinn is editor in chief of Southern Partisan, a magazine that publishes apologias for slavery and sells paraphernalia celebrating the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Quinn himself once advocating voting for the “maverick” David Duke.

When asked about this background on Meet the Press the day after the South Carolina primary, McCain didn’t distance himself from Quinn. Instead, he professed ignorance about Quinn’s writings, just as Bush did about Bob Jones’ policies, and argued, as Bush also did about Bob Jones, that Ronald Reagan had done the same thing he had. But where Bush criticized Bob Jones in stringent terms after the fact, McCain continues to describe Quinn as “a man of integrity” who isn’t responsible for what appears in his own magazine. Though McCain’s Richard Quinn connection is arguably worse than Bush’s Bob Jones faux pas, it never turned into a big deal for one simple reason: The press let McCain get away with it, even as it held Bush’s feet to the fire on Bob Jones.

To summarize the ethics of the race so far: In New Hampshire, both candidates ran largely honorable, decent campaigns. In South Carolina, Bush ran dirtier. In Michigan, McCain ran dirtier. The score is now tied. Future claims of moral superiority by either side should be taken with several grains of salt.