The Four-Hour Flap

That was fast. In a mere four hours, an insult was hurled, an apology offered, and an acceptance announced. That could well be a record for presidential campaigns.

At an event in Cincinnati, talk-radio host Bill Cunningham gave a speech endorsing John McCain in which he referred three times to “Barack Hussein Obama.”

Before the story could make the rounds, McCain’s people said they “do not agree” with Cunningham’s statement. “I never met Mr. Cunningham,” McCain said, “but I will make sure nothing like that ever happens again.”  

Obama’s camp was equally quick with an acceptance. “We appreciate Senator McCain’s remarks,” said spokesman Bill Burton in a statement. “It is a sign that if there is a McCain-Obama general election, it can be intensely competitive but the candidates will attempt to keep it respectful and focused on issues.”

How very … sane. Compare that with the serial drama that followed the remarks of Bill Shaheen, Clinton’s New Hampshire campaign co-chair, when he brought up Obama’s past drug use in an interview. (The Clinton campaign took responsibility for the remarks and accepted Shaheen’s resignation, but only after the story dominated the news cycle—and after Mark Penn repeated the word cocaine a couple more times.) Something similar happened when BET founder Bob Johnson alluded to Obama’s drug use. Johnson then claimed he had been talking about Obama’s community organizing—an absurd statement that only deepened the insult. Finally, Johnson apologized for real, but the damage had been done. Obama ended up scoring points (and raising cash) because of the flap.

This time around, McCain was smart to clear the air quickly, seeing as umbrage is the new black . Had he dawdled, Obama could easily have turned this into another “Wajir dress” incident , denouncing his opponent’s skeevy tactics and simultaneously raking in the moolah. Instead, Obama let McCain off the hook. Perhaps he figured it was too early for a roll in the mud—there will be plenty of time for that. Or, more likely, he realized it would come off as a stunt, à la Hillary’s ” Meet me in Ohio .” You can only cry umbrage so many times before people run out of sympathy.

If this precedent is any sign, perhaps a McCain-Obama matchup would be fairly tame. John McCain experienced dirty campaign tactics firsthand in 2000, when charges that he fathered a black child helped end his candidacy in South Carolina. Likewise, the persistence of e-mails calling Obama a Muslim and questioning his patriotism have made Obama’s campaign sensitive to and disdainful of slurs. Both candidates paint themselves as reformers who want to change the tone (Obama) and means (McCain) of campaigning. Here’s their chance.