Fighting Words

McCain’s Shameful Slur

The Republicans’ appalling attack on Rashid Khalidi.

Rashid Khalidi

On the clouded synapses of Sen. John McCain, it became clear as his campaign limped and lurched to its close, the termites had been dining long and dining well. However much one might have admired the low comedy of his closing routine on Saturday Night Live, it had to be admitted that even in that context, he looked a trifle glassy and elderly, not to say lost. No doubt there was some safe refuge to be taken, by himself and his absurd choice of running mate, in self-deprecation. The true ghastliness, however, was revealed in the crudeness of the McCain-Palin attempt to deprecate others.

A few feeble cracks on a comedy show are not enough to erase the memory of a vulgar and vicious attack, mounted on a rival candidate McCain has publicly called “honorable,” only a few days earlier. It had been said that Sen. Barack Obama had once attended a dinner for professor Rashid Khalidi, a distinguished Palestinian academic. It was further said that the Los Angeles Times, which had first reported the five-years-ago dinner in Chicago, was deliberately withholding a videotape of the evening that would show Obama in the audience while tough criticism of Israel was being voiced. Here is how the Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States described the situation in a radio interview in Miami:

I’m not in the business of talking about media bias, but what if there was a tape with John McCain with a neo-Nazi outfit being held by some media outlet? I think the treatment of the issue would be slightly different.

I presume that in this fantastic piece of semicoherent Florida pandering McCain meant to imply the wearing of a neo-Nazi outfit rather than the membership of one, but it was hardly necessary for him to be so arch as to disclaim an interest in “talking about media bias.” After all, his campaign maintains and accouters a running mate who will do all that for him and will furthermore read anything that is put in front of her (or, if it is a hoax call, will believe anything that is told to her) and who opined, on the same subject:

What we don’t know is how Barack Obama responded to these slurs on a country that he professes to support, and the reason we don’t know is the newspaper that has this tape, the Los Angeles Times, refuses to release it. It must be nice for a candidate to have major news organizations looking out for their best interests like that.

And it must be easy for a woman who couldn’t, when first asked, name a single newspaper or magazine that she had ever read, to become such an instant expert on the press. It was last April when the paper disclosed the original event. Now it’s being accused of covering up the event!

My main point, though, is not to call attention to the bullying and demagogy of McCain’s attack. It is to observe how completely it undermines any claim on his part to foreign-policy experience. Khalidi has been known to me for some time and can easily be read and consulted by anyone with the remotest curiosity about the Israeli-Arab dispute. He is highly renowned, well beyond the borders of his own discipline, for his measure and care and scruple in weighing the issue. If he is seriously to be compared to a “neo-Nazi,” then the Republican nominee has put the United States in the unbelievable position of slandering the most courageously “moderate” of the Palestinian Arabs as a brownshirt and a fascist. What then has been the point of every negotiation on a two-state solution since President George H.W. Bush convened the peace conference in Madrid in 1991? Nazis, after all, are to be crushed, not accommodated. One would have to think hard before coming up with a more crazy and irresponsible statement on any subject. Once again, it seems that McCain utterly lost his bearings.

I put the word moderate in quotation marks above because I dislike employing it in its usual form. Rashid Khalidi’s family is a famous one in Jerusalem, long respected by Arab and Christian and Jew and Druze and Armenian, and holding a celebrated house and position in the city since approximately the time of the Crusades. I have had the honor of being invited to this very house. If Rashid chooses to state that he doesn’t care to be evicted from his ancestral home in order to make way for some settler from Brooklyn who claims to have God on his side, I think he has a perfect right to say so. I would go further and say that if Barack Obama was looking for a Palestinian friend, he could not have chosen any better. But perhaps John McCain has decided that he doesn’t need any Palestinian friends and neither do we. Perhaps he thinks it’s all right to refer to refugees and victims of occupation, who have been promised self-determination and statehood at the podium of the United Nations and the U.S. Congress by George Bush and Condoleezza Rice, as if they were Hitlerites. How shameful. How disgusting. How ignorant.

One could go a step further and say that many Israelis have used the words apartheid and terrorist to describe at least some of their government’s policies. In just the same way, one could note that Khalidi has clearly denounced violence when used by his “own” side, and also—this I remember very well from meeting him in Beirut in the 1970s and ‘80s—when employed by regimes like the Syrian. But somehow this evidence and this reflection has become beside the point. McCain saw a chance to deal a cheap and low blow, and he had the ideally ignorant deputy to reinforce him. The slander, after all, might get them through another news cycle and perhaps adhere some defamatory mud to their opponent. Who cares that it made the United States of America look thuggish and ignorant and petty in the eyes of any thinking person in the Middle East? Anyone who does care should be getting ready to vote against this humiliating ticket, a team that so farcically and horribly unites the senescent and the puerile.