Thursday, October 16, 2008

I've been intrigued by John McCain's recent reactions to questions from his audiences about Barack Obama - in particular the episode where an elderly woman asserted to him that Obama is an Arab. It's "good," of course, that McCain corrected the woman by countering that Obama is "decent, a family man, a citizen" and so on (although he doesn't bother to challenge the premise that there's something wrong with being an Arab, which CNN's Campbell Brown, among others I'm sure, has spoken out about). On the other hand, the pressure on McCain to settle down his increasingly bloodthirsty, vehement audience has been great - he probably had to do something whether he wanted to or not. His decision to so so might have been calculated, even timed somewhat - he used it in the debate last night, to claim that he'd taken steps to elevate the discourse but that Obama's campaign hadn't (a weak and laughable tactic, but what else does he have?). And of course, this might have been among the last glimmers of his fading moral conscience. He has shown it in the past, after all. But what really strikes me is his demeanor before he contradicts the woman. Watch the video again. When she says she "can't trust" Obama, McCain nods impatiently, the way you do when you're hearing something you wish you weren't hearing but you have to indulge for some reason. And after she calls him an Arab there's a dreadful beat before he starts repeating, "No ma'am" and takes the mic from her. Watch his face - ashen, tense, rueful. I imagine that in that moment the wheels were turning furiously in his head: "Do I have to say something? Fuck, I have to say something. Goddammit." And he forces himself - a personification of the expression "bite the bullet" - to produce the words and the body language that in the end form a quite gracious gesture toward Obama, the way these kinds of gestures often come off when they are produced under great duress (again, apologies are owed to the millions upon millions of Arabs who may rightly be insulted). It's to his credit that he did it, but also to his discredit that it was evidently that difficult. It was a complex, powerfully dramatic moment - it could have been McCain saving his reputation, saving himself as a politician, saving himself as a human being. He'd probably like to think he was saving his campaign, but I don't think that's the case.