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October 28, 2008 1:18 PM

The case against McCain's campaign rhetoric

Posted by Richard Wagoner

domke.JPGUniversity of Washington professor David Domke, an expert on the intersection of faith and politics, writes today about why he signed on to a statement criticizing John McCain's campaign rhetoric.

By David Domke

To his credit, Republican Party presidential candidate John McCain has not invoked the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in his campaign against Barack Obama. It was Wright who blasted America in 2001 while pastor of Obama's church in Chicago. Obama denounced Wright's incendiary words during the Democratic Party's primary, and McCain in April said Wright was off limits. McCain has stuck to his word.

To his great discredit, though, McCain has done just about everything else. And it's not OK, say more than 100 professors of communication and journalism across the nation.

I'm one of them.

In a nonpartisan statement headed by Professor Edward Schiappa, Chair of the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota, my colleagues and I say this, in our opening words:

We wish to express our great concern over unethical communication behavior that threatens to dominate the closing days of the 2008 Presidential campaign.

Both major campaigns have been criticized by fact-checking organizations for prevarications. We call on both campaigns to halt blatant misrepresentations of their opponent's positions.

It would be misleading, however, to imply that since "both sides do it" there is no qualitative difference worth noting. In recent weeks, the Republican ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin has engaged in such incendiary mendacity that we must speak out. The purposeful dissemination of messages that a communicator knows to be false and inflammatory is unethical. It is that simple.



One might dismiss the statement as the product of liberal professors who adore the Democrats. In my case, I have indeed worked with Democratic campaigns in recent years. But here's the crux of the matter: almost every example offered as rationale for the statement accords with what Colin Powell, in his interview last Sunday on "Meet the Press," said has troubled him about the McCain campaign and Republicans this election cycle. Last I checked Powell isn't liberal or a Democrat.

So what are our concerns? I'll focus on two.

First, McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin have regularly claimed that Obama "pals around with terrorists," a reference to Obama's connection with William Ayers, who bombed the Pentagon, as part of the radical group The Weather Underground, in 1970. No reasonable person defends these actions by Ayers.

It is an uncontested fact that Ayers held a meet-and-greet political event for Obama early in Obama's political ascent in Illinois, and the two served on an educational board at the behest of Ronald Reagan friend Walter Annenberg. Today Ayers is a respected Chicago educator who has been praised by Chicago mayor Richard Daley, and independent www.factcheck.org has deemed the McCain camp's claims about Ayers and Obama to be "groundless, false, [and] dubious." Yet the McCain camp persists, including hitting this point repeatedly in interviews with NBC News in recent days.

Why? Because they are hoping that voters come to see Obama as a dangerous dark-skinned man not far removed from another man whose name rhymes with Obama. It's a rhetorical strategy of implied linkage, in which the goal is to forge a connection in people's minds, through repetition, of the ideas of "terrorist," "Obama," and "radical." It's a communication approach that follows in the footsteps of the one used - to strategic perfection - by the Bush administration to tie together Sept. 11 and Saddam Hussein, even though U.S. government agencies declared there was no connection. In politics, the implied is powerful. It also is false in this case.

The words of Colin Powell from a week ago are instructive: "This Bill Ayers situation that's been going on for weeks became something of a central point of the campaign. But Mr. McCain says that he's a washed-out terrorist. Well, then, why do we keep talking about him? And why do we have these robocalls going on around the country trying to suggest that, because of this very, very limited relationship that Senator Obama has had with Mr. Ayers, somehow, Mr. Obama is tainted. What they're trying to connect him to is some kind of terrorist feelings. And I think that's inappropriate. Now, I understand what politics is all about. I know how you can go after one another, and that's good. But I think this goes too far."

Exactly.

Second, McCain has looked the other way while his running mate Sarah Palin has consistently characterized Obama as someone who doesn’t see America the same way that most Americans do. There are two ticking implications in such rhetoric. The first is the unstated assumption that everyone sees the United States as moral and upright, and that Obama does not. In Palin's words at a fundraiser in Colorado: "This is not a man who sees America like you and I see America. We see America as a force of good in this world. We see an America of exceptionalism." The "we" is presented as a taken-for-granted position: of course all we good people think this way.

In reality, there are many Americans who do not hold such an unadulterated pure view of America. In a 2006 campaign poll, for example, fully one-third of randomly sampled voters agreed with the statement that "America's power generally does more harm than good when we act abroad" (no online link is available). That said, there's zero chance that one of them is Obama - who has spoken consistently about his appreciation of the United States and its special role in the world.

Indeed, the notion that anyone running for president would have less than a rose-colored view of the nation would be laughable, if the claim were not so serious. Painting a presidential candidate as bad for America is as common as attack ads, but saying he doesn't love America smacks of McCarthyism. It's also false in this case.

John McCain is an American hero, a senator who has done many good things for the nation. But his campaign's public demonizations of Obama are not among them. These communications are wrong. They are unethical. And they do harm to the nation.

David Domke, a former newspaper journalist, is a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. Domke also has worked with Democratic Party leaders in the Northwest to understand the dynamics of modern political campaigns. His latest book, "The God Strategy: How Religion Became A Political Weapon in America," was published in January. He can be reached at domke@u.washington.edu.

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