What does it say about us, as a society, when a truthful statement – or one that reflects, at least, some commonly accepted wisdom – is so politically unacceptable that it causes a minor firestorm in the campaign of a major party candidate?
Charlie Black, a top adviser to John McCain, told Fortune Magazine the other day that a terrorist attack on the US would be a boon to the McCain campaign. McCain hurried to distance himself from the statements, and Black apologized – but for what, exactly?
Black's comments, while politically ill-advised, were based on two plain facts. First: the electorate has historically tended to give the GOP higher marks on national security. That tendency may no longer be true, thanks to the misadventures of George W. Bush and company, so Black might be behind the times, but no one's giving him grief for that. He got in trouble not because of what he said, but because he said it.
Second: it is a fact that the Bush administration (with plenty of complicity from Congress) has systematically used fear tactics to manipulate public opinion and justify its policies. However morally and ethically wrong that may be – and the tactics do come right out of Hitler's playbook – it is a fact. We have been deceived and manipulated ever since 9/11. We all know it. All Charlie Black did was acknowledge it, and express his belief that the public still has enough wool pulled over its eyes, even after the Iraq debacle, that another terrorist attack on the US "would be a big advantage to [McCain]."
Personally, I think enough of us have brushed away the wool to make Black's thinking outmoded. I also think we, the public, have more common sense than many political strategists give us credit for. Even as we condemn the Republican leadership for the mess they've gotten us into over the past seven years (and that includes, in no small measure, Senator McCain), we recognize, just as Black does, that the fearmongering was effective and gave a big boost to the Republican administration's misguided policies.
If we want our candidates to disavow fearmongering, we have to allow them to acknowledge it. Not that I expect McCain to ever do so, frozen old man that he is, but it's hypocritical to jump all over one of his advisors for reflecting reality as he sees it.
Rather than disavowing the policies that lie behind Black's statement, McCain disavowed the statement itself. Politically, he had to do so, just as Barack Obama had to dump James Johnson from his VP search team because of the whiff of mortgage scandal wafting from the former Fannie Mae chairman. But it's mighty disturbing to me that candidates have to be so "on message" that no one associated with a campaign can say what he or she is really thinking. How can we speak truth to power when we won't even grant those seeking office the power of truth?