Editorial: Conversations on race should be sober, sensible
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., was right to moderate his comments comparing Sen. John McCain and his campaign to the late Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a staunch segregationist for much of his political career.
But as is typical of politicians in an era where a president splits hairs over the meaning of the word “is,” both Lewis and McCain have tried to twist the meaning of their words after getting caught stepping over the line.
Lewis, who was in Springfield for the state NAACP’s annual convention over the weekend, launched a broadside on Saturday against McCain and his recent tactics against Sen. Barack Obama, saying McCain was “playing with fire.”
“Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse,” Lewis said in a written statement.
This page doesn’t disagree with that. We’ve said the rhetoric of the McCain campaign, particularly that of his running mate, Sarah Palin, has gone from simply overheated to inciting hatred against Obama personally.
It seemed that McCain’s campaign could not use “Obama” and “terrorist” in the same sentence enough. One particularly nutty supporter at a rally even suggested that Obama should be killed, one report said.
But Lewis himself stepped over the line by comparing McCain to Wallace.
“During another period, in the not too distant past, there was a governor of the state of Alabama named George Wallace ... Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights,” Lewis said. “Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed on Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Ala.”
Lewis knows better. At the time, Wallace tried to pit an entire race against another and used his state’s government to oppress blacks. The rhetoric of McCain’s campaign, while less than subtle, pales in comparison.
On Saturday, McCain denounced Lewis’ statement as a “brazen and baseless attack on my character and the character of the thousands of hard-working Americans who come to our events to cheer.
“The notion that legitimate criticism of Sen. Obama’s record and positions could be compared to Gov. George Wallace, his segregationist policies and the violence he provoked is unacceptable and has no place in this campaign.”
Lewis, an Obama supporter, then claimed that he did not make the comparison.
"I wasn't trying to compare them to Gov. Wallace,” Lewis said Saturday in Springfield. “I was only saying the language that they’re using could be partisan and it could provoke violence.”
It’s the kind of back and forth that makes you marvel at how brazen both sides are at distorting what was said.
Lewis clearly compared Wallace and McCain. But Lewis didn’t want to apologize, so he changed his story.
As for McCain, he knows Lewis was not addressing McCain’s critique of Obama’s positions on the issues. He was attacking rhetoric that could incite a lunatic amongst the thousands of sensible people at McCain’s rallies to do something tragic.
Discussing race is unavoidable in this campaign. Such a conversation should be sensible and sober. Lewis’ initial comments were neither.
And while McCain has started correcting the lies of some of his supporters, only time will tell whether his campaign shifts from vitriolic rhetoric to the honorable tactics the Arizona senator once championed.
Springfield State Journal-Register