Tuesday, August 28, 2007

McCain's Mea Culpa Express

Fresh off his big win in the 2000 New Hampshire primary, John McCain was fighting hard in South Carolina. A win there might have catapulted him past George W. Bush to the Republican nomination. So he side-stepped one of the state's hottest issues: the Confederate battle flag flying above the capitol in Columbia.

"I don't believe it's the role of someone from outside South Carolina and someone running for president to come into this state and tell the people of South Carolina what to do with their business when it comes to the flag," he said at the time.

"Some say the flag represents slavery. But men fought for it under what they thought was a noble cause. I'd say it stands for heritage and sacrifice."

That was then. This year, McCain is on his Mea Culpa Tour.

In his new book, "Hard Calls," which profiles courageous decisions by people from Harry Truman to Reinhold Niebuhr, he writes about a hard call he didn't make.

"When I ran for president in 2000," he writes, "I took a position I knew to be wrong on a controversial public issue that had a moral component because I thought it might help me win the primary .... In addition to the fact that it did me little political good, it caused me to be ashamed of myself, and it's a little late in life to bear that kind of burden."

McCain has revisited his decision in a series of interviews. Here's what he told 60 Minutes' Scott Pelley:

PELLEY: Let me bring up another issue that surrounded South Carolina in the year 2000. There was a political issue, a local issue about whether the Confederate flag should fly over the capitol. You waffled on that.

SEN. MCCAIN: Yes, worse than waffled.

PELLEY: What do you mean?

SEN. MCCAIN: Well, I said that it was strictly a state issue and clearly knowing that it wasn't.

PELLEY: That's not what you believed in your heart?

SEN. MCCAIN: No.

PELLEY: What did you believe in your heart?

SEN. MCCAIN: That it was a symbol to many of ... a very offensive symbol to many, many Americans.

PELLEY: Why didn't you say that?

SEN. MCCAIN: I'm sure for all the wrong reasons.

PELLEY: And those wrong reasons would be what, sir?

SEN MCCAIN: For ambition.

McCain said much the same this month on NPR's Morning Edition.

"I'd call it a hard call that I didn't make," he said of the flag issue. "The hard call would have been said: This flag is an affront to people all over America, as well as in South Carolina, and it's not right to be there. I should've made the hard call."

My question: Will McCain's candor about 2000 make a difference in 2008? What do you think?

1 comment:

David McKnight said...

I wish North and South Carolina could pause for a moment and study up on what the people of Virginia have done to reconcile and harmonize that part of their history which included their commonwealth's participation in the Confederacy. Virginians have been able to honor the legacies of a broad range of their historical and modern-day leaders in all areas of American life, from Robert E. Lee to Arthur Ashe.

South Carolina's position in the historical South is unique with respect to the other Southern states because it was the one individual state which pressed the lingering issues related to "nullification" in the 1830s to the ultimate break with the original federal constitutional union in the 1860s.

True, it was a Republican President from the Midwest who had to call together the political and military forces in favor of preserving the Union to oppose the confederacy initially insisted upon by South Carolina, but it was against the administration of a Democratic President from the Northeast that this movement actually began prior to the transfer of the duties of the presidency from James Buchanan of Pennsylvania to Abraham Lincoln of Illinois.

So this was a national crisis-- geographically, politically and militarily--from the beginning.

And yet, if there had not been a hitch in the expected early workings of the Electoral College system in the Election of 1796, it might have been a South Carolinian, Gov. James Pinckney, was would have emerged as the Federalist Vice President for the successor to George Washington, Federalist John Adams of Massachusetts. That's right, it would have been Massachusetts and South Carolina providing the leadership to fill out the chart of party ambitions sketched out by the Federalists through the first half of the 1790s.

But as it turned out, the Republican Thomas Jefferson was chosen as Vice President in 1796, setting up a sort of awkward waltz within the Adams administration until the Election of 1800 resolved the standoff through the ascension of the first of three Virginia Republicans in the "Virginia Dynasty" to hold the White House for two full terms each--Jefferson, Madison and Monroe.

So if the stagecoach of history had ambled down another trail, a South Carolinian might have had a turn at the presidency in the early years of the Republic, and this in turn might have helped South Carolina to reform its state government and find a way to blend its own state concerns with constitutional federalism in the first half of the 19th Century while perhaps avoiding the need to push both nullification and seccession to their logical endlines.

Whether slavery could have been abolished by the South and within the South without the calamity and suffering of a national civil war can of course be debated by patriots of all stripes. But people should recognize this much at least: many of the citizens of the states of the Confederacy who answered the call to military service between 1861 and 1865 did so because they felt this call went beyond the disagreements over the inequalities and injustices of the time and went instead to looming question of just how the states were meant to associate with one another constitutionally in the American Union of the 19th Century and beyond.

South Carolina pushed these issues more fervently than some other Southern states, including North Carolina, which to the last sought a way to remain within the Union without be obliged to take up arms against its neighbors across the Carolina line. So it is up to Carolinas of the 21st Century to re-define these struggles and legacies and give them meaning in a fair-minded and just manner so that no presidential candidate from the South or elsewhere will have to go through what Buchanan and Lincoln faced and have to create, on the spot in a press conference or elsewhere, a meaningful and relevant response to the participation of one Southern state's citizens in an immediate but short-lived statewide call to military service.