Hate doesn’t just happen.
Not in life — as lyricist Oscar Hammerstein reminded us in "South Pacific," in a message so memorable that it became culturally and politically controversial when first sung on Broadway in 1949: "You’ve got to be taught/To hate and fear,/You’ve got to be taught/From year to year…/You’ve got to be carefully taught."
And not in politics — as strategist emeritus Karl Rove proved in masterminding George W. Bush to his smear-and-fear victories. And as Rove’s protege Steve Schmidt has demonstrated as strategist for John McCain and Sarah Palin.
Don’t get me wrong _ Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a hero of the civil rights movement, went too far in linking last week what happens at McCain-Palin rallies to the hate Alabama’s segregationist Gov. George Wallace fomented including the church bombing that killed four little girls.
But it is also true that Wallace indeed fomented rage and anger when he ran for president as an independent candidate in the hate-filled presidential campaign of 1968.
I covered Wallace’s campaign as a young Newsday reporter and I’ve found myself thinking of those hateful days in 1968 when people in McCain and Palin crowds would hear calculated hate-fomenting rhetoric (such as Palin’s claim that Obama was "palling around with terrorists") and would shout out "Kill him!" or "Get him!"
Remember 1968. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Then Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic nominee, running against Republican Richard Nixon and the independent, Wallace. America was rife with Vietnam War protests.
Wallace spoke contemptuously of the government ("pointy-headed intellectuals") and the liberal news media. His crowds shouted angry epithets. In Cicero, Ill., outside Chicago, two young men and one young woman unfurled a small sign that said "Peace Now" — and the crowd began shouting "Two queers and a lesbian! Get them!" — and their sign was ripped down. Another shouted at a note-taking reporter he assumed was Jewish: "Hey Jew! You writing backwards?"
In a Wallace rally at a Cleveland auditorium, a handful of anti-war protesters were escorted outside by police. I was the only reporter who went outside to see what would happen. I climbed atop our parked press pool car, a convertible. Suddenly one policeman lost his cool and smashed his club down on the head of a demonstrator he felt wasn’t moving off the sidewalk fast enough.
Again and again he and others clubbed the youth; and when a young woman ran up and yelled "Stop!" she was clubbed too and fell in a heap on the sidewalk. Just then Wallace’s car drove out of the garage and our motorcade sped to the airport.
At the airport tarmac, Wallace shook hands with his police escort and as the only reporter there I told Wallace what I’d witnessed and asked for his comment. He said usually the police are "too lenient." And climbed up the steps of his plane.
That was when the cops circled around me. One asked for my identification. When I got out my wallet, another cop slapped it to the ground, cards scattering, while a third ripped my notebook out of my other hand, and a fourth hit me with a kidney punch.
Then George Wallace appeared. He’d seen what had happened and came back down the steps. "Hey Marty, I just wanted to say I enjoyed having you travel with me this week. You’re always fair. You’ll be there again on Monday, right?"
Yes, I said, if I survived Cleveland. He smiled, winked, and walked away. The policemen apologized. "Sorry, sir…We didn’t know… Didn’t understand."
I thought of that incident last week, when a woman told McCain she was afraid of Obama and that he was an Arab. McCain shook his head no, took the microphone from her hand, said Obama was a good citizen and she shouldn’t be afraid if he became president.
McCain, who I’ve known in the past as a good man, had seen what George Wallace saw. Things had gone too far.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)