Ah, what fools we were to hope that maybe, this time, it wouldn’t get nasty.
In little more than eight months, we’ll choose our next president, a person who will have to deal with a weak economy, a no-win war in Iraq, a widening gap between rich and poor, a politically divided nation where almost one-sixth of the population has no health insurance, a world that no longer believes the United States wants above all to do the right thing.
While we ponder, embassies burn and new crises erupt every day.
In preparation for the election, we are asking each other: Is John McCain a hypocrite? Is Barack Obama an empty suit? Is Hillary Rodham Clinton too yesterday?
Putting its reputation totally on the line, The New York Times has suggested that McCain’s history during the scurrilous Keating Five scandal of lobbying regulators for savings-and-loan executive Charles Keating, who contributed to his political campaign, may not have been eclipsed by McCain’s current contempt for using public office to wheel and deal.
If eight years ago McCain’s friendship with a lobbyist (an attractive female, as newspapers hastened to point out) caused him to try to curry favor with regulators for her clients, he could be in deep trouble with voters. But McCain, wife Cindy by his side, categorically denied an improper relationship, doing special favors for lobbyists or betraying in any way the public’s trust. Through her company, the lobbyist denied an improper relationship or that she misused her friendship with McCain.
We don’t know all the facts; undoubtedly, more will come to light. But if McCain is being truthful, the mighty Times has another huge, monstrous stain on its credibility. It’s a puzzle. If The New York Times’ only aim was to remind the public that McCain, champion of reforming the way campaigns are financed, was ensnared in the 1980s by the very devil he aims to tame, it was so ham-handed as to be reprehensible.
Meanwhile, Democrats are engaged in their own increasingly distasteful power struggles. The Clinton forces suggest that Barack Obama is a marvelous speaker with little substance behind his lovely words and too few specifics. As Clinton put it, “All hat and no cattle.”
She triple-dog-dares Obama to explain just what he means by “change” and wants to know how he’ll pay for the programs he espouses, how he will pull the plug on Iraq without dire consequences and where he’ll get the experience to become chief executive on Day One.
Oh, and by the way, said the Clinton people, some of Obama’s fine rhetoric came from his buddy, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. Inadvertent or not, isn’t that plagiarism, query the Clinton people innocently?
For his part, Obama suggests that the nation doesn’t really want to return to the angst of the Clinton years, despite the good economy of the late 1990s. Clinton may be a fine ex-first lady and sitting senator, Obama’s forces say, but watching her husband govern is not the same as having governed herself, and do we really want to go back for the future? Isn’t she “the establishment” personified?
In every gathering place, the questions are being thrashed over. Are we ready for a black president? Are we ready for a woman president? Are we ready to elect a 72-year-old with a temper?
Before this is over, we will be forced to explore all kinds of nooks and crannies of the candidates’ lives, temperaments and past deeds. Many of us will continue to be confused about what decision to make all the way to November.
We would like to think that after our pleas for civility, the race to bash the candidates would slow down. We’d like to think the candidates would not be so desperate to lash out at each other. There are dozens of serious questions that have not yet been asked of the candidates.
But this will not be a quiet, solemn election. The stakes are too large. Passions are too intense.
We must brace ourselves. More dirt will fly.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)