In the third, final and most combative debate, Sen. John McCain accused Sen. Barack Obama of failing to repudiate nasty statements against McCain involving racial politics.
“Congressman John Lewis, an American hero, made allegations that Sarah Palin and I were somehow associated with the worst chapter in American history, segregation, deaths of children in church bombings, George Wallace. That, to me, was so hurtful,” McCain said during the Hofstra University debate on Oct. 15, 2008.
“And, Senator Obama, you didn’t repudiate those remarks.”
McCain referred to comments by Rep. Lewis, D-Georgia, who is an icon in the civil rights movement. In a statement Oct. 11, 2008, Lewis related the tenor of McCain campaign events to political tactics by segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace that encouraged attacks over people seeking civil rights protections in the 1960s.
“What I am seeing reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history,” Lewis wrote. “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 issued his statement after news reports catalogued a series of McCain campaign events in which some audience members shouted such things as “terrorist” and “kill him” when Obama’s name was mentioned by the speakers. The remarks came as the McCain campaign embarked on a decidedly aggressive approach, focusing on Obama’s long-ago association with 1960s radical William Ayers.
But the question is whether Obama was silent when Lewis likened the tone of the McCain rallies to those of Wallace and the segregationists. Obama’s campaign did break with Lewis’ statement the same day he made it, although it also said Lewis “was right to condemn” statements by Palin associating Obama with terrorists.
Here’s the statement Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton issued on Oct. 11:
“Senator Obama does not believe that John McCain or his policy criticism is in any way comparable to George Wallace or his segregationist policies. But John Lewis was right to condemn some of the hateful rhetoric that John McCain himself personally rebuked just last night, as well as the baseless and profoundly irresponsible charges from his own running mate that the Democratic nominee for President of the United States ‘pals around with terrorists.’
“As Barack Obama has said himself, the last thing we need from either party is the kind of angry, divisive rhetoric that tears us apart at a time of crisis when we desperately need to come together. That is the kind of campaign Senator Obama will continue to run in the weeks ahead.”
But that statement never explicitly said Lewis was wrong — which is crucial to repudiating someone or something. Instead, Obama’s campaign said Lewis’ comparison wasn’t correct.
In the debate, Obama did say Lewis “inappropriately drew a comparison” between the civil rights trouble and McCain rallies.
Lewis later said he could have phrased his words differently, because he didn’t want to relate McCain and Palin directly to Wallace’s tactics. But he said he accomplished his goal of highlighting the dangerous tone of the rallies.
Obama’s campaign did promptly issue a statement, disputing the comparison that Lewis made. But that’s not the same as “repudiating” or admonishing Lewis for making that comparison. Because Obama’s campaign never specifically criticized Lewis, we rate McCain’s statement as True.