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Sen. John McCain's weeklong overseas trip to Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Britain and France in March 2008 was a bumpy one for accuracy. Thankfully, he had Sen. Joe Lieberman for a traveling companion.
Lieberman twice bailed out his friend, correcting misstatements by McCain before they became big stories.
In fact, having been so quickly corrected, they might not even be worth mentioning. But since McCain is often so quick to point out that he's the presidential candidate with the most foreign affairs experience, we felt it fair to give his comments some scrutiny. Plus it sheds some light on McCain's close relationship with fellow maverick Lieberman, who reached across the political aisle to endorse McCain.
McCain's first misstatement came on March 18, 2008, in Amman, Jordan.
"It's common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al-Qaida is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran; that's well known. And it's unfortunate," McCain said during a news conference in Jordan.
Lieberman, who was also at the news conference, spoke softly in McCain's ear, and McCain corrected himself to say "Islamic extremists" were going into Iran.
Most experts do not believe Iran is helping al-Qaida because their respective religious affiliations are at odds with each other. Both sides are Muslim, but the Iranian government is Shiite while al-Qaida is Sunni. And al-Qaida adheres to a fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam that considers Shiites to be apostates. It's not likely the two groups would work together, certainly not "common knowledge." McCain recovered quickly, but we rate his statement False for saying everyone knows that Iran and al-Qaida are working together.
The second gaffe came a day later in Israel during a news conference with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak when McCain likened the Jewish holiday of Purim to Halloween.
"Nine hundred rocket attacks in less than three months, an average of one every one to two hours," McCain said. "Obviously this puts an enormous and hard to understand strain on the people here, especially the children. As they celebrate their version of Halloween here, they are somewhere close to a 15-second warning, which is the amount of time they have from the time the rocket is launched to get to safety. That's not a way for people to live obviously."
Other than the use of costumes, there is little similarity between Purim and Halloween. And a rabbi who spoke to PolitiFact said the comment exposed McCain as someone who does not understand the meaning and import of the Jewish holiday.
On a Political Gaffe scale of 1 to 10, with a 1 being John Kerry referring to the Green Bay Packers' hallowed home as "Lambert Field" and Dan Quayle telling that poor 6th-grader to add an "e" to the end of potato being a 15, we'd rate McCain's as maybe a 2. But still, it's False.
When Lieberman had a chance to speak at the news conference, he took the fall for McCain's mistake.
"I had a brief exchange with one of the mothers whose children was in there in a costume for Purim," said Lieberman, who became the first Jewish candidate on the presidential ticket for a major American political party when he ran with Al Gore in 2000. "And it's my fault that I said to Senator McCain that this is the Israeli version of Halloween. It is in the sense because the kids dress up and it's a very happy holiday and actually it is in the sense that the sweets are very important of both holidays."
Lieberman to the rescue. Count these two incidents as reasons McCain might like to have the independent from Connecticut as a running mate.
Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, "Islam," 2006
Congressional Quarterly, Democrats' new intelligence chairman needs a crash course on al-Qaida , Dec. 8, 2008
New York Times, Can You Tell a Sunni From a Shiite? , Oct. 17, 2006
MSNBC's First Read blog, "McCain: Purim = Halloween?" , by Mark Murray, March 20, 2008
Associated Press, McCain Makes Baghdad Stop; 8th Iraq Trip , by Bradley Brooks, March 16, 2008
World Book Online Reference Center, "Purim," 2008
Interview with Rabbi Michael Torop, rabbi of Temple Beth-El in St. Petersburg, March 20, 2008