IF you think way back to the start of this marathon campaign, back when it seemed preposterous that any black man could be a seriouspresidential contender, then you remember the biggest fear aboutBarack Obama: a crazy person might take a shot at him.
Some voters told reporters that they didn’t want Obama to run, letalone win, should his very presence unleash the demons who havestalked America from Lincoln to King. After consultation withCongress, Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary, gaveObama a Secret Service detailearlier than any presidential candidatein our history — in May 2007, some eight months before the firstDemocratic primaries.“I’ve got the best protection in the world, so stop worrying,” Obamareassuredhis supporters. Eventually the country got conditioned tohis appearing in large arenas without incident (though I confess thatthe first loud burst of fireworks at the end of his convention stadiumspeech gave me a start). In America, nothing does succeed likesuccess. The fear receded.Until now. At McCain-Palin rallies, the raucous and insistent cries of “Treason!” and “Terrorist!” and “Kill him!” and “Off with his head!” as well as the uninhibitedslinging of racial epithets, are actually
something new in a campaign that has seen almost every conceivabletwist. They are alarms. Doing nothing is not an option. All’s fair in politics. John McCain and Sarah Palin have every right to bring up William Ayers, even if his connection to Obama isminor,even if Ayers’s Weather Underground history dates back to Obama’schildhood, even if establishment Republicans and Democrats alikehave collaborated with the present-day Ayers in educational reform.But it’s not just the old Joe McCarthyesque guilt-by-association game,however spurious, that’s going on here. Don’t for an instant believethe many mindlessly “even-handed” journalists who keep saying thatthe McCain campaign’s use of Ayers is the moral or politicalequivalent of the Obama campaign’s hammering on Charles Keating. What makes them different, and what has pumped up the Weimar-like rage at McCain-Palin rallies, is the violent escalation in rhetoric,especially (though not exclusively) by Palin. Obama “launched hispolitical career in the living room of a domestic terrorist.” He is“palling around with terrorists” (note the plural noun). Obama is “nota man who sees America the way you and I see America.” Wielding a wildly out-of-context Obama quote, Palinslurs himas an enemy of American troops.By the time McCainasks the crowd“Who is the real Barack Obama?”it’s no surprise thatsomeone cries out“Terrorist!” The rhetoricalconflation of Obama with terrorism is complete. It is stoked further by therepeated invocationof Obama’s middle name by surrogatesintroducing McCain and Palin at these rallies. This sleight of hand atonce synchronizes with the poisonous Obama-is-a-Muslim e-mail blasts and shifts the brand of terrorism from Ayers’s Vietnam-era variety to the radical Islamic threats of today.That’s a far cry from simply accusing Obama of being a guilty-by-association radical leftist. Obama is being branded as a potentialkiller and an accessory to past attempts at murder. “Barack Obama’sfriend tried to kill my family” was how a McCain press releaselast