The old saw in 2000 and 2004 between George Bush and first Al Gore and then John Kerry was, “Who would you want to have a beer with?” In 2008, it’s become, “Who would you want to have a fear with?”
John McCain’s chief advisor, Charlie Black, let slip what McCain’s campaign and whomever claims to have been his supporters have been thinking: If there were another terrorist attack on U.S. soil, it could only help John McCain’s candidacy.
In fairness to Mr. Black, context is everything, and…Okay, in this case, it isn’t. Black was talking to Fortune magazine about how the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, even though “unfortunate,” gave John McCain the mojo he needed to nail down a come-from-behind victory in the Iowa caucuses. That suggestion in itself is more than a little “unfortunate.” I did a quick check on the Iowa caucus exit poll data from this past January 3, and illegal immigration and the economy came in first and second. Terrorism was third, but I don’t have any evidence that any Iowans cited Benazir Bhutto by name. Mike Huckabee commented on her assassination, but his mention was only notable in that he had to issue a clarification in that he had meant to offer “sympathies” and not “apologies.” (That one got a lot of people excited before Governor Huckabee’s alacritous clarification.)
Mr. Black wasn’t done yet. “(McCain’s) knowledge and ability to talk about it re-emphasized that this is the guy who’s ready to be commander in chief. And it helped us.” Then she didn’t die in vain. Sensing it had unfurled enough rope, the Fortune reporter asked if another terror attack on the United States, within one of our fifty states, would be a boon to his boss. “Certainly it would be a big advantage to him.”
Welcome to another episode of Surrogates Gone Wild. Only in this case it was his senior campaign advisor. McCain was as rattled at the slip as any Presidential contender since American Independent Party candidate George Wallace in 1968 had to deal with his new Vice Presidential running mate, General Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay, defending American nuclear testing in the Bikini Atoll by saying that life had returned vigorously to the island, citing the enormous girth of the resident rats, but conceding “the land crabs are still a little hot,” and defended nuclear war by saying he’d rather die by a nuclear bomb than a rusty pocketknife in a knife fight.
Senator McCain issued a statement at his next news conference after the gaffe. “I cannot imagine why he would say it. It’s not true. I’ve worked tirelessly since 9/11 to prevent another attack on the United States of America. My record is very clear. The Armed Services Committee, and pieces of legislation, sponsoring with Joe Lieberman the 9/11 Commission so we could find out the causes and how to fix the challenges that we face, to fix the security of our nation. I cannot imagine it. So I would If he said that, and I do not know the context, I strenuously disagree.’’
Points for diplomacy, yes, but there wasn’t anything else he could have said–at least nothing that he wouldn’t have said badly. What he didn’t say, though, and still hasn’t said was the most obvious of all: “Charlie, you’re fired.”
The Terror Card is a really wretched and reprehensible card to play, and Black’s renunciation and McCain’s rebuke notwithstanding, they’re like the calculating “good sons” who love Grandma like no one’s business and wish her a long and fruitful life, but are all too aware that if she pops a blood vessel or her heart seizes up–God forbid either, of course–there’s enough for a Porcshe and a Barbados time share in it for both of them. Charlie just made the unforgivable faux pas of letting their darkest wishes slip.
What remains to be seen is how the terrorist demographic weighs in. We all remember 2004 when Osama bin Laden dropped his tape four days before Americans went to the polls. That was elegant strategy on his part, because he knew that a Bush Administration that had been so little interested in him for the last 34 months would respond to his dispatch by reaccelerating their focus on Iraq. A new Democratic President might try to redirect the attention on the war that we hadn’t finished in the first place–the one where we were fighting the people who actually attacked us. You remember the one. Or maybe you don’t. Google it. I think it’s on Wikipedia.
The other issue that remains to be determined is how slavishly the American electorate is going to buy into the fearmongering this time around. As Richard Wolffe noted on Countdown with Keith Olbermann tonight, when the Madrid train bombings hit in Spain right before an election, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party candidate José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero defeated hard-line Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar three days after the attacks.
Of course, that’s the best-case scenario. Worst-case is that the American people pick up the torches and pitchforks and hunt you down for inviting a terrorist attack on the country. Even worse for your resume is if you’re perceived responsible by your actions of destroying the GOP for a generation.
Charlie Black was being candid to his own fault, and it’s a little vicious to suggest that he’s in favor of Americans dying so that he adds a chit to his portfolio for getting his candidate elected at any cost. At the end of the day, it’s very bad form, and for the director of a PR firm, it’s politically-deaf enough to invite Helen Keller jokes. Sorry, Charlie.