I think it’s safe to say that John McCain is the last presidential candidate I’ll ever see who is old enough to be my father. Born in 1936, he is the end of the line for pre-Baby Boomer candidates—members of my parents’ generation who grew up during World War II and were front-seat participants in the tumultuous changes this country faced as the Eisenhower era morphed into the Kennedy years and then crashed into the social upheaval of the 1960s. Like John Kerry before him, McCain is a Vietnam Veteran, and his hellish experience as a POW in that country played an important role in catapulting him into public life.
By contrast, Barack Obama is the very first presidential candidate who is younger than I am, a fact that still floors me every time I think about it. I was finally getting used to Baby Boomers in this role, from Bill Clinton and George W. to Hillary, Al Gore, Edwards, Romney, Huckabee, and others born in the post-war boom of the 1940s and early 1950s. But Obama was born in 1961, seven months after John F. Kennedy took the oath of office. He heralds the dawn of a new era in which all candidates will belong to Generation X and beyond.
Late-night talk show hosts have been having a field day with jokes about McCain’s age. There’s even a website called “Things Younger Than Presidential Candidate (Oh, and Did I Forget to Mention War Hero?) John McCain.” Among the items listed that came into being after McCain’s birth are LSD, the Golden Gate Bridge, the slinky, the Lincoln Tunnel, the telephone area code, and penicillin. At 72, it seems strange that, if elected, McCain would be the oldest person ever to become President (Ronald Reagan was about to turn 70 when he was inaugurated). I’m sure it’s a sign of my own age that 72 no longer feels old to me, and as much as I desperately do NOT want John McCain to win the election, I think the Democrats need to be very careful in what tactics they use to try to scare people off McCain. I think focusing on McCain’s age is a mistake that could backfire. There are plenty of reasons not to vote for John McCain, but I just don’t think age is one of them, and to focus on this would simply irritate the legions of aging Boomers and invite in the concerns about Obama’s youth and inexperience.
Another tactic I worry about is the so-called “family values” bit. The story of John McCain’s first wife Carol has been making the rounds this week even though it’s old news Still, there are plenty of voters that don’t realize that Cindy McCain is John's second wife, a woman McCain started dating while he was still married to first wife Carol, the woman who stood by him during his capture and imprisonment and his difficult adjustment back to normal life. It gets worse. While McCain’s beautiful young bride was waiting for her husband to emerge from his ordeal in Vietnam, she was involved in a terrible life-threatening car accident. She had to undergo several surgeries and emerged from them with a permanent limp. When McCain left for Vietnam, his wife was a statuesque former model. The accident left her four inches shorter and by the time McCain was released in 1973, she had gained a considerable amount of weight. There’s no question that all of these facts are true, but the implication in the recent articles is that John lost interest in Carol when he returned to the States because she was no longer the beauty that he remembered. McCain himself readily admits that his marriage faltered upon his return and that he had several extramarital affairs which eventually led him into the arms of an heiress named Cindy Hensley, 17 years his junior. He asked Carol for a divorce in early 1980 and married Cindy a month later. Even though I’m repeating the details of this unflattering story, I reserve judgment—what the hell do we know about what went on between those two people? To her credit, Carol has never trashed her ex in public and seems to support his political career in the same quiet way that Jane Wyman supported Ronald Reagan. Although reporters are constantly begging Carol McCain for dirt about her former husband, the worst thing she’s ever publicly said about him was “My marriage ended because John McCain was 40 and wanted to be 25.”
Ross Perot, of all people, got involved with the McCains when John was a POW. After Carol’s accident, he paid many of her medical bills and became a close family friend. But today Perot is no fan of McCain’s. “McCain is the classic opportunist,” Perot said recently. “He’s always reaching for attention and glory. After he came home, Carol walked with a limp. So he threw her over for a poster girl with big money from Arizona. And the rest is history.” Ouch. This chapter in McCain's life doesn't make him look very noble, but I hope the Democrats don’t run with it. Especially after emphasizing for so long how Bill Clinton’s philandering had little to do with his ability to be an effective President. Guys—we can’t have it both ways!
Similarly, I hope the Republican Party doesn’t continue its attempts to paint Michelle Obama as some kind of fist-in-the-air America-hating radical, charges that are patently absurd. The recent smear campaign against her regarding the alleged video of Michelle at the pulpit of Trinity Church “raving against whitey” was forcefully addressed by the peeved Obama campaign in a new website they launched yesterday called fightthesmears.com. Not only has Michelle Obama never spoken from the Trinity pulpit, the very idea that such an incendiary video exists and is being withheld until just the right moment is preposterous. If anyone had their hands on such a thing we’d be seeing it in a continuous loop on Fox News. The site also exposes other crazy lies being spread about Obama such as that he’s hiding his birth certificate and is not really an American citizen, that he was raised Muslim and once attended a radical madrassa, that he won’t say the pledge of allegiance or put his hand on his heart when others say it, and so on. Good for the Obama campaign for creating this website. How sad for our country that such a thing is necessary.
I hope that McCain and his minions distance themselves from such attacks, especially since McCain has been a victim of these right-wing smear campaigns. During his 2000 run for the presidency, the Republicans who were backing George W. Bush unleashed a barrage of anti-McCain propaganda designed to turn off conservatives. They said that he was a homosexual, that Cindy was a drug addict (she did have a problem with prescription drugs that she licked), that he was a traitor to this country for what he did while in captivity in Vietnam, and that the girl the McCains adopted from one of Mother Teresa’s orphanages in Bangladesh was really a black child that McCain had fathered out of wedlock. Oy. While Bush’s team was never directly linked to the rumor mill, Bush did benefit from the pack of lies by stopping McCain’s momentum dead in its tracks and winning the South Carolina primary. Of the folks who spread these rumors via aggressive fax, flyer, and email campaigns, McCain simply said, “I believe there is a special place in hell for people like those.”
Will he stand by those words? I was relieved to hear that McCain has his own crazy preacher in his past—maybe that will cancel out the urge to make political hay out of Obama’s past associations. Is it naive to hope that for the next five months both sides might actually focus on the issues that affect this country instead of the kind of mudslinging that makes Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover look like icons of goodness and fair play?