With her reckless references to Barack Obama's "palling around with terrorists," Palin attempts to tie Obama to 1970s bomb-thrower William Ayers. In fact, Ayers (now a Chicago professor) did some very bad things in his past, but Obama barely knows the man.
Palin's incendiary claim to a partisan Florida audience that Obama is "not someone who sees America as you and I do -- as the greatest force for good in the world" led to shouts of "Kill him!" directed at Ayers. At a Colorado rally, Palin's dubious accusation about Obama led to a shout of " Treason!" by someone in the audience.
My first thought when I saw these words was of the bad old days of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. As a student in the Deep South and occasional activist in the movement, I remember well the hate-filled atmosphere of the era. While the followers of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to achieve simple justice through Gandhi-style civil disobedience and passive resistance, those who would block the movement -- like Alabama Governor George C. Wallace, the leading segregationist of the era -- used snarling language and ill-disguised hatred of blacks to thwart their progress. As a member of the hated national media -- I was a reporter for Time -- I was often the target of vituperative insults by my fellow whites. When they learned that I, too, was a native Southerner, they accused me of "treason."
That's why I'm so outraged by Palin's careless and exaggerated attacks on Obama and her breezy lack of awareness of the effect such words have on people. When even one or two members of a political audience react with violence-laden words, there's a problem, and the candidates can be held responsible, it seems to me. There's negative campaigning, but there's also negative leadership. That's what it is when a candidate's supporters take their words as license for verbal extremes.The problem with verbal excess is that it sometimes leads to calamitous deeds. When I think of the words of Wallace -- and his fellow traveler of the 1960s, Governor Lester Maddox of Georgia, where I grew up -- I can't help but remember the radical excesses, the murders and beatings carried out by the most violent members of the white majority. When Wallace used "law 'n' order" as his code words against blacks who were peacefully demonstrating for equal rights, some of his listeners felt they could act with impunity against them.
On Saturday, Represenative John Lewis, one of the heroes of the civil rights movement, made the comparison himself. Lewis, now a congressman from Atlanta, took the McCain-Palin campaign severely to task for "sowing the seeds of hatred and division." He said: "George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights. Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed on a Sunday morning (in 1963) when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama."
The climate of hatred claimed many other victims as well. Most famous among them was Martin Luther King, Jr., who was killed in April, 1968. Two months later the victim was Robert F. Kennedy, younger brother of the assassinated president, who was himself running for president. A Kennedy biographer, Thurston Clarke, wrote this week that Robert Kennedy was "demonized before he was assassinated." Clarke reminds us that a leading newspaper editor had called Kennedy "the most vicious and dangerous leader in the United States today."
Worse, a newspaper columnist and self-proclaimed bigot, Westbrook Pegler, had expressed the wish that "some white patriot ... will spatter (Kennedy's) spoonful of brains in public premises before the snow flies" -- an outright incitement to murder. In the end, of course, it was a disaffected Palestinian who killed Kennedy.
Sarah Palin has suggested no such thing as murder. She would no doubt be horrified at the thought. Yet it is a measure of her blithe ignorance -- and of the tin ear of her speech writers -- that her acceptance address at the Republican National Convention quoted Westbrook Pegler's famous line: "We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity." The sentence sounds harmless until you consider that, in the context of a nearly all-white Republican convention, the words will be understood, even if subliminally, as an attack on America's cities, many of them dominated by black political leaders.
The fact that Palin could throw out even an anodyne quote from someone as discredited as Pegler (she called him simply "a writer," as if no one would check) is another sign of her naivete at a time when America has finally broken with its painful history and nominated a black man for president. How inflammatory can her careless rhetoric be? Thurston Clarke raised the question: "Has Sarah Palin Put a Target on Obama?"
God forbid. And cut it out with the cheap shots, Sarah. An atmosphere of character assassination and cultural clash helps no one. In Governor Wallace's case, the bitter whirlwind turned, finally, against him, too. In May, 1972, while running for president, Wallace was gunned down in an assassination attempt that left him in a wheelchair until his death in 1998.
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