“John McCain Owes Michelle Obama an Apology”—Not

Barack Obama is disappointed in John McCain. In the ensuing months, he may have to get used to disappointment. Especially if he’s going to use his media opportunities to demand apologies from McCain for things he hasn’t done. First time at bat in this game, Senator Obama is disappointed that Senator McCain has not denounced the rumor and innuendo that Mrs. Obama (do we still call our First Ladies “Mrs.”?) used the racist word “whitey” in a speech some years ago. But rumor has it that it was someone close to Hillary Clinton who threw the first pitch, presumably in an effort to discredit Senator Obama during the Democrat primaries.

So what has Senator McCain done wrong in this inning? His sin is one of omission rather than commission: he hasn’t had the decency to denounce the scurrilous rumor. Must McCain now monitor every negative thing that’s said about the Obamas and use his own media opportunities to distance himself from the source of each rumor? Come on—this is the Big Leagues. Champions don’t play ball in the sandbox.

Whether he should be the next President or not, it surely is clear that McCain does not owe the Obamas a public expression of sympathy in this matter. McCain should ignore the other Senator’s challenge. Here’s why:

First, McCain’s credentials as a man of fairness do not depend on what other people say about his political opponents, unless those other people speak in some suitably official sense on his behalf.

Second, Mr. Obama has insinuated that Mr. McCain is comfortable with putting families under the microscope during Presidential campaigns, and Obama assumes that this is a no-no. But this tactic is misleading. Certainly, there is a tradition of respecting the privacy of a candidate’s children, especially if they are young children. Older children who campaign for a parent deservedly come under closer scrutiny. But in Big League campaigns—like campaigning for President of the United States—spouses naturally come under public scrutiny. There are several legitimate and important reasons for this:

  • A President’s spouse is, presumably, an intimate life-partner and a reflection on the President’s values and wisdom when making substantive decisions.
  • In recent years, it’s come to light that Presidential wives influence policy through their relationships with their husbands. (We’ve also seen the potential for a Presidential spouse to blackmail her high-profile and politically powerful mate, should he violate a sacred trust.)
  • Presidential wives have exercised considerable independent leadership on issues of national interest, exploiting (rightly or wrongly) the opportunity created by virtue of nuptial relations with the President.
  • A President’s spouse is a key ambassador to the world and a barometer of what is best about America. American citizens have a vested interest in how their First Lady represents them.

That last point leads to a third reason why McCain should not swing at Obama’s pitch. It’s likely that a non-trivial number of Americans would like to know whether Michelle Obama actually spoke (or mis-spoke) as alleged. And public opinion has to be respected by candidates for high office.

The influential role of public opinion isn’t some necessary evil made inevitable by democracy. The influence of public opinion is a public good, especially when it is well-informed opinion. It is one of the few means available for the electorate to hold its leaders (or would-be leaders) accountable. Some political leaders have been remarkably obtuse about this. Ours is an open society in ways unimaginable just decades ago. Still, an astonishing number of politicians today behave in an impolitic manner, as if no one will notice.

Barack Obama’s decision to bait John McCain may prove to be a strategic error, for it’s likely to encourage the electorate to make more deliberate comparisons between Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain. Who can be predict what that will mean? The two woman are conspicuously different in many respects. Polling the electorate on this point probably won’t be very illuminating, since many people would consider questions about potential First Ladies to be indelicate, even if their Presidential preference is influenced by impressions they have of candidates’ wives. And Obama’s recent comments suggest that he prefers to re-direct focus on his wife.

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

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