The part of John McCain’s interview with the New Republic getting the most attention today is where he admits to being conflicted over whether, in a hypothetical 2016 general election, he’d vote for Hillary Clinton over Rand Paul. The article is even headlined “John McCain, Undecided 2016 Voter,” as if to nudge readers along, in case they thought the flames of GOP internecine warfare weren’t being fanned quite enough yet this week.

And of course it is juicy enough in its own way, raising the prospect that the party’s former presidential nominee will jump ship rather than be captained by a libertarian. Nonetheless, though the interview spans foreign and domestic policy, from drones to “wacko birds” to Egyptian coups, one part of the interview caught my attention. McCain was asked about the role Sarah Palin played in the 2008 campaign and her choice of attack lines to aim at the Obama/Biden ticket (“IC” is the New Republic’s Isaac Chotiner, who conducted the interview; “JM” is McCain):

IC: But she also accused Obama of “palling around with terrorists.” It wasn’t entirely positive.

JM: Well, if she attacked Obama and Biden, that is fairly standard.

IC: “Palling around with terrorists”?

JM: With all due respect, you never heard about when John Lewis said my campaign was worse than the Birmingham church bombing? That may have escaped your attention.

IC: It did. I agree, that is bad.

JM: OK, well, that is what he did, when they orchestrated this “racism” effort against me. Maybe Sarah Palin said “palling around with terrorists,” but the things that were said about me and her were far worse. I’ll never forgive John Lewis.

IC: Did you ever talk to Lewis?

JM: No. I would be glad to show you the press release. But we selectively take something Palin said, and the vice president’s job is to attack, and how many people know about John Lewis? I can show you many other comments. For me to complain about it is a waste of time.

This actually quite tragic, and it just reinforces the fact that the false accusations of racism in which the media and elected Democrats traffic is so corrosive to American politics. You don’t hear McCain complain about the fact that the Obama campaign mocked his war wounds or told Hispanic voters that McCain was against immigration reform when it was Obama who torpedoed McCain’s attempt to liberalize the system. Or, for that matter, any of the other more routine attacks.

Politics ain’t beanbag, of course. Campaigns breed all kinds of personal and political attacks, but rarely the kind that can never be forgiven. Tarring a person’s character with the racism charge just to try to win an election is especially reprehensible. It’s reminiscent of Ted Kennedy’s attack on Robert Bork at the latter’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing. “Robert Bork’s America,” the bilious speech claimed, would be a place where “blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters.”

It went beyond the usual character assassination and smear campaigns typical of the left. It forever changed the way judges were confirmed. It broke new ground–even for Kennedy, who had long mastered the politics of personal destruction and turned vapid belligerence into an art form. The confirmation process never recovered, and neither did the courts, membership of which was now available only to those who pretended not to have an opinion about anything. Intellectual discourse was off the table–Kennedy had spoken.

And American politics hasn’t truly recovered either. Even the left understands the damage Kennedy and his cohorts (including the current vice president) did to the country. As Joe Nocera wrote in the New York Times in 2011:

The Bork fight, in some ways, was the beginning of the end of civil discourse in politics. For years afterward, conservatives seethed at the “systematic demonization” of Bork, recalls Clint Bolick, a longtime conservative legal activist. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution coined the angry verb “to bork,” which meant to destroy a nominee by whatever means necessary. When Republicans borked the Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright less than two years later, there wasn’t a trace of remorse, not after what the Democrats had done to Bork. The anger between Democrats and Republicans, the unwillingness to work together, the profound mistrust — the line from Bork to today’s ugly politics is a straight one.

And yet the media and Democrats persist in their efforts to call everyone with whom they disagree a racist. Detroit’s bankruptcy is just the latest example, but the trial of George Zimmerman is a reminder of this as well. NBC chose to edit the 9-1-1 call Zimmerman made in order to make it appear as though Zimmerman might be racist, setting off a trial that was suddenly a referendum on racial justice. The press decided to paint Zimmerman as a racist monster, and now the family Zimmerman saved from a car wreck is afraid to speak out publicly on his behalf for fear of “blowback.”

I’m sure there are those who will accuse McCain of sour grapes or unjustly holding a grudge. But he seems to have been able to let the election go. He just can’t quite get beyond the sinister accusation of racism, which became so normalized by the left that virtually every Republican candidate four years later was hit with the same accusation. The damage this is doing to the country is visible and resilient, but as long as Democrats believe it helps them win elections, we can only expect more of it.

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