In the 2000 campaign, (McCain) waded straight into the hottest controversy in South Carolina, not long before his crucial primary showdown with George W. Bush, by offering his unvarnished opinion on whether the Confederate battle flag — the Stars and Bars — should continue to fly over the state capitol. "As we all know, it’s a symbol of racism and slavery," McCain said. After John Weaver and others did more than whisper in his ear, McCain took to reading aloud from a piece of paper with a statement that began, "As to how I view the flag, I understand both sides," and went downhill from there.
For better or worse, McCain’s campaign was never the same again. And no one is more aware of this than John McCain himself. In Worth the Fighting For, his second memoir, written with his longtime aide Mark Salter in 2002, McCain reflected on what he had done:
By the time I was asked the question for the fourth or fifth time, I could have delivered the response from memory. But I persisted with the theatrics of unfolding the paper and reading it as if I were making a hostage statement. I wanted to telegraph to reporters that I really didn’t mean to suggest I supported flying the flag, but political imperatives required a little evasiveness on my part. I wanted them to think me still an honest man, who simply had to cut a corner a little here and there so that I could go on to be an honest president.
I think that made the offense worse. Acknowledging my dishonesty with a wink didn’t make it less a lie. It compounded the offense by revealing how willful it had been. You either have the guts to tell the truth or you don’t. You don’t get any dispensation for lying in a way that suggests your dishonesty.
Everyone has sinned; everyone has fallen short of the mark. McCain gets my admiration by setting forth his faults in an unvarnished manner, and telling us — in a way that we can hold him accountable — that he considers them to be totally unacceptable.