John McCain is wrong about ONE thing…

John McCain is wrong about one issue that is of any personal importance to me: the Confederate flag. And of course the moderator in last night’s debate asked him, and only him, about it. That’s fitting, since a moderator should probe a candidate’s weak points in trying to get at the truth.

Fortunately for McCain — in terms of my vote, anyway — I don’t consider anyone’s position on that issue to be a qualification for the job of president of the United States. In fact, I’d prefer that presidential candidates stay out of the debate altogether.

Among the Republican candidates, Rudy Giuliani has the right answer — to the extent that any non-South Carolinian could have the "right" answer. He says it’s a matter for South Carolinians to decide.

Indeed it is that and only that. That’s why I disagree so strongly with the NAACP’s approach — trying (without appreciable success, I might add) to get the rest of the world to FORCE the flag down by hurting South Carolina economically. Even if such a strategy worked — which it can’t, believe me — nothing would be accomplished. You’d still be left with a state perceived — and perceiving itself, sullenly, resentfully — as a place that WANTS to fly the flag, but has been forced not to.

I don’t care what happens to a piece of cloth. I live in a state that has profound political barriers to getting its act together and catching up to the rest of the country in terms of health, wealth, educational attainment, public safety, what have you. The attitudes that keep us from working together to address those issues meaningfully are closely related to the attitudes that keep that flag flying.

Only if we come together and say, "That’s not who we are anymore; we’re better than that," will we ever move forward as a people.

Sure, it would make me feel all warm and fuzzy to hear everybody — particularly people I like, such as John McCain — echoing my own personal attitudes on this and every other important issue. But it wouldn’t accomplish anything. In fact, on this issue outside voices can probably only make things worse, not better. That’s because of the xenophobia that is a corollary of the mentality that keeps the flag flying. You’ve seen the bumper stickers: "We don’t CARE how you did it up North."

John McCain’s problem is that he actually wrestled with the issue, and wrestled too hard, ending up here, there, and all over the mat on the issue. It
was an issue he did not and probably never will understand. He
shouldn’t have wrestled with it. It’s none of his business.

I don’t mean that in a "go away and shut up, John" sense. But it has nothing to do with being president of the United States. Whatever opinion
he might have on that South Carolina matter should have no impact either on what we do about the flag, or on
whether he should be nominated and elected to the White House.

On issues that do have a bearing as to whether he should be
president, I find him to be far and away the best — among either
party’s candidates. For now.

I wrote the above thoughts, in somewhat sketchier form, in response to a comment on a previous post. Here’s how one of my more thoughtful correspondents replied:


I’m struck by your post above re: McCain and the flag

“McCain’s problem is that he actually wrestled with the issue, and
it was an issue he did not and probably never will understand. He
shouldn’t have wrestled with it. It’s none of his business.”

I find it puzzling that you would use Steve Spurrier’s uninvited
opinion on the flag as the impetus for a barrage of editorials but then
give the presidential candidates a pass on the issue.

Part of the point of primary politics is for voters to obtain a
close look at the candidates and have them take positions on local
issues. It is a very useful way to measure them, regardless of whether
the issue will ever come to them for a decision. Some of the national
issues will likely never come to them for a decision either-for
example, if the next president doesn’t appoint a Supreme Court justice,
it’s unlikely his or her opinion on abortion will have any impact.

You expect a president to have the wherewithal and decisiveness to
respond to another 9/11 attack but don’t feel they can be bothered to
be decisive about one of the most controversial issues in SC. Every
candidate should have a specific opinion (not just “it’s a state
matter”). McCain’s courage faltered in 2000 on this issue.
Unfortunately, it appears to be failing him again; I doubt he
personally believes that the flag should be anywhere on the State House
grounds given how much this issue pricked his conscience 8 years ago.
But he’s playing it safe in 2008, one of the reasons he’s a less
attractive candidate this time around.

Your willingness to accept McCain’s timidity about the flag makes me question your ability to view him objectively.

Posted by: Paul DeMarco | May 16, 2007 1:52:53 PM

As I said, Paul, Sen. McCain is clearly wrong on the issue.

As I also said, I don’t ask any candidate for president for his or her opinion about the flag. It’s irrelevant.

There are things he’s wrong about that ARE relevant — such as his willingness to keep the Bush tax cuts in place. That I have a problem with, as a voter considering who should be the next president. But I have greater problems on such relevant issues with every other candidate.

Spurrier lives in South Carolina, and is someone who — unfortunately, given that I think football is one of the least important things in the world — a lot of people in South Carolina listen to. He, like the 4 million other people in this state, has a right and an obligation to speak out as to what he wants our elected representatives to put on our State House lawn.

His comments were the first from a high-profile South Carolinian on the issue since everybody stopped talking about it in 2000. I mean, other than South Carolinians who are leaders in a NATIONAL organization — an organization which, because it was trying to use the outside world to coerce South Carolina into doing something, is the main obstacle to South Carolinians growing up on their own and putting this issue behind them.

Spurrier provided an opportunity to discuss this in another context. It was, and remains, my great hope that in the coming months, other prominent South Carolinians who are NOT trying to use a national boycott to force something that needs to happen voluntarily. If it doesn’t happen voluntarily, if South Carolina does not evolve to the point that collectively, we WANT to do this voluntarily, then absolutely nothing of value will be achieved.

Comments from Hillary Clinton or Chris Dodd or John McCain are simply not a part of that discussion, but instead a distraction. The only reason they are asked about such things is because journalists on deadline are not a terribly reflective lot. They think, "They’re in South Carolina, and this is a controversial issue in South Carolina." It never occurs to them that it’s not an issue that has anything to do with the presidency. (This is an issue I’ve written about in other contexts — it’s now become a standard mindless ritual in the media to ask the president to comment on everything, from his underwear to the Columbine shootings, when such things have nothing at all to do with the president’s duties or responsibilities.)

As for abortion — well that IS a more relevant presidential issue than the flag, but only because the flag isn’t a presidential issue at all. As you say, Paul, the president’s only involvement with abortion is nominating Supreme Court justices, because of Roe. (If NOT for Roe, it would be a more legitimate political issue, and that is what it should be. The Court should never have removed it from the political branches.)

That said, I will not cast my own vote exclusively according to a candidate’s position on abortion. It will be one of many things I consider in making my decision about a candidate, but the candidate I choose could end up being someone who disagrees with me on that one issue.

I hope at this point to vote for McCain, with whom I happen to agree on the abortion issue, among many other issues.

But among the Republicans, my distant second choice would be Giuliani. Suppose McCain is no longer in the race when the primaries roll around. I could see looking to Giuliani instead. His stance on abortion would not prevent that.

Since THAT, which is more relevant to the job, would not deter me, why would the Confederate flag issue? As I say, I’m more likely to be bothered by the tax cut stance. I don’t feel passionately about taxes the way I do about the flag, but it IS actually relevant.

I would assert that this is the objective way to look at things — reasoning them out, as opposed to going on the basis of mere passion. I could certainly be wrong about that, of course, since an individual is probably the least disinterested judge on the matter of whether he is disinterested.

Would I like it more if McCain were "right" about the flag (and "right" is saying what Giuliani says, which is that it’s a South Carolina matter)? Absolutely. Immensely. But once more, that’s more about how it would FEEL, rather than about the conclusions I reach when I THINK about candidates and try to choose between them.

13 thoughts on “John McCain is wrong about ONE thing…

  1. mark g

    When the crowd cheered McCain’s answer to the flag question, it hurt South Carolina’s image, and therefore, its economy.
    The cheering crowd at the Fox debate was no different than the goof balls who waved the confederate flag behind the set of ESPN’s Game Day in Columbia.
    When we as a state are seen on national TV cheering the flag during a presidential debate, or waving it during a football pre-game, it hurts us all far more deeply than most people seem to realize.

  2. Brad Warthen

    Yep, it looked bad. Not AS bad as the ESPN thing, just because his answer would be confusing to a national audience. Since he essentially endorsed the 2000 compromise, he was endorsing something most people aren’t familiar with.
    They certainly ought to be able to figure it OUT — let’s see, there was a compromise, and there’s still a flag there, so…
    But that doesn’t have quite the negative punch of seeing the flag itself.

  3. Paul DeMarco

    Thanks for the response. I think we’re looking at this from different angles. I’m not interested in the candidates’ flag positions because I think they might provide momentum for moving the flag. I agree that in that sense they are irrelevant. If McCain or any of the others used their bully pulpit to rail against the flag, I doubt it would change many minds.
    The relevance of the flag question for me is as a measuring stick by which to judge the candidates. Very few of the issues that a president addresses are ones with which he is personally familiar. For example, there is no doctor running, but the president may have to make significant decisions about health care in the next term. McCain won’t know that issue the way he knows military ones.
    He’ll have to learn and study and weigh and then choose from the options his advisors lay before him. And in order to succeed, he’ll have to satisfy a “local” constituency, i.e.. the health profession, with his plan.
    That’s why I want the candidates to weigh in on the flag. It’s a window into the process they will use to develop positions and programs in areas where they have no expertise.
    The way they address the flag issue is also revealing. Are they bold, articulate, and genuine? Or are they cautious, diffuse, and dissembling.
    P.S. By far the best part of your response, however, was your correct use of the word “disinterested” (impartial). My son took the AP English exam this very day and at dinner tonight we were discussing common usage mistakes and actually mentioned the disinterested/uninterested confusion (which seems to be rampant).

  4. Brad Warthen

    I’m with you, Paul. Or at least, I was, for the first couple of hundred times I wrote about the flag, back in the 90s.
    I recall that I even wrote an editorial once praising Jack Kemp for taking a stance on the flag, and urging other Republicans to take a cue from him, and live up to the promise of the party of Lincoln.
    But a couple of things made me think harder about what this was all about. One was the federal lawsuit that some flag opponents filed. I sort of hoped they’d win, but at the same time, I realized that would accomplish nothing. So it would take down a piece of cloth. Big deal. It would still leave in place the attitude that hold South Carolina back.
    The NAACP boycott drove that home with greater force. The boycott will never accomplish anything beyond calcifying the stalemate. But what if it WERE successful? Again, nothing would be accomplished. The flag supporters would just be angrier and less reasonable than ever, and nothing would ever be accomplished with regard to education, economic development in Marion County or anywhere else, or on anything else that matters.
    South Carolina HAS to come to a realization that it’s time to put the flag behind us.
    That may sound quixotic, and maybe it is. Our Legislature is as reluctant as ever to do ANYTHING. But I have two things to say about that:
    One, if we can’t mature to the point that the consensus in this state demands that the flag come down, and our elected representatives act in accord with that wish, then there is NO hope for South Carolina whatsoever. Everything I push for, every kind of reform, from government restructuring to rural economic development to simply adequately funding the Highway Patrol, is utterly hopeless. Might as well abandon ship and move someplace where the political culture believes in promoting a community with a decent standard of living for all.
    Two, I believe the Legislature is out of touch, for a number of reasons. Perhaps the greatest reason of all is our polarizing, race-based system of electing senators and representatives. The majority of members of the General Assembly are elected from districts that have virtually no black voters, which is downright bizarre and unnatural in a state that is 30 percent black. This encourages these politicians to think it is worth pandering to the minority of whites who are either out-and-out racists, or living in a Civil War re-enactor dreamworld. The majority is silent, so they grease the squeaky wheel, knowing that by leaving the flag up, they offend a smaller minority of constituents than they would if they took it down.
    So I keep trying to persuade the passive majority. And as I said, I saw the Spurrier comments as a catalyst in that process. And I become less and less interested in what presidential candidates think.
    You want a key to John McCain’s character? Look to his stance against torture, while those around him in his party pander to the worst weaknesses in human nature. That’s an area he fully understands, and there is no better key to the man.

  5. Paul C

    I would be interested in SPECIFICALLY how honoring the citizen soldiers of SC during the “Late Unpleasantness” has affected the SC economy. Many in The State have said it, but I have seen no examples of HOW it does this—specific instances where we lost anything!
    If you hate these soldiers and their children, so be it. The flag that flies at the soldiers’ monument is a soldiers’ flag and not the flag of a government. Let call a spade a spade.
    To wrap the faux argument in a second tier argument is disingeneous at best.
    Say you hate the soldiers and their flag. Say you hate those people. Say it and be forthright.
    If there is an issue at this point regarding the matter– which there is not since our legislatures, black and white, compromised regarding this issue– it is due to the intolerance of the people who cannot allow one part of the population to honor their dead.
    I cannot believe that after what the South endured and continuers to endure as the bastard child of the new Nation established at the point of a bayonet, that ANYONE would want to remove the last reminder that there existed a people that actually RESITTED Washington.
    Would to God that all South Carolinians had a fraction of the courage that these men posed to stand up again and claim our freedom as citizens of a sovereign state!
    To my knowledgem the Constitution to which the states of the Union consented, does not have an expiration date. Nor am I aware of any provision that says that whoever has the most men and arms, may may govern people against their will. The Principles of a republican form of government (we are not, and have never been a Democracy) cannot be settled on a battlefield, regardless of what the government schools have taught you.
    You have fallen for the greatest government lie. You have become a serf and a slave and yet you protect your master. You are doing his bidding.
    If you are against slavery, tyranny, and a government that derives it just powers from the consent of the governed, this is YOUR FLAG.
    It matters not what station your ancestors occupied in days long gone by. Jim Crow and Slavery are gone and you are the beneficiary of their struggle, our struggle.
    Who is the real enemy now? It’s not the flag. It’s certainly not the flag.
    Let it go and focus on something that is real.
    This one sided debate is a circus side show. The enemy is not at the soldiers’ monument.
    You have a library card, go and find out what happened here and why it cannot be forgotten. I’d start with William Gilmore Simms’ first hand account of what happened under your feet in February 1864.
    If this is your issue, your mission, yor calling, then you have fallen for the greatest farce put upon the American people… EVER!
    Image is nothing, principle and duty are everything.
    Sell not your birthright for a pot of pottage.

  6. Tom

    Paul C-
    “Let it go and focus on something that is real.
    This one sided debate is a circus side show. The enemy is not at the soldiers’ monument.
    You have a library card, go and find out what happened here and why it cannot be forgotten. I’d start with William Gilmore Simms’ first hand account of what happened under your feet in February 1864.
    If this is your issue, your mission, yor calling, then you have fallen for the greatest farce put upon the American people… EVER!
    Image is nothing, principle and duty are everything.
    Sell not your birthright for a pot of pottage.”
    …- Well said…

  7. Tom

    A Confederate flag still flies over the capitol dome.
    The State flag was adopted in 1861 by the Confederate State of South Carolina.

  8. kc

    When the crowd cheered McCain’s answer to the flag question, it hurt South Carolina’s image, and therefore, its economy.
    I didn’t watch the debate, but I understand the crowd also cheered at Romney’s “double Gitmo” comment.
    MSNBC told the audience not to interrupt its debates with cheers. I wish Fox had done the same. It would have kept a large group of South Carolinians from embarrassing themselves in front of the nation.

  9. Michael Rodgers

    I appreciate very much your long-standing efforts and continuing dedication to calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from where it flies from a flagpole on the Statehouse grounds. In relation to your efforts, I ask you to think again about your criticism of the NAACP’s strategy.
    First, the SC NAACP called for the boycott, and the NAACP respected the SC NAACP’s opinion about the inner workings of SC. The NAACP spread the message on behalf of the SC NAACP. So, if you want to criticize the current boycott strategy and/or suggest a different strategy, you can simply write a letter to an SC NAACP leader.
    Second, I agree with you that one crucial question is about what story is told when we take down the flag — is it because we were forced to or because we wanted to. Well, if one reason we are doing it is because we want a better economic future, is that forced on us or something we choose? I mean, you can’t have national or international trade without the other side.
    The famous fable about the man, his coat, the sun, and the wind seems relevant here. Because the man makes his decision. When the cold wind blows, he holds on to his coat tighter and tighter, but when the sun shines brightly, the man gives up his coat willingly. I think the SC legislature and the pro-flag special interests are the ones calling for more wind. They’re the ones shouting down and lashing out at everyone. I believe that you feel that the NAACP is calling for more wind, and I ask you to consider that the NAACP is actually calling for more sunshine.
    I feel that the boycott is primarily a sunshine strategy because it calls attention to the fact that SC legislature flies the Confederate flag from a flagpole on the Statehouse grounds. It brings the flying flag into the daylight. The boycott informs people that SC is making a defining political statement by flying the Confederate flag from a flagpole on the Statehouse grounds. The boycott is an additional page left out of the official SC trade and tourism brochure — it’s the page that says, “and of course we fly the Confederate flag here so the tax dollars you spend in SC will help support our political cause.”
    So, what the boycott is is not the fierce wind of punishment, but the warmth of honesty and good faith in economic dealings. It is the SC legislature who is sending cold shivers down our spines.
    Michael Rodgers
    Columbia, SC

  10. Brad Warthen

    Michael, I’m afraid it’s not possible for the sun to shine until there’s no boycott.
    The flag doesn’t need a spotlight. South Carolinians — the people who need to make a decision — are well aware that it’s there.
    For that matter, any time national media come here, the flag is the first thing they see, the first thing they mention, the first thing they shoot video of. It’s like Diamond Head in Hawaii, or the Eiffel Tower. It’s how we’ve chosen to brand ourselves — as those crazies down South living in the darkest part of our past.
    As for sending a letter to NAACP leaders — we’ve spoken personally about it a number of times, and we’ve written for publication and they’ve written for publication. And we just disagree.

  11. Michael Rodgers

    Paul C.,
    1) You said, “It matters not what station your ancestors occupied in days long gone by. Jim Crow and Slavery are gone and you are the beneficiary of their struggle, our struggle.” Very well said. I honor the Confederate soldiers and their families. We are all absolutely beneficiaries of their enormous courage and sacrifice.
    2) You said, “If you are against slavery, tyranny, and a government that derives it just powers from the consent of the governed, this is YOUR FLAG.” Would that it were so! Unfortunately, the effects of reconstruction and Jim Crow worked against this goal. And horrifically, the white leaders of the 1950’s and 60’s put politics ahead of principle and sold out. They caved in to those who used the Confederate flag as a racist symbol. Now, the situation we live with is as described in this post by Karen Russell:
    The only way to change the situation to get to a place where the Confederate flag is again honored is to remove the flag from the current politics of today. We cannot repeat the mistake (allowing and encouraging the improper use of the Confederate flag) of the white leaders of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The people who won’t let us honor the Confederate soldiers are those who insist on flying of the Confederate flag on the Statehouse grounds. They are misusing the noble Confederate Memorial to cater to current political demands of special interests.
    I look forward very much to the day when the Confederate flag could again be the flag of protest, defiance, freedom, and liberty. I can envision people of all colors, hues and backgrounds marching together carrying the Confederate flag as their banner of protest and liberty. It’s a wonderful sight to imagine and dream of, and it brings tears to my eyes thinking about it. How can we get there? How, how, how?
    We must take the Confederate flag down from the flagpole on the Statehouse grounds, away from special interests, and display it in the State Museum.
    3) You said, “I would be interested in SPECIFICALLY how honoring the citizen soldiers of SC during the “Late Unpleasantness” has affected the SC economy. Many in The State have said it, but I have seen no examples of HOW it does this—specific instances where we lost anything!” There are many examples, including how we fill our prisons and how we refuse to provide adequate public education and public transportation. I will mention two things and then speak of an extremely important third one below.
    First, the NAACP boycott has made people inside and outside SC aware of the fact that people can choose where to spend their money. Many people (inside and outside of SC) choose to vacation and hold their national meetings outside of SC because they don’t want their tax dollars being spent to encourage a government (our state government) that values caving to special interests more than fostering education and economic development. (Caveat: I don’t know all the details of the NAACP’s policy, nor do I have statistics on this issue. Some reporting can be found in the State. In this article by a person living Chicago, the NAACP is reported to claim that $500 million has been lost to SC: A counter claim is also presented. And, by the way, I really love the quote by South Carolina NAACP President Lonnie Randolph, who seems to me to be exactly on target. And finally, I have lived in Chicago, and it can be an extremely racist city and region, see for example the excellent book American Pharaoh).
    Second, the NCAA has realized that many students and parents and college administrators and professors are offended by the current flying of the Confederate flag from SC Statehouse grounds. Therefore, they have acted to protect their constituency from being required to come to SC to play in championship games (Caveat: I don’t know all the details of the NCAA policy. Also, I suspect that Stever Spurrier felt obliged to comment about the flag because of the NCAA’s position and because he is involved in SC collegiate sports.).
    Third, and by far the most important, is the Iraq War, which is costing the US a fortune in lives and money. Our soldiers are again under attack, and we are occupiers of hostile lands. Why hasn’t the US learned from the sacrifices of our Confederate soldiers and the treatment of the people of the South in the aftermath of the Civil War and in the reconstruction era? Ask any Southerner of any color, “Does the US government know how to succeed at occupation and reconstruction at the point of a gun when the occupied people are diverse?” The answer is a resounding “No.” Our government fumbles and fails, and in the end our government encourages and develops policies like Jim Crow and the Southern Strategy.
    The only big success the US military has had at reconstruction and occupation was in Japan, which is a much more homogeneous society than Iraq. The Marshall plan (which was primarily a financial, not a military plan) worked in Europe, which is a diverse society, and which was at the time an ally with the US in the Cold War with the USSR. Iraq is a diverse society of people, many of whom are not allied with us and are not united against anyone in their region. People who honor the sacrifices of the Confederate soldiers and their families know that is a giant political mistake to invade Iraq, because doing so creates Iraqi warriors who will be honored by Iraqis in a similar way to how we honor the Confederate soldiers. And because doing so creates divisive policies and a divisive atmosphere — we don’t know how to do it any differently, and we cannot think of anything except quotas in the government or the so-called soft partition.
    We won’t learn the lessons of the Civil War until we properly honor the Confederate soldiers and their families and the sacrifices they made and the hardship they endured. We must also honor the suffering of the former slaves who suffered under the reconstruction policies and the political aftermath. We must learn the lessons so that we no longer engage in wars like the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. Until we learn the lessons we will keep making enemies abroad at enormous financial and human cost.
    We must take down the flag from the flagpole on the Statehouse grounds. We must put it in the State Museum so that we can learn the lessons and honor the Confederate soldiers and their families. Then, perhaps the next time the US thinks about using our military to reconstruct a diverse society, we can rebel and protest. Citizens of every color can march together waving the Confederate flag as their banner to support our troops and protest our government.
    Michael Rodgers
    Columbia, SC


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