John McCain, the presumptive nominee for president of the Republicans, has gone on record asking that the wives of the presidential nominees “be respected.”
While his wife has not received the criticism and scrutiny given to Michelle Obama, McCain’s point is well taken — but is it likely to be taken well? It would be refreshing if Barack Obama and McCain would each require their operatives to treat their opponents’ wives with the dignity and respect they deserve.
But that would only be a start. In the no-holds-barred character assassination climate of politics, even if the principals are principled there’s always someone on the fringes willing to do the dirty work out of prejudice, anger, lust for power or old-fashioned greed.
Not only must the candidates take the high road, but they must also step forward to condemn such tactics when employed on their behalf. President Bush claimed no culpability in the “Swift Boat” attacks on his rival John Kerry, but he made no great effort to indicate that he believed the tactic of using lies to impugn the character of his opponent was unethical. If McCain and Obama expect the public to see them as candidates operating above the political gutter, they must be prepared to rapidly and harshly condemn such tactics and the individuals or groups responsible.
In a country with unfettered free speech, citizens have the right to be cruel, vulgar and deceitful in their commentary, and partisans friendly to both political parties will avail themselves of that right. Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals all have their adherents willing to demonize those whose politics are at opposition. Still, it is reasonable to think that the two individuals vying for the highest office in the land might, for all of their differences, make this election about the crucial issues of the time — the war in Iraq, the economy, health care, foreign policy, terrorism, the environment — instead of a demolition derby of character assassination that includes the demonizing of the candidates’ families.
Both McCain and Obama promise change if they’re elected. They can build some credibility in that regard by restoring a notion of civility and dignity to the campaign for the presidency.