Historians will have a lot to go over when they ponder the life of Senator John McCain who passed on Saturday after a valiant struggle with brain cancer.
He is one of the people with whom I would have loved to sit down and have an off the record conversation. There are dozens of pieces of history he was connected with that I would have wanted to discuss with him. One of those that had a pivotal impact on history was the lead-up to the 2000 South Carolina Republican Presidential primary.
You see Senator McCain had just beaten George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary. He had momentum and was expected to win the South Carolina primary. Had he won South Carolina, he would have all but wrapped up the Republican nomination for President. We all remember what happened in the 2000 general election. George W. Bush lost the popular vote but won the electoral college by the slimmest of margins 271-266 and then only on the strength of the 25 electoral votes via the (ahem) disputed vote in Florida which he only won officially by 527 votes.
McCain, a much less polarizing figure known for reaching across the aisle, would almost certainly have been a better general election candidate and would have likely won the election in a much more convincing fashion. But, let’s for a moment return to the 2000 South Carolina primary. What was it that stopped McCain’s momentum and gave George W. Bush the victory in that state that turned around the race for the Republican nomination?
It turns out this is one of the ugliest moments in intraparty politics. The Bush campaign attacked McCain with three nasty and untrue rumors. First, they spread a rumor in South Carolina that McCain had been a traitor in Vietnam. Second, they insinuated that McCain’s wife Cindy was a drug addict. Worst of all, the Bush campaign engaged in race baiting, asserting that McCain’s then 9 year old daughter Bridget, who was adopted from an orphanage in Bangladesh and fairly dark-skinned, was in fact the product of an extra-marital liaison with a black woman.
As I stated earlier, all other things being equal, without the dirty tricks by George W. Bush’s campaign, McCain wins the South Carolina primary, the nomination and, I believe, the election and becomes the 43rd President of the United States instead of George W. Bush.
Then how history might have diverged becomes interesting. I ruminate on the following on occasion:
- If a President McCain had been warned that bin Laden intended to attack the United States, as Bush was warned, does he ignore the warnings like Bush did? To refresh your memories, on August 6, 2001, President Bush received a CIA report about al Qaeda and the possibility of airline hijackings. This was 36 days before 9/11. By 2000, McCain had served 13 years on the Senate Armed Services Committee, an assignment befitting his prior service to this country. Part of his daily work concerned thinking about military and other threats to the country and how the senate should help the President deal with those threats. I do not believe he would have taken the August 6th briefing as lightly as Bush did.
- Would a President McCain have lied us into war in Iraq in the aftermath of 9/11? Part of the reason George W. Bush invaded and deposed Saddam Hussein was out of a sense that his father had not finished the job in Iraq. McCain had no such baggage. That is besides the fact that as many issues about which I disagree with Sen. McCain, I don’t get the sense he was a liar. He might have still gone to war in Iraq (although I don’t think so) but if he did, I think he would have been straight with us about the reasons why he thought we should. Some might think it doesn’t matter, but I think it matters a great deal. In the aftermath of that war, when no WMD were found, the US became known as a country that went to war and invaded other countries without justification. Another term for this, the international legal term for this is, “An unprovoked war of aggression”. This is a war crime according to international law. If McCain was President, I believe the US does not commit this war crime.
- Torture. Does anyone believe that a John McCain, who suffered torture for 5 ½ years at the hands of the North Vietnamese, would authorize/instruct the intelligence agencies and armed forces of the US to engage in torture? We don’t really have to guess, when Bush administration torture policies came to light, McCain was the most vigorous critic of the policies on the Republican side. McCain famously said regarding waterboarding “It is not a complicated procedure. It is torture,” McCain spoke out against all so-called enhanced interrogation methods. The US use of torture is a stain on the reputation of this country that should never have happened.