Thursday, April 10, 2008

The McCain scrutiny IV

David Bellavia has borne the battle. A former Army staff sergeant who served in Iraq in the 1st Infantry Division, Bellavia was recommended for the Medal of Honor, nominated for the Distinguished Service Cross, and received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star with valor, and the Conspicuous Service Cross. His 2007 book “House to House” recounted his experience fighting for control of Fallujah. Bellavia is vice chairman of Vets for Freedom, a veterans’ advocacy organization. By any reasonable measure, Bellavia has served his country honorably.

But Bellavia, a supporter of Sen. John McCain for president, has a blind spot about certain matters on race and ethnicity in America, a blind spot that reflects poorly on McCain’s candidacy, and raises questions about the candidate’s own ability to make meaningful distinctions in a country waging its own sectarian battles.



On Tuesday, Bellavia introduced McCain at a Vets for Freedom rally in Washington, D.C., offering the fulsome praise for a veteran one would expect from another veteran.

“Senator John McCain has spent a lifetime in service to our nation. His example of unwavering courage is a model for every American,” Bellavia said, in an allusion to McCain’s five-plus years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. “Rest assured that men like Senator McCain will be the goal and the men that my two young boys will emulate and admire. You can have your Tiger Woods, we’ve got Senator McCain.”

He didn't. Oh yes he did. That last quoted sentence was not a typo. In a campaign endorsement meant to be a pre-emptive shot at Sen. Barack Obama, the Illinois senator who may be McCain’s challenger in the fall, Bellavia conflated Obama with Tiger Woods, the world’s greatest golfer and a cultural phenomenon in his own right.

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The first most obvious question is why? What in the world would connect Tiger Woods to Barack Obama? The first most obvious answer is unsettling. The one thing that connects them is a multiracial heritage. Obama, of course, is the son of a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas; Woods’ ancestry is African American, Thai, American Indian and Chinese.

The fact that Bellavia said it was bad enough. The author Michael Eric Dyson, speaking on MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” said the comment “bespeaks a sense of racial insensitivity at best, and at worst a kind of deliberate attempt to distance himself from black people.”

It also reflects an inability or unwillingness to make distinctions between people as people; the suggestion is that, to borrow the phrase we recognize, We All Look Alike.

What made it worse is that, when McCain stepped to the microphone, the candidate had nothing to say about this monumental gaffe— letting it pass unchallenged as if Bellavia’s sentiments, Bellavia’s blind spot, were his own.

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There’s other evidence pointing to McCain’s possible discomfort on race matters. On Tuesday, The Politico, quoting from interviews with black leaders in McCain’s home state of Arizona, found a candidate apparently of two minds on relations with black residents.

“Interviews with black civic and business leaders in Arizona found no one who suggested that McCain holds racial animus,” The Politico reported. “And McCain can point to some warm personal and political associations with blacks, some of whom cited his responsiveness to their concerns when they approached him on official business.

“But the widespread perception of activists in the state’s traditional civil rights organizations and the African-American press is that McCain has consistently treated them with indifference.”

“I don’t recall him ever attending any function with the NAACP,” said Oscar Tillman, head of the NAACP’s Phoenix chapter. “Each year we send them an invitation [to an annual banquet], and each year they say no.”

A bigger question is why McCain would make distinctions between one bloc of his state’s black constituents and another — and what those distinctions might say about how McCain would govern this multiracial nation.

McCain has shown signs suggesting that he “gets it,” even if supporters like Bellavia don’t. He’s reportedly set to make campaign stops in Alabama and the Watts district of Los Angeles later this month, the better to shore up his bona fides among black voters.

But as a senator who initially opposed efforts to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a federal holiday; as a senator who opposed making King’s birthday a state holiday four years later; as someone who missed many of the touchstone events of the civil rights movement, John McCain has work to do in this regard between now and November. The man who would be president has as many bridges to build as he has fences to mend.
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Image credits: All images public domain.

1 comment:

  1. Bellavia was not comparing Tiger to Obama. He was saying (if you listen to the un-edited version of this speech, which he has given many times before by the way) that his sons will grow up to admire real heroes like McCain and not sports figures like Tiger Woods. Why Tiger? Well, first he was the first person to pop into his head. Tiger is one of the most recognizable and idolized. Yes, he took a jab at Obama at the end of his speech with the "Audacity of Hope" comment, but that wasn't about race either. Bellavia is a hero himself and a good man. Do you know he is nominated for the Medal of Honor? Why don't you read his incredible book "House to House: An Epic Memoir of War" and then tell me what kind of person he is. You couldn't be more wrong about him.

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