The Last Campaign

It is common to hear about the use of Barack Obama’s middle name, Hussein, as a way of winking at the crowd, as if to say “whoa, his middle name is just like a terrorist’s name!” It appears that McCain and Palin are often introduced by folks who employ this line of rhetoric at their rallies.

Khaled Hosseini, the author of the great book The Kite Runner, writes an op-ed in the Washington Post addressing this insult (yes, it is an insult):

Obama’s middle name differs from my last name by only two vowels. Does the McCain-Palin campaign view me as a pariah too? Do McCain and Palin think there’s something wrong with my name?

Related is this column in the NY Times from Frank Rich, about the way McCain and Palin have used this name association, and other questionable insinuations, to fire up their crowds. Much has been made of the reactions from McCain/Palin rallies this past week, including racial incidents and cries of “terrorist!” in Obama’s name, and whether they are inciting a call to violence.

I recently finished reading The Last Campaign, by Thurston Clarke, about Robert Kennedy’s 82-day campaign that ended with his assassination in June of 1968. I have tried to ignore the fear that I’m sure some may have regarding Obama’s safety, and indeed, I have not truly been worried or even thinking about it, but reading this book did put the thought, or concern, in my head.

The events of last week did not help. I wonder about the racism that still exists and to what level it will inspire anger, or even violence. Reading about Bobby Kennedy, it is amazing to realize the atmosphere that pervaded in that year, in those times; he was considered a “friend of the Negro,” and people hated him for it (whether this was his shooter’s motive, no one seems to know, though it seems unlikely). It seemed almost inevitable to everyone around him that Kennedy’s life would be in danger, and it is with little surprise to most of them that he was shot. RFK was an inspiring figure, but alas, a doomed one.

Now it is 2008, and we are beyond that, I think. But it is disappointing to read about, and in some cases watch the videos of, people attending these rallies and saying the things that they say. McCain finally took the microphone away from some sad old lady who said Obama was an Arab (implying what, exactly?) and everyone applauded him, from media hacks to Obama himself. Everyone, that is, but the very crowd that came to hear McCain rip into his “terrorist-loving” opponent. Booo!

I expected this kind of rabid response for Hillary Clinton, had she been the candidate, but for Barack Obama? You have to drag him into the mud and smear his face in it just to get him to speak ill of his opponents, and even then he’s kept his head high above the fray for the most part. I’m not sure what he has said or done to inspire any fury, but then, I’m not listening to the talk shows and hearing the noise. And I don’t plan on it. But the name, and his background, certainly appear to be frightening a small, and small-minded group of people. An ever-shrinking group, to be sure.

One last thing about this: in Rich’s column he notes that a quote was used in Palin’s convention speech by an author named Westbrook Pegler, a columnist known for anti-semetic and racist views. Palin was praising “small-town” Americans with the quote, drawing apparent contrast to us dishonest city folk with our lack of values and such. As I also noticed when reading The Last Campaign, and as Kennedy’s son Robert Jr. notes here, Pegler is known for another quote, this one uttered in 1965, in which he expressed a quite specific wish for RFK:

“Some white patriot of the Southern tier will spatter his spoonful of brains in public premises before the snow falls.�

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