NEW YORK—In the 1993 film noir Romeo is Bleeding, the late Roy Scheider plays a mob boss. "You know right from wrong," he tells a hopelessly corrupt cop portrayed by Gary Oldman. "You just don't care." It's a perfect summary of John McCain's political career.
Time after time, McCain weighs a decision. Then, after careful consideration, he chooses evil over good. In the short run, evil gets him what he wants. Later, when the devil comes to collect his due, McCain issues a retraction.
Running for president in 2000, John McCain squared off against George W. Bush in the key South Carolina primary. Asked whether the Confederate battle flag should continue to fly over the state capitol, McCain sided with the rednecks: "Personally, I see the flag as symbol of heritage."
A few months later, he'd lost South Carolina and quit the race. He apologized—not to the African-Americans he'd offended, but to a friendly audience of Republicans. "I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary," he admitted. "So I chose to compromise my principles." It wasn't the first time, or the last.
Also in 2000, McCain insulted Asians. "I hate the gooks," McCain hissed, "and I will hate them for as long as I live ... and you can quote me." After a few days of negative press attention, he took it back: "I apologize and renounce all language that is bigoted and offensive, which is contrary to all that I represent and believe."
What does McCain "represent and believe"? In 2000 McCain attacked George W. Bush for speaking at Bob Jones University, a freaky institution that smeared Catholics, banned jazz and interracial dating. Six years later, however, it was McCain's turn to suck up to the Christianist right. He appeared at the Rev. Jerry Falwell's extremist Liberty University, which—like BJU—bans gays and denies pregnant students the right to seek an abortion.
No apology for that one.
In 1983, John McCain was a freshman congressman from Arizona, then one of the most right-wing states in the country. In order to appease his Republican Party's base—racist whites—he voted against the bill that established Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. "I thought that it was not necessary to have another federal holiday, that it cost too much money, that other presidents were not recognized," he explained in 2000. Do Chester Arthur or Gerry Ford deserve holidays? Anyway, MLK Day didn't cost employers a cent; Washington's Birthday and Lincoln's Birthday were replaced by President's Day.
He also floated the "states rights" excuse (with its own racist signifiers) that referenced his support for Confederate "heritage" in South Carolina. "I believe it's an issue that the people of South Carolina can settle, just as we in Arizona settled the very divisive issue over the recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King as a holiday. I resented it a great deal when people from Washington and pundits and politicians and others came to my state to tell us how we should work out a very difficult problem."
Health care is "a very difficult problem." Iraq is "a very difficult problem." MLK Day, like the Confederate flag "issue," was a simple question of right and wrong.
True to his pattern, McCain understood that the racist pandering he used to launch his political career could come back to haunt him in the more enlightened—the John Birchers who contributed to his early campaigns might say "politically correct"—election year of 2008. Time for another apology: "I was wrong and eventually realized that, in time to give full support for a state holiday in Arizona," he concedes. "We can all be a little late sometimes in doing the right thing, and Dr. King understood this about his fellow Americans."
A little late?
"Well, I learned that this individual was a transcendent figure in American history, he deserved to be honored, and I thought it was appropriate to do so," McCain explained about his change of, um, heart. Dr. King was assassinated in 1968. McCain voted no on the MLK bill in 1983. That's 15 years later. How much longer did McCain need to "learn" about "this individual"?
The big question is: Is McCain racist? Or is he pandering to racists? And is there a difference?
His 2007 use of the term "tar baby" pretty much settles it. Unless, of course, you're a sucker for yet another apology: "I don't think I should have used that word and it was wrong to do so."
It's the 21st century. Even Nazi skinheads don't use terms like "tar baby."
God, if you're up there, please grant us this wish: Don't let John McCain become president. But if you do, don't let him meet any foreign leaders who don't happen to be white.
Ted Rall is the author of the book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.