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Leonard Pitts: Where principle collides with politics

My 401(k) is down $21,000 since the end of September. And John McCain thinks I should be worried about William Ayers.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but these are strange days. And it’s difficult not to empathize with the Arizona senator, who has spent these last weeks flailing like a man trying to hit a fastball in the dark. His campaign has lurched about looking for ways to connect; the attempt to tie Barack Obama to Ayers, a one-time ’60s radical, is among the most desperate and disappointing.
It is worth remembering there were once two compelling arguments for a McCain presidency. The first, he was a man of long experience, and experience matters. The second, he was a man of honor, of such fierce moral courage that he would never put that which was political above that which was right.
McCain took the first argument off the table when he chose as his running mate the former mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, a woman of such meager substance that even conservatives have been lining up to denounce her. He is now in the process of taking a sledgehammer to the second argument. It’s not a pretty sight.
Down by double digits in some polls, trailing by more than 150 electoral college votes by some reckonings, implored by his supporters to “take it to” the senator he dismissed as “that one,” McCain and his surrogates have embarked upon a mudslinging campaign whose ferocity is exceeded only by its ugliness.
The aforementioned former mayor of Wasilla, Gov. Sarah Palin, has taken the lead, accusing Obama of “palling around” with terrorists. The senator, she told an audience, doesn’t like the troops and doesn’t see America “the way you and I see America.” McCain himself has been muttering, “Who is the real Barack Obama?” as if we had not been drowning in all things Obama for two years. Speakers at McCain rallies have taken once again to chanting Obama’s middle name ó Hussein, in case you just returned from the rainforest ó like a talisman. And a GOP official in Virginia was fired last week after penning a column speculating that an Obama presidency would see “mandatory black liberation theology,” free drugs “for Obama’s inner-city political base,” and the stars on the American flag replaced by an Islamic star and crescent.
At one level, this is nothing new. Politicians have been slinging muck at one another ever since Thomas Jefferson was accused ó accurately, it turns out ó of fathering a child by a slave.
But there’s a difference here. What McCain is doing is not the usual business of questioning an opponent’s plans, fitness or intelligence. Rather, he is attempting to resurrect the threadbare narrative which holds that Obama, by dint of color and heritage, is something foreign, something scary, something not of us.
It’s an offensive argument, yes. But in a nation as riven and fearful as ours, it is also a dangerous one. After all, it is a short leap from toxic words to toxic deeds.
That many McCain supporters embrace such words (and deeds?) is plain from the racial invective, death threats and visceral anger of his recent rallies. Enough that the senator was required ó to a chorus of boos ó to ask them to dial it down.
Take it as evidence of a schizophrenic campaign, and of a man ill at ease with having compromised some essential part of himself. McCain seems ashamed, and he has good reason.
I have no idea whether he will win this election. I do know there is something to be said for being true to yourself, win, lose or draw. So the question McCain faces is this: Would he rather run a losing campaign of which he can be proud, or a winning campaign of which he cannot?
An honorable man wouldn’t need to think twice.
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Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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