Cose: Fallout from Letterman's McCain Interview

If only more journalists were like David Letterman. On Thursday night's "Late Show," Letterman confronted Sen. John McCain. He tenaciously pressed the presidential candidate on the accusation repeatedly hurled about by his running mate, Sarah Palin, that Barack Obama "pals around with terrorists." And he eventually got McCain to concede (if only in the most backhanded and ungracious way) that the charges—which happen to be ridiculous on their face—were just "words."

The interview made for fascinating television. After several pointed questions about Sarah Palin, McCain asked, rather wistfully, "Have we pretty well exhausted this topic?"

"No, no. I'm just getting started," Letterman replied, and then asked whether Palin had, in fact, said that Obama "pals around with terrorists." Interestingly enough, McCain's first impulse seemed to be to feign ignorance. "I don't …," began McCain. Presumably, he realized the absurdity of denying knowledge of a charge that became the centerpiece of his campaign, and changed course in midsentence. "Yes," he answered and then proceeded to try to defend the allegation—which refers to an association with William Ayers, a figure from the radical politics of the 1960s who is clearly no "pal" of Obama's.

Letterman was having none of it. Unable to get McCain to admit Obama was not "palling around," with Ayers, he tried another tack: "OK, so all right. Let's say we give her [Sarah Palin] William Ayers. He was 8 and William Ayers was 29. But they palled around."

At that point McCain interjected, "There's millions of words said in the campaign. Come on!"

Millions of words said in the campaign. Those particular words happen to be extremely biting and divisive. They accuse Obama, in short, of accepting terrorists into his circle of friends. And Palin has compounded that charge with an assertion that Obama is not like "us."

Millions of words. Yes. But those particular words have, in fact, spawned some very ugly reactions. Yet, instead of rejecting them or disassociating himself from them, McCain defends them, while demanding that Obama "repudiate" John Lewis, who publicly condemned Palin's incendiary slurs.

Lewis, a congressman from Georgia, is a storied civil-rights figure. No less than McCain, Lewis has earned the right to be called a hero. He endured countless beatings from brutal police for his insistence on marching while demanding that all Americans—including black Americans—be treated as human beings.

Lewis was so distressed by what he saw talking place at the McCain-Palin rallies that he issued the following statement: "What I am seeing today reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history. Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse. During another period, in the not too distant past, there was a governor of the state of Alabama named George Wallace who also became a presidential candidate. George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who only desired to exercise their constitutional rights. Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed one Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama. As public figures with the power to influence and persuade, Sen. McCain and Governor Palin are playing with fire, and if they are not careful, that fire will consume us all."

McCain responded with outrage, accusing Lewis of linking him to George Wallace, segregation, and the murder of four little girls—this, incredibly, from a man who has no problem linking Obama to terrorism. But as Lewis subsequently pointed out, he did not accuse McCain of being George Wallace; he accused the campaign of carelessly and provocatively using words—words that could provoke irrational and hateful behavior. And the campaign is guilty as charged.

It is unworthy of McCain to try to turn that true and heartfelt observation into some kind of racial slur; just as it is unworthy of McCain to continue to defend the hateful words of his running mate.

Millions of words said in a campaign. Yes, but some deserve to be condemned and retracted. To his credit (and as he himself has pointed out), McCain has spoken out against certain hateful anti-Obama comments uttered by fans and supporters. But he has doggedly refused to reject those of his own running mate, which he is obligated to do before demanding repudiation of anyone else. As for Letterman, I have always considered him a wicked (in the best sense) interviewer, but I am now prepared to give him my special citation for journalist of the year—for taking on a figure of the political establishment and giving him hell, while many of my "mainstream" peers gave him a pass.