PAUL DUNN: Candidates Raising Hopes For High-Road Campaign
Every presidential election is trumpeted as "the most important ever," and 2008 is no exception.
It has one unusual aspect however: Both nominees will be sitting U.S. senators. That single fact can impact strongly on how the battle will be waged. It could help ensure a "high road" campaign.
In session, senators may disagree on issue "A" but then come together on issue "B." There are arcane rules they dutifully follow and unwritten rules that transcend all others governing civility, observance of courtesies and ancient traditions inherited from parliament.
Campaigning, the candidates may seem strident, but their natural political natures may bring into play a respectful demeanor, politeness and understatement because each opponent is a fellow senator.
As experienced debaters, one would expect them to adhere to senatorial traditions. It would be a shame if there were no substantive debates on the burning issues of the day -- not staged TV spectacles with "gottcha" questions, but serious, long and thoughtful discourses covering matters in depth with solid give-and-take, perhaps in keeping with the famed Lincoln-Douglas model. Obama may regret not having accepted McCain's challenge to a series of town meeting debates.
To become a successful senator, each has learned how to "get along" with 99 other members in order to pass legislation or defeat bills he opposes. An accommodating yet pragmatic personality is vitally important.
Destructive loners like Joe McCarthy might have a meteoric rise, but they can maintain power only by holding the respect of fellow senators. When the combative McCarthy was censured for "behavior contrary to senatorial traditions," a fellow Republican senator, Ralph Flanders of Vermont, introduced the motion.
Because senators weren't popularly elected in the early years of the Republic, they were perhaps viewed by voters as elitist. Parties didn't run them for president, preferring generals, representatives and governors. Former senators who served as vice president (Van Buren, Truman and Johnson) came to the White House from the veep spot.
Only two presidents, Harding and Kennedy, were elected directly from the Senate. Some of the worst presidential defeats were suffered by senator candidates. Goldwater, McGovern, Mondale and Dole lost by embarrassing margins.
I consider McCain as the "hot" candidate and Obama the "cool" one. Obama appears better organized, more focused on the issues and less likely to make political gaffes. McCain is more emotional, tending to shoot from the hip, and his "straight talk" often seems without deliberation.
He's considered a "maverick" and a man of unpredictable actions by senate colleagues. The significant disarray in his campaign suggests lack of good planning and organizational skills, traits America has endured in the White House for eight years. McCain has the challenging task of being seen as a visionary while pushing the incredibly heavy and discredited baggage of Bush and Cheney.
McCain and Obama have incredible life stories. America is the richer for having two such fine candidates, but I fear race could decide the outcome. Where George H.W. Bush exploited race to win (Willie Horton), John McCain will not travel that low road. He had race (his adopted daughter's color) used against him by George W. Bush and will never forget that -- or the swift-boating of friend, fellow sailor and senator John Kerry.
When Nixon and Reagan adopted a "Southern strategy" to achieve GOP victories, the die they cynically cast may still be determinative of who wins and loses. Because of centuries of racial bigotry in America, McCain will not have to use the race card; it is there regardless of how nobly he campaigns.
McCain well knows how racial prejudice influences events, coming as he does from a Navy family. Until 1949, no black midshipman until Wesley A. Brown had ever graduated Annapolis. The first black naval aviator, Jesse LeRoy Brown, got his wings the same year. He was shot down over Korea's Chosin Reservoir flying support for embattled marines. Tom Hudner, a courageous white Navy flyer, crashed trying to save Brown, for which he was awarded the Congressional Medal. Ironically, both airmen were commanded by Admiral John McCain II, the presidential candidate's father.
In years when a black man was unable to enter naval officer ranks, McCain's father and grandfather attended Annapolis and ultimately gained flag rank, both serving with great distinction. John followed in their footsteps and might have reached similar rank.
The Obama family's military history is far more modest but no less honorable. His mother's father, Stanley Dunham, enlisted in the Army in June 1942 and served in Patton's Third Army. His great uncle, Pfc. Charles T. Payne, helped liberate Ohrdruf, part of Buchenwald camp.
America has two bright and distinguished candidates. If it can transcend race and stick to the burning issues, we could see our nation again perform at its very best.
Paul R. Dunn lives in Pinehurst. Contact him at email@example.com
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