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More Important Than Boxing: 2008

John McCain and Barack Obama
John McCain and Barack Obama

By Thomas Hauser

In 1977, I left my job as a litigator for a Wall Street law firm to write. My first book served as the basis for a feature film starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek.

Missing told the true-life story of an American named Charles Horman, who was killed by the Chilean military in the aftermath of the 1973 coup that toppled Chilean president Salvador Allende. The book and film presented evidence that Horman was executed with the foreknowledge of United States government officials because he’d stumbled upon evidence linking U.S. military personnel to implementation of the coup. One night, I asked Charles’s mother what she thought was the most important message I could convey in the book. Her answer has always stayed with me:

“Charles’s death,” Elizabeth Horman told me, “taught me the lesson of political responsibility. I used to think that I could till the soil on my own little plot of land and let the rest of the world care for its own problems. What our country did in Vietnam, what happened to people overseas, was no concern of mine. I was wrong. I know now that each of us is obligated to fight for what is right and take responsibility for what our government does. If we don’t, sooner or later, it will affect us all.”

I’ve quoted Elizabeth Horman here because her words are the best and most heartfelt expression I know in support of a proposition that goes to the heart of life in a democracy: The rights and privileges we enjoy as citizens are accompanied by responsibilities.

As an American who feels that his country has been tarnished and badly damaged during the past eight years, I feel a responsibility to add my thoughts to the dialogue regarding the upcoming presidential election. Anyone who objects to the presence of politics on a boxing website need not read on.

In January 2005, I wrote, “Nothing is more appalling to those of us who oppose George Bush than the fact that millions of Americans voted for him in the belief that he somehow epitomizes good moral values. Moral values are about more than the lavish profession of a belief in Christ. We believe that there is no sense of decency or honor in the Bush administration and that it’s morally rotten to the core.”

John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate has galvanized “the religious right” in support of his candidacy and put the issue of moral values back in the electoral spotlight. So let’s talk about moral values.

America’s Founding Fathers believed it was essential that the War of Independence against England be conducted with respect for human rights. The nation they’d founded was at risk and the British were engaging in atrocities against American civilians and soldiers. But George Washington, as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, deemed it essential that the revolution remain faithful to its ideals. With regard to the detention of enemy combatants, he decreed, “Treat them with humanity and let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British Army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren.”

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln forbade any form of torture and put into place the first formal code of conduct for the humane treatment of prisoners of war. Dwight Eisenhower followed that example in World War II.

The Bush Administration has systematically undermined more than two centuries of American values in the conduct of war. The same people who designed and supported these excesses are in the vanguard of John McCain’s presidential campaign.

John McCain’s backers also take perverse pride in attacks on the environment. One of the applause lines that whipped this year’s Republican National Convention into a frenzy was “Drill, baby, drill.” There it was. Get some pipelines in that wilderness. Spill some oil on those beaches. We’ll show those tree-huggers.

Preservation of the environment for future generations is a moral issue. The people who are telling us now that there’s no need to worry about global warming are the same people who told us a month ago that the American economy was sound.

The Bush Administration and John McCain have consistently opposed greater regulation of financial institutions. They told us that multi-million-dollar Christmas bonuses on Wall Street and US$140,000,000 executive severance packages were good for the economy. They stood by while the price of oil rose from $25.20 a barrel on 9/11 to over $100 a barrel and saw no problem in the multi-billion dollar profits of Exxon and other oil companies.

Now the economy is in chaos. And the same people who favored letting market forces dictate the flow of the economy want the American taxpayers to spend $700 BILLION to bail out big financial institutions.

The situation is reminiscent of the federal bailout necessitated by the savings and loan crisis that occurred during the administration of the first President Bush. Then, as now, a Republican president molded a political climate that enabled affluent transgressors to run wild. There was economic deregulation, a systematic weakening of enforcement provisions, and underfunding of the enforcers who were supposed to monitor behavior in white-collar sectors of the economy. “Liberal” ideologies were attacked, but supposedly conservative ideologies bordering in many instances on economic plunder were encouraged.

How much is $700 billion? Roughly $2,300 for every American man, woman, and child. Or calculated differently: if someone took a stack of hundred-dollar bills and lay them end to end, $700 billion would stretch to the moon and back and more than halfway back to the moon again. It would circle the Earth at the equator almost twenty-seven times. $700 billion dollars in hundred-dollar bills would weigh 7,709 tons.

Economic equity is a moral issue. Last year, the highest-earning one percent of Americans received almost one-quarter of all income in the United States. The top ten percent received almost half. No logical-thinking person suggests that all people should be paid the same salary. But there should be some semblance of fairness in the system.

With all the economic problems we face today, John McCain is still defending the tax cuts for the rich that were enacted by the Republican-controlled Congress several years ago. And keep in mind; many of the people now pleading for the government to bail out the giants of Wall Street are the same people who, last year, opposed an increase in the minimum wage, which was then $5.15 an hour. These people have few values other than the accumulation of power and the service of wealth.

Caring for the elderly and poor is a moral issue. Where do the Bush Administration and John McCain stand on this issue? When the Republicans controlled Congress, they implemented changes in Medicare to preclude the federal government from using its buying power to negotiate lower prices from suppliers of medical equipment and prescription drugs. The result is that, last year, the federal government paid more than double the price that some consumers paid online and at retail pharmacies for items that range from power wheelchairs ($4,024 vs. $1,452) to blood glucose strips ($36 vs. $17 a box). Some suppliers of medical equipment and prescription drugs are profiting nicely from that prohibition. Meanwhile, John McCain has consistently opposed programs that would provide meaningful health insurance for tens of millions of Americans who are currently uninsured.

So much for “compassionate conservatism.” Now let’s get to the core “moral” issues that account for much of Sarah Palin’s (and John McCain’s) support. A lot of these issues revolve directly or indirectly around sex.

Last year, deputy secretary of state Randall L. Tobias resigned after acknowledging that he had been a customer of a Washington, D.C. escort service whose owner was charged by federal prosecutors with running a prostitution operation. Tobias (who is married) had previously directed the President’s Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief. In that role, he emphasized abstinence and faithfulness to one sexual partner over condom use to prevent the spread of AIDS.

Republican senator David Vitter of Louisiana has been an outspoken defender of “family values.” He has repeatedly attacked same-sex marriage as posing a threat to the sanctity of marriage (which he called “the most important social institution in human history”). Six weeks after Tobias’s resignation, Vitter was confronted with a similar problem when it was revealed that he too had patronized an escort service operated by the so-called "D.C. Madam."

“This was a very serious sin,” Vitter acknowledged. But he claimed to be off the hook, since he had “asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling.” The “family values senator” from Louisiana declined to discuss the matter further, saying, “Out of respect for my family, I will keep my discussion of the matter there; with God and them.”

Less than a month after Vitter’s confession, senator Larry Craig (Republican of Idaho) pled guilty to a charge of disorderly conduct after being arrested for soliciting sex from a plainclothes police officer in a men’s bathroom at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. While in Congress, Craig has vociferously opposed gay rights, voting against expanding a federal hate crimes law to cover offenses motivated by anti-gay bias and against a bill that would have outlawed employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Then there’s Rudy Giuliani (the keynote speaker at this year’s Republican National Convention), who had a much-publicized extra-marital affair with his former communications director, Cristyne Lategano. Then Giuliani embarked upon an even more public extra-marital affair with Judith Nathan before advising his wife by way of a television interview that he wanted a divorce.

And let’s not forget Ted Haggard, president of the politically influential National Association of Evangelicals and pastor of the 14,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs. Haggard (one of the most powerful right-wing clergymen in America) was dismissed by the church oversight board after it was determined that he had "committed sexually immoral conduct."

More specifically, a gay escort named Michael Jones claimed to have had a three-year sexual relationship with Haggard. Initially, Haggard denied knowing Jones. Then he admitted receiving a massage from Jones in a Denver hotel room and buying methamphetamine from him, but claimed that he had never used the drugs and that they’d never had sex together. Taking Haggard at his word (which is a dubious proposition), why is a married evangelical clergyman who supports George Bush’s political agenda receiving a massage from a male escort in a hotel room and buying illegal drugs from him?

Sexual misconduct isn’t confined to the Republican Party. Bill Clinton, John Edwards, and Eliot Spitzer are proof of that. But the hypocrisy of the McCain-Palin campaign and their supporters on sexual issues is breathtaking.

Bristol Palin (Sarah Palin’s unwed adolescent daughter) is pregnant. Television commentator Bill O’Reilly (the right-wing icon who, several years ago, paid a substantial sum to settle a sexual harassment claim lodged against him) says that Bristol’s pregnancy should be off limits in the campaign and that “it’s a personal matter.” Of course, when Jamie Lynn Spears was pregnant, O’Reilly proclaimed, “The blame falls primarily on the parents of the girl, who obviously have little control over her.”

It is hard to imagine what O’Reilly and his Republican brethren would have said and done if Chelsea Clinton had been pregnant at age sixteen. But rest assured; it would have been ugly.

Meanwhile, Bristol Palin’s pregnancy shouldn’t be an issue in this campaign. But Sarah Palin’s crusade to ban teaching adolescents about any method of birth control other than abstinence should be.

If only Bristol had been taught about contraceptives in school. Whatever Sarah Palin taught her daughter at home, she and Mr. Palin fell short in educating Bristol in this area. There’s a valid argument to be made that schools shouldn’t give condoms to students. But schools should teach students what condoms do and what happens if you play sexual Russian roulette without one. In addition to getting pregnant, there are a lot of diseases that Bristol could have contracted; some of them deadly.

Of course, Governor Palin is a woman whose view of educating young people is that sex education is bad but creationism should be taught as science in our public schools.

Much of the support for the McCain-Palin ticket is grounded on religious faith. But just because someone believes that Jonah was swallowed by a whale doesn’t mean that he or she has good moral values.

The simple acceptance of religious dogma or experiencing a moment of religious rapture doesn’t make someone a good Christian. A good Christian, like any person of faith, is defined by his or her acts.

John McCain has acknowledged being unfaithful to his first wife after she was disfigured in a car accident. Then he left her to marry an heiress.

Much of the “religious right” seems to adhere to the view, “Jesus loves you and shares your hatred of homosexuals.”

These people are lecturing us about moral values?

It would be nice to see John McCain, Sarah Palin, and their followers demonstrate good moral values rather than just pontificate about them. But real empathy and compassion are unwelcome in the McCain campaign.

My guess is that, if Jesus were walking among us today, he’d be opposed to discrimination on the basis of race, religion, and sexual orientation. He might well favor stem cell research as “pro-life.” And whatever his position on those issues, I doubt that he’d be hunting caribou in Alaska with a high-powered rifle and telescopic sight. More likely, he’d be a community organizer seeking to improve the lot of the poor and downtrodden.

John McCain served this country well during the war in Vietnam. But during the past year, he has tarnished that service. The character of the campaign he has been running tells us a lot about his own character. There was a time when McCain was thought to stand for honor and principle. No more. Recent events have revealed him as the person he is, which is very different from the person he once was (or we thought him to be).

McCain could have used the 2008 presidential campaign to engender an honest dialogue about the future of America. Instead, he has allowed his political operatives to orchestrate an ugly national campaign based in significant measure on appeals to prejudice and deceit.

The choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate tells us all we need to know about John McCain’s commitment to national security and the good of America. The choice was bizarre, almost frivolous. It tells us that his only “value” is winning the election and that he will put the nation at risk to achieve that goal.

Meanwhile, the conservative right has suddenly discovered that unregulated economic markets can lead to a worldwide economic disaster. Maybe that “meltdown” can be forestalled. But global warming can’t be forestalled once the tipping point has passed. If terrorists acquire nuclear weapons, it will be virtually impossible to forestall their use.

Yet, on these crucial issues, McCain has no vision for the future. He simply parrots the Bush Administration; the same administration that invaded Iraq to “bring freedom to the Iraqi people” and has done nothing to halt the spread of nuclear weapons to North Korea and Iran. Indeed, for all its bluster, seven years after 9/11, the Bush Administration has failed to capture Osama bin Laden.

Let’s be honest. If Barack Obama were white, he’d be leading by close to twenty points in the polls right now. The murky waters of bigotry are the real moral issue in this election. The question is whether or not America is ready to elect a black president; one with a strange-sounding name.

This election isn’t about John McCain and Barack Obama. It’s about America.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at

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