NASHVILLE — As the 2008 presidential campaign dove into negative, personal attacks Monday, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen and a panel of political and media figures largely decried what they see as the growing lack of civility in American politics.
“It just gets in this death spiral,” said Gov. Bredesen, a Democrat. “Someone starts it and then someone else feels they have to respond and you just get in this downward spiral.”
Gov. Bredesen’s comments to reporters came shortly before a panel discussion about the lack of civility in today’s politics got under way at Belmont University. The event was a prelude to tonight’s Town Hall Presidential Debate between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama at the university. The debate begins at 9 p.m. EDT.
The latest moves by the campaigns of Sen. McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Obama, D-Ill., provided plenty of fodder for the civility forum, sponsored by, among others, Gov. Bredesen and former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, R-Tenn., neither of whom were on the panel.
For example, continuing a line of criticism she first opened over the weekend, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin on Monday again attacked Sen. Obama over his ties to 1960s radical Bill Ayers, a founder of the violent Weather Underground, whom she cited Saturday as she accused Sen. Obama of “palling around with terrorists.”
In an interview published in a Monday column in The New York Times, Alaska Gov. Palin also said there should be more discussion about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Sen. Obama’s fiery, former pastor. Sen. Obama quit Mr. Wright’s church after videotapes of the pastor’s anti-U.S. and anti-Semitic comments surfaced.
The Obama campaign, meanwhile, struck back with the release of a new, 13-minute video on Sen. McCain’s ties to former savings and loan executive Charles H. Keating Jr. In the late 1980s, 747 savings and loan associations collapsed, including Keating’s Lincoln Savings, prompting the U.S. government to provide a $124.6 billion bailout. At the time, questions arose as to whether Sen. McCain improperly exerted influence in an effort to help Mr. Keating, who eventually spent about five years in prison.
Such back-and-forth exchanges between Sen. McCain’s and Sen. Obama’s camps Monday prompted the civility forum’s moderator, former CNN anchor Bernard Shaw, to demand of panelists: “How, why have we sunk so low, and what must be done to rise again?”
But one participant, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, said negative campaigning and attacks are nothing new in U.S. politics. He recalled the early 19th-century presidential bids of Tennessean Andrew Jackson.
“The real question in campaigns should be: Is it true and is it relevant to the issue?” said Gov. Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman.
According to news accounts, Mr. Obama was 8 years old when the bombings tied to Mr. Ayers’ group occurred. He reportedly got to know Mr. Ayers, now a college professor, when they served on a charity board together in Chicago. Mr. Ayers also hosted a meet-the-candidate debate when Mr. Obama first ran for state office in the 1990s.
“There’s no question that they were friendly,” Gov. Barbour said of Sen. Obama and Mr. Ayers. “I don’t think that fact ought to be hidden from the public.”
Asked earlier whether someone’s political associations are not fair fodder in a campaign, Gov. Bredesen said, “The same would be true of the Keating issues.” With regard to a “terrorist connection” between Sen. Obama and Mr. Ayers, the governor said it would require “several leaps of faith” and several journalistic accounts to “get where Gov. Palin is on the thing.”
“I happen to think it’s outside the bounds of what I’d like to see in political discourse, but not everybody would agree with that,” Gov. Bredesen said.
Besides Gov. Barbour, other panelists included former U.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo., NBC News Vice President Mark Whitaker and Bill Nichols of Politico.com
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...