The increasingly ugly and angry tone of the presidential campaign began to take on new substance this week with the emergence of the story of McCain campaign worker Ashley Todd, who claimed that she had been attacked and brutalized by an Obama supporter in Pittsburgh.
After doing poorly on a police lie detector test and learning that video recordings from the ATM machine did not support her story, Todd admitted that the attack was a hoax and that she had fabricated the injuries appearing in a photo posted on the web. She will likely face charges of filing a false police report as a result.
Meanwhile another similar incident passed relatively unnoticed by the media which has made much of both Todd's original claim and the subsequent revelation that it was a hoax. In the Milwaukee area, 58 year old Nancy Takehara was going door to door for the Obama campaign when 71 year-old homeowner Ronald Goetsch allegedly attacked her, grabbing her by the hair and pounding her on the head while screaming at her.
Goetsch apologized for his behavior, maintaining that although he did pull Takehara's hair, that was the extent of the physical assault, and that he mostly screamed at her, behavior which his wife described as atypical.
A spokesman for the local Republican Party condemned all campaign related misbehavior, including theft of yard signs and said “Violence, theft, and election fraud have no place in a civil society. We condemn any such acts, no matter who perpetrates them.”
Similar condemnations have come from both presidential campaigns over the Todd incident and other outbreaks of violence and hostility, such as the false accusations that McCain supporters were shouting "kill him" about Barack Obama at a Pennsylvania rally last week, numerous incidents of vandalism of vehicles and property around the nation and the bizarre discovery of a dead bear cub covered in Obama posters on the campus of Western Carolina University.
The escalating level of anger and inflammatory rhetoric from supporters of both campaigns has reached a point where police departments in major cities are preparing for the possibility of riots on election night, regardless of who ends up winning the election. Cities like Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia have a history of celebratory violence associated with sporting events, and there is concern that an Obama victory may be as likely to touch off rioting as an Obama defeat.
Reaction to the Todd incident has been vitriolic on both sides, with some pretty harsh attacks on Todd as well as on the McCain campaign, although there is no evidence that they were involved in her behavior in any way. Leading the overreaction was Executive VP John Moody of Fox News who commented that "If the incident turns out to be a hoax, Senator McCain's quest for the presidency is over, forever linked to race-baiting."
A more reasonable response came from Barb Shelly of the Kansas City Star who said:
The misguided actions of one volunteer aren't a reflection on John McCain or his campaign. If Todd had been attacked by an Obama-loving thug, as she falsely said, the attacker wouldn't have been a stand-in for Barack Obama or his campaign.
Sadly too many people seem to be finding it hard to separate the actions of disgruntled supporters of the candidates from the campaigns and from the candidates themselves. Ultimately those who leapt to believe Todd and those who leapt to attack her are equally at fault for taking her story too seriously and giving it too much weight in the first place.
Political partisans and even the media have lost their sense of perspective. The Ashley Todd incident and many of these other outbreaks of misbehavior are being taken far too seriously by everyone. They are not scandalous, they are trivial. Ashley Todd is not evil, she is pathetic. The heightened rhetoric and the growing anger are as futile as they are destructive, because when the election is over, we're still all going to have to live together in the same country.
With a week and a half left to go, as anger continues to escalate, it is a sad reality that more violence, more rage-filled outbursts and probably more false accusations are likely to occur. People are angry, they feel threatened, they feel cornered and they are likely to lash out. The tensions are heightened by the unstable condition of the economy and the growing feeling that this election is a do-or-die moment for both political parties. This frustration and heightened anxiety seems to afflict supporters of both candidates relatively equally, rising to a level of ugly hostility reminiscent of the 1968 election.
One of the most remarkable accomplishments of the United States as a new nation was the successful transition of power from one political faction to a very hostile opposing political faction in 1800. At a time when almost every change of government in other nations was accompanied by violence and revolution, the stable and peaceful transition of power under the Constitution was seen by many around the world as being close to a miracle and as proof that the idea of a constitutional republic ruled by law, rather than by factionalism, was a crowning accomplishment of the political enlightenment.
Despite the enthusiasm of their supporters, neither John McCain nor Barack Obama is a new Thomas Jefferson, but they and we would be wise to remember his comments after a very contentious election, when he wrote in his First Inaugural Address:
During the contest of opinion through which we have passed, the animation of discussion and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good.
All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate which would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.
And let us reflect that having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions…But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all republicans–we are all federalists.