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Media Hype Faux Fingergate, Ignore McCain Flipping Off Clintons

April 19, 2008

In just the latest sad chapter in the decline and fall of the American media, press outlets are claiming that Barack Obama gave Hillary Clinton the finger during a recent campaign event. Despite the obvious video evidence that Obama was inadvertently scratching his cheek as he spoke, Fox News, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post (just to name a few) all ran with stories raising the specter of Fingergate. Sadly, back in 1998, one of the presidential candidates did in fact figuratively flip the Clintons the bird. And John McCain is still paying no price for it.
As David Corn reported in Salon, John McCain back in 1998 used the occasion of a Republican Senate fundraiser to slander President Clinton's daughter and attorney general. Following in the proud tradition of Rush Limbaugh (who in 1993 called the young Chelsea "a dog"), Mr.Straight Talk joked:

"Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because her father is Janet Reno."

As Maureen Dowd rightly predicted at the time, Senator McCain's vulgar slur produced no backlash, as he "so revered by the press that his disgusting jape was largely nudged under the rug."
But McCain's response to Dowd provides a telling glimpse into the character of the man who would succeed George W. Bush as the next Republican president. In a phone interview, McCain brushed off his grotesque insult as the equivalent of a rambunctious teenager egging a neighbor's house:

''This is the bad boy,'' he said in a phone interview. ''It was stupid and cruel and insensitive. I've apologized. I can't take it back. I could give you a whole bunch of excuses, but there are no excuses. I was wrong, but do you want me crucified? How many days does it need to be a story?''
He said the Senator who spoke just before he did to the Republican fat cats made a tasteless joke about Viagra. ''So I got up and said, 'You think that was a tasteless joke? Listen to this one.' The minute it came out of my mouth, I thought, 'Oh no, this is a terrible mistake.' ''
But, he added, defensively, ''I will always maintain a sense of humor. Life is too short not to.''

McCain was right that this was a terrible mistake, though apparently not a politically damaging one. (Ironically, Don Imus of all people, who just this Thursday called Barack Obama, "almost a bigger pussy" than Hillary Clinton, was appalled by McCain's vulgarism. "It's horrible, yecchhh!" he said, adding, "This guy is a genuine American hero. I don't know why they do it. Some idiotic effort to be one of the guys.") McCain ultimately wrote a letter of "abject apology" to President and Mrs. Clinton (though not to Janet Reno).
Given their political needs then and now, the Clintons have been gracious in accepting John McCain's apology. In battling Barack Obama, Senator Clinton been positively glowing about the national security credentials of her erstwhile Republican counterpart. And just this January, Bill Clinton made it clear his wife had put any bad blood over McCain's tasteless insult behind her:

"She and John McCain are very close. They always laugh that if they wound up being the nominees of their party, it would be the most civilized election in American history, and they're afraid they'd put the voters to sleep because they like and respect each other."

For its part, the media ignored the ugly 1998 episode at the time. The Washington Post in 1998 reported on McCain's apology but said the joke was "too vicious to print." And while the MSNBC's suspension of David Shuster over his "pimp" remark briefly returned McCain's slur to the news, the buzz quickly passed. The obvious discussion that should have ensued about the 1998 window into McCain's character never happened.
That's because, after all, there are much bigger, more serious political scandals to report. Like Barack Obama scratching his cheek.
(Note: The Obama camp rightly termed the entire pathetic imbroglio a "false and childish accusation" which is "absurd and untrue.")

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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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