Palling around with McCain

October 16, 2008

Nicole Colson looks at John McCain's connections to an unsavory array of right-wing extremists.

IF THE Republicans can't win the upcoming election on their policies, they're only too happy to wallow in the mud by accusing Barack Obama of "palling around with terrorists" as a result of his connections to former 1960s radical Bill Ayers.

The McCain camp says that an examination of Obama's ties to Ayers is a "legitimate" issue. McCain's campaign spokesperson Nancy Pfotenhauer claimed to CBS's Harry Smith that a New York Times article concluded, "[I]f Senator McCain had hung out with somebody who bombed abortion clinics, no one would consider it illegitimate [to raise it as an issue]."

Too bad for Pfotenhauer that a little digging shows that while McCain may not have "hung out with somebody who bombed abortion clinics," he does have a connection to more than one anti-choice extremist--people who supported actions that brought harm and fear to innocent people in a way that Ayers and the Weather Underground never did.

At issue is the McCain campaign's ties to Robert Schenk, a militant anti-abortion activist who has a history of targeting physicians who perform abortions.

John McCain
John McCain

Schenck helped found the group Operation Rescue, which made a name for itself in the 1980s by engaging in "direct action" to shut down abortion clinics. Schenck has been arrested more than a dozen times during protests outside of women's clinics and the homes of abortion providers.

In 1992, Schenck and his brother helped organize hundreds of anti-choice activists to travel to Buffalo, N.Y., to blockade clinics. Among those targeted by Schenck was Dr. Barnett Slepian, who was assassinated by anti-choice activist James Kopp in 1998.

Though Schenck has always professed to abhor violence, at least one anti-abortion activist has asserted that Kopp chose Dr. Slepian for assassination in part because of the role that Robert Schenck and his brother Paul, also virulently anti-choice, played in making Slepian a target of the movement.

Last year, according to the Web site Right Wing Watch, McCain and several other GOP candidates attended the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Florida in order to polish their credentials with the Religious Right. At the time, Schenck bragged about his face-to-face meetings with Mitt Romney and John McCain: "I was able to get a read of these two men away from the cameras, the reporters and rah-rah audiences. These were honest, candid dialogues...I was impressed by both."

More recently, Schenck received a VIP seat for John McCain's announcement of Sarah Palin as his running mate. In an entry on his blog, Schenck made it clear just how heartily he approved of the choice of Palin--and spoke about having conversations with both McCain and Palin at the event:

[W]hen I was offered a VIP seat at the big coming-out event, I jumped on it. I wanted to personally engage whomever McCain selected...A few things that came immediately to light were that [Sarah Palin] is completely and convincingly pro-life, she is pro-traditional marriage, and she is an Evangelical Christian. And on each of these points, she has long walked her talk...I told Sen. McCain yesterday that he had just built the bridge he needed to our evangelical world. He seemed relieved!

Schenck isn't the only anti-abortion extremist that McCain has found it politically expedient to meet with during his career. As MSNBC's Keith Olbermann recently reported, while the McCain camp claims that Obama's connection to Ayers is a matter of "judgment" and "character," the same litmus test finds McCain sorely lacking in both qualities when it comes to judging his political bedfellows.

After all, Olbermann pointed out, by the time Obama met Ayers, Ayers had long since repudiated the violent actions of the Weather Underground. The same, however, can't be said for McCain's relationship to Marilyn Shannon.

In 1993, McCain attended a fundraiser for the virulently anti-gay Oregon Citizen's Alliance--against the advice of even members of his own party and staff, who called it "the invitation from hell." At the event, McCain sat silently as anti-choice extremist Marilyn Shannon praised a local woman named Rachelle Shannon (no relation), who two weeks earlier had shot abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in both arms in an attempt to kill him. Marilyn Shannon said of the shooter, "She's a fine lady," as McCain looked on.

At her trial, that "fine lady" was unapologetic for her attempted murder of Tiller, testifying, "If somebody kills George Tiller, I would not assume they did the wrong thing." Meanwhile, Marilyn Shannon went on to be a delegate for George W. Bush to the 2004 Republican National Convention--and a delegate for John McCain at the Republican National Convention.

McCAIN'S DANGEROUS political bedfellows extend beyond the anti-choice movement. They include such infamous figures as G. Gordon Liddy, the Nixon-era dirty trickster and convicted felon, who served four and a half years of a 20-year prison sentence for burglary, wiretapping and conspiracy.

As journalist Carl Bernstein recently pointed out on the Huffington Post Web site, Liddy threw a fundraiser for McCain at his Scottsdale, Ariz., home in 1998. And, last May, McCain appeared on the right-winger's radio talk show, where Liddy praised McCain for his time as a prisoner of war, and McCain responded: "Well, you know, I'm proud of you. I'm proud of your family...And it's always a pleasure for me to come on your program, Gordon. And congratulations on your continued success and adherence to the principles and philosophies that keep our nation great."

Which principles is McCain talking about? As part of Nixon's Committee to Re-elect the President team, Liddy advocated plots to murder journalists Jack Anderson and Howard Hunt. Or perhaps McCain was referring to Liddy's plan to firebomb the Brookings Institution, where classified documents leaked by Pentagon Papers author Daniel Ellsberg were stored? Although those plans were shelved, there was plenty of rotten deeds that Liddy did help carry out, including the Watergate break-in.

McCain has shown his willingness to back terrorists in other countries as well. In the 1980s, he served on the advisory board to the U.S. chapter of the U.S. Council for World Freedom, which was linked to ultra-right-wing death squads trying to overthrow the left-wing government of Nicaragua.

According to the Associated Press, "The council created by retired Army Major Gen. John Singlaub was the U.S. chapter of the World Anti-Communist League, an international organization linked to former Nazi collaborators and ultra-right-wing death squads in Central America."

Today, McCain claims to have resigned from the group in the mid-1980s. But McCain was a board member when he voted in favor of military funding for the contras, the CIA-sponsored guerrillas fighting to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

ON THIS question, McCain's own actions invite scrutiny. For example, referring to Bill Ayers, McCain publicly asked of Obama: "How can you countenance someone who was engaged in bombings that could have or did kill innocent people?" But McCain himself carried out plenty of bombings that "could have or did kill innocent people."

As a pilot in Vietnam, John McCain flew repeated bombing missions designed to target civilians and civilian infrastructure. When he was shot down, according to his autobiography, he was bombing an electrical station in "a heavily populated part of Hanoi."

As Robert Richter, political director for CBS News from 1965 to 1968, recently wrote on CounterPunch, while the media and politicians routinely refer to McCain as a war hero, the 23 combat missions that McCain flew during "Operation Rolling Thunder"--the Pentagon's name for the relentless aerial bombardment of North Vietnam that began in 1965 and ultimately dropped over 800,000 tons of U.S. bombs on the country--should be the object of closer scrutiny.

According to Richter, in 1966--when McCain was still flying missions--Gen. Telford Taylor, a chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War, supported the idea of trying U.S. pilots captured in North Vietnam as war criminals. "Taylor's argument," Richter wrote, "was that their actions were in violation of the Geneva conventions that specifically forbid indiscriminate bombing that could cause incidental loss of civilian life or damage to civilian objects."

If dropping bombs on targets in "a heavily populated part of Hanoi" isn't inflicting terror, what is?

As Mike Casey, a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) who served as a medic in Vietnam, told Democracy Now's Jeremy Scahill at a protest outside the Republican National Convention, "You know, [McCain] had 23 combat missions over Hanoi. I know what those airplanes hit. I have many friends that have walked into villages that had been bombed by napalm, that have killed hundreds and thousands of innocent civilians.

"He bombed civilian targets, because civilian targets are military targets...We kill innocent civilians on purpose...And that's what we're doing in Iraq. That's what we're doing in Afghanistan. It's what we did in Vietnam."

As Ward Reilly, a member of VVAW and Veterans for Peace told Scahill, "I respect John McCain's having served his country, but, by nature, dropping bombs on innocent villages in Vietnam does not make you a war hero."

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