And so it has begun. The final month of the presidential race, the campaign that feels as if it commenced some time during the Coolidge administration.

And as we slide into these last weeks, what we all feared is coming true. Just when you thought the bottom of the swamp had been scraped, sludge gurgles up from the primordial ooze.
 
This is the endgame, the ugly stuff, meant to assassinate character and distract the electorate with foolishness as our financial house of cards flutters away into the uncertain winds of whatever’s left of the global economy.

“It’s a dangerous road, but we have no choice,” a “top McCain strategist” told the New York Daily News. “If we keep talking about the economic crisis, we’re going to lose.”

Another GOP operative was quoted by the Washington Post: “There’s no question we have to change the subject here.”

Change the subject, turn the page, sling the mud. For several days now, Governor Palin has impugned Senator Obama’s patriotism and accused him of “palling around with terrorists” – specifically, William Ayers, a founding member nearly 40 years ago of the radical and violent Weathermen, now a prominent educator and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Obama was chair of a school reform project, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, and Ayers briefed board members on education issues. They both served on the board of a Chicago charity and Ayers and his wife hosted a coffee when Obama first ran for office.
 
Governor Palin cited The New York Times as backing up her accusations, despite that publication’s previous characterization by the McCain campaign as a biased, inaccurate rag somewhere to the left of the Daily Worker.

In fact, the Times reported, “A review of records of the schools project and interviews with a dozen people who know both men, suggest that Mr. Obama, 47, has played down his contacts with Mr. Ayers, 63.” But, the paper continued, “the two men do not appear to have been close. Nor has Mr. Obama ever expressed sympathy for the radical views and actions of Mr. Ayers, whom he has called ‘somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8.’”

The whole thing is reminiscent of the desperation move of the other President Bush, running against Bill Clinton in 1992, when he implied darker ulterior motives to Clinton’s 1970 student visit to the Soviet Union.

For Obama’s part, his campaign released an ad characterizing John McCain as “erratic,” and a thirteen-minute video revisiting the “Keating Five.”

Sen. McCain, the Obama folks would like you to recall, was one of five United States senators accused in 1989 of using their clout to help bail out Charles Keating, chairman of the failed Lincoln Savings and Loan. All had received campaign contributions and other perks from Keating.

The collapse of Lincoln Savings cost the American taxpayers $2.6 billion. Charles Keating went to prison. Mr. McCain got off with a mild rebuke for "questionable conduct" from the Senate Ethics Committee, and vowed that from then on he would be above reproach.

So both sides are at each other, hammer and tong. But to suggest there is an equivalency in the attacks, as many in the media have done, is debatable.

That McCain has a past history of stumbling into financial poo (although $2.6 billion seems a pittance in comparison to the mega-sums being gambled away now) seems on point, relevant at a time when the economy is the most important issue in the land.

Not to mention that he had a far deeper and more personal relationship with Keating than Obama ever had with Ayers – including nine trips on the Keating dime (a few on Keating’s private jet), some of which weren’t reimbursed until the scandal erupted, and $112,000 in campaign contributions from Keating and his associates, more than any of the other four senators.

And not to mention McCain’s relationship with Phil Gramm, his economic guru, the former senior senator from Texas via Wall Street who called us “a nation of whiners” and who manipulated Congress to open the door to many of the excesses that have led to our fiscal downfall -- a man who, as American Prospect editor Harold Meyerson wrote, “has diminished American solvency and power beyond the wildest dreams of anti-American terrorists.”

By comparison, the charges made by the McCain-Palin camp are scattershot and approach demagoguery, hurled primarily by Palin, who has been cast as designated, campaign pit bull, the customary role given to a party’s vice presidential candidate.
 
But Governor Palin has skated onto the ice with a rare vengeance, not so much fiercely protective hockey mom as a political version of figure skater Tonya Harding, kneecapping the opposition and crying foul when caught in a media mess of her own making.

This leads from bad to worse. In Tuesday’s Washington Post, Dana Milbank described a Palin rally in Florida, “In Clearwater, arriving reporters were greeted with shouts and taunts by the crowd of about 3,000. Palin then went on to blame Katie Couric’s questions for her ‘less-than-successful interview with kinda mainstream media.’ At that, Palin supporters turned on reporters in the press area, waving thunder sticks and shouting abuse. Others hurled obscenities at a camera crew. One Palin supporter shouted a racial epithet at an African American sound man for a network and told him, ‘Sit down, boy.’”

Thus, behind the candied incandescence of the Palin phenomena, behind the shoutouts to Joe Six Pack, and third graders at the Gladys Wood Elementary School, behind the darn right’s and the coy winks is perhaps something scarier – a rank appeal to our baser instincts at a time when nationwide fear can be manipulated to overrule basic common sense.

Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.

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