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Cindy McCain--Playing Nice

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Friday, May 09, 2008

"We'd rather not win than to have to do that," Cindy McCain told Ann Curry of the "Today" show, in response to a question about negative campaigning. "That's not worth winning for. This is about being a leader and a person that can be a good example for our children, and a good role model. There's many, many, many more things to this job than just being the president. You are an example. You have to -- you have to be better than that. You have to be."

Cindy McCain is, by all reports, a very nice woman, who has dealt with her share of issues -- a stroke in her 40s, addiction to prescription painkillers, not to mention the trials and tribulations of raising four children, including two sons who are now in the military and an adopted daughter from Bangladesh. She has endured rumors and speculation (on the front page of a recent edition of The New York Times) about her husband having an extramarital affair with a blonde lobbyist, and even, during the vicious 2000 campaign, his having fathered an illegitimate child. She is rich and files her taxes separately, which has led many people to challenge her right to keep those returns private. Her husband was married to someone else when they met. Yada, yada. If anyone knows how ugly it can get out there, it is Mrs. McCain.

She is also a USC graduate, a fellow Trojan (that's where I teach), which earns her even more points in my book.

So I believe her when she says she doesn't want this to be a negative campaign. I believe she believes it's not worth winning if that's the way you have to do it.

I just don't believe that is the way her husband's friends and supporters will see it.

There is an ugly tradition that has developed in politics in recent years, aided and abetted by the rules and exceptions that govern the financing of campaigns.

The candidate stays clean. Other people do the dirty work. Then the candidate is "shocked, shocked" to discover there is gambling in Casablanca, and that it is beyond his control.

And the media play right along, letting him get away with it, repeating the ugly ads, reporting that they were financed by someone else, parroting his expression of shock and concern amid the knowing winks from so-called wrongdoers who can't be stopped because they are, as they must be under the law, "independent" of the campaign.

The only way to stop negative -- and what I really mean is dirty -- campaigns is for the candidates to say they will take personal responsibility for what is said by those who support them, for the advertisements run on their behalf, for those who work for them, as well as those who conveniently claim their independence.

And it is up to the media to enforce that standard of responsibility by making clear in advance that they will view the so-called independent "527" groups as the arms of the campaigns that they really are and expect the candidates to exercise the control that they could if they wanted to.

Is Cindy McCain going to "swift boat" her husband's Democratic opponent? Is she going to have anything to do with dirty ads, appeals to base instincts, slinging mud knowing that some of it always sticks? Absolutely not. This is a woman who didn't want her husband ever to run for president after what they went through in 2000. She knows this stuff hurts. She knows it can be ugly and vicious and full of lies. She won't do it. Problem is, she doesn't have to. That's what friends are for.

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