Rage in the Town of Bethlehem

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, October 9, 2008

BETHLEHEM, Pa. Now, it's personal.

John McCain and Sarah Palin were backstage, and Lehigh County GOP Chairman Bill Platt was warming up the crowd of 6,000 at a rally here for the Republican ticket.

"Think about how you'll feel on November 5 if you wake up in the morning and see the news, that Barack Obama -- that Barack Hussein Obama -- is the president-elect of the United States," Platt said. The audience at the Lehigh University arena booed at the thought of it.

"The number one most liberal senator in the United States of America was, you guessed it, the ambassador of change, Barack Hussein Obama," he added. "This election is about preserving America's past and protecting the promise of its future."

The sage Platt had more information to disclose. "Barack Obama refused to wear an American flag on his lapel," he said of the man who, at the presidential debate the night before, was wearing a flag pin on his lapel. The audience booed. "Barack Obama, a man who wants to be president of the United States of America, removed the American flag from his chest because it was a symbol of patriotism. Perhaps Barack Obama doesn't put country first, but he puts fashion first."

The verbal barrage in the hall must have convinced McCain he was running with a rough crowd.

"Across this country, this is the agenda I have set before my fellow prisoners," he said when he took the stage.

And Platt wasn't the only inmate in the arena. Northampton County council member Peg Ferraro, in her turn at the microphone, spoke about Obama's "backgrounds and affiliations," calling these unspecified relationships "questionable" and asking: "Do we know who his friends are?"

The crowd engaged in a chant of "No-bama!"

State Rep. Karen Beyer darkly warned the crowd that "Barack Obama doesn't know anything about you."

Cindy McCain implied that Obama was trying to harm her son. "My son . . . has served on the front lines," she told the crowd, with her husband and Palin standing behind her. "Let me tell you, the day Senator Obama decided to cast a vote not to fund my son when he was serving . . . sent a cold chill through my body, let me tell you. I suggest that Senator Obama change shoes with me for just one day and see what it means to have a loved one serving in the armed forces, and, more importantly, serving in harm's way."

Only the polka band, which entertained the crowd before the speeches, seemed unaffected by the pervasive anger in the arena. "Ha, ha, ha, come join my happy song," sang the man with the accordion. "Clap along!" The crowd clapped. "We're going to party tonight," he crooned, "with joy and laughter, that's what we're after."

It was a jarring juxtaposition: At one moment, those gathered were dancing, clapping and singing along to the polka; minutes later, they were enraged. This paradox called for a social-science experiment.

A Washington Post columnist created two hand-lettered signs -- one saying "MAINSTREAM MEDIA" and the other, "I NEED A HUG" -- then carried them among the McCain supporters. McCain, and particularly Palin, have railed in recent days about the failings of the mainstream media, and Platt picked up the theme Wednesday, telling the crowd about "vicious attacks from the media."

The result was reassuring. Most of the McCain supporters enjoyed the sight, and several of them offered hugs or handshakes. Some others used the opportunity to give polite voice to their displeasure with the media. Only a minority in the crowd turned ugly. "Put your hands around me, you'll spit your teeth out," said one gentleman. "Barack Osama -- he'll give you a hug," said another.

It was that last group, however, that seemed to be the target audience in the arena.

Even the opening prayer was politically charged. "O God, we are in a battle that is raging for the soul of this nation," the preacher said. "You, O God, have raised up Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin for such a time as this." The preacher went on: "Help them, O God, to strengthen our economy, to keep our taxes and spending low . . . and grant them the privilege of being elected the next president and vice president."

With such warm-up acts, little was left unsaid for the principals. Palin scolded Obama for "lecturing John McCain on the stakes of going to war" in the debate. "May I remind Senator Obama that Senator McCain served our nation in uniform for 22 years?"

The crowd liked McCain, but loved Palin. "You're a hottie!" a young man near the front called out to her.

"What does that have to do with anything?" she answered with a smile.

McCain, up next, played his own attack dog. He said he wouldn't take lessons in telling the truth "from a Chicago politician." He then said Obama "abetted" corruption in the home-mortgage market. He said his rival "turned a blind eye" while the mortgage agencies "ran our economy into a ditch." He also suggested, without evidence, that Obama had arranged a congressional earmark in exchange for campaign funding. "Even the appearance of this kind of insider dealing disgusts Americans," the Republican said, concluding that his opponent is a "politician who has bought into everything that is wrong with Washington."

Audience members participated in the Obama critique by shouting words such as "liar!" and "socialist!"

"Who is the real Senator Obama?" McCain asked.

Unclear. But we do know his middle name is Hussein.

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