It’s South Carolina primary season! The one quadrennial occasion for the rest of the nation to pay attention to a state with 10 percent unemployment and 51st in the nation education ranking (that’s right, it’s so bad, it’s below the actual number of states we have). All this hoopla reminds me of this classic from the Inverted Soapbox clip file, where John McCain came Hilton Head for a quick campaign stop during the slugfest that was the 2008 nominating process. The event was fast and loose, and the broke underdog felt more like 2000 era McCain in his element rather than the tired 2008 model. And then this happened:
(Island Packet, Nov. 16, 2007) The question had a cadence and a sharp alliteration that sliced through the yadda-yadda-yadda about Social Security and health care that dominated Sen. John McCain’s campaign stop on Hilton Head Island on Monday.
With news cameras rolling, Wexford resident Linda Burke, prim in a neck scarf and pulled-back hair, leaned forward out of the crowd and asked plainly and emphatically: “How do we beat the bitch?”
That word, henceforth called the “B-Bomb,” referred to Sen. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner who stirs up vituperative feelings deep in the gut of many Republicans.
It turned into the B-Bomb heard ’round the world.
Burke’s question — and McCain’s reaction — has caught fire with political wonks across the nation, appearing on cable news and turning into the issue du jour for liberal commentators. The blogosphere, that shadowy zone where even the most minuscule thing a candidate says is recorded, dissected, criticized and resent into the digital ether, is having a field day with it.
CNN’s Rick Sanchez, unleashing his inner feminist, did an entire segment on it, asking if the incident would finish McCain’s presidential hopes. For whatever reason, he sought Whoopi Goldberg’s opinion on it, too.
On Thursday, Inside Edition called The Island Packet asking for a photograph of Burke. YouTube videos of the incident have been viewed more than 900,000 times.
In short, the McCain campaign is getting B-slapped by the Hilton Head incident.
Here’s what happened: After Burke’s question at Trinity Restaurant and Bar, the room full of supporters erupted in hearty laughter and McCain squirmed, blinked and asked, “Can I get the translation?” before letting a small smile slip out.
Here’s the part causing all the ruckus: McCain, wiping sweat from his brow and trying to bring the crowd back around, said, “But that’s an excellent question,” before launching into a comment about a recent poll showing he’s the only Republican who can beat Clinton in the general election.
For liberal bloggers and commentators, not chastising the use of the B-Bomb and calling it an “excellent question” was a classless move. And in front of McCain’s 95-year old mother, even!
“It hit YouTube and really it caught fire on the Internet as an example of John McCain’s style, and unfortunately his lack of tact in this case,” said Steve Benen, editor of the popular liberal blog The Carpetbagger Report (www.thecarpetbaggerreport.com), which posted a video of the incident Tuesday. “I think it really reflects poorly on Senator McCain.”
Benen and other bloggers point to an incident a few days ago when McCain rebuffed his own mother’s comments about Mormonism on national television, but let the B-Bomb fall untouched.
For Burke, however, national exposure isn’t her only experience amplifying her feelings about the former first lady.
When Clinton moved to New York and ran for Senate, appearing in a parade outside Burke’s former home on 68th Street and 5th Avenue in New York City, she stuck a megaphone out her window and yelled “GO HOME!.”
“I’m terrified of her,” Burke said in an interview after Monday’s event. For the record, she’s still undecided, but leaning toward Rudy Giuliani.
Clinton’s campaign declined comment for this story, but Republicans say the incident is getting distorted. McCain said at the event: “I respect Sen. Clinton, I respect anyone who gets the nomination of the Democrat Party.”
McCain’s South Carolina campaign spokesman B.J. Boling said CNN’s Sanchez in particular was trafficking in “hyper-sensationalism.”
“His dramatics on what happened on Hilton Head not only reflect poorly on him but on CNN as a whole,” Boling said. “And if Mr. Sanchez had done the responsible thing as a journalist and actually paid attention to this race he would know that Sen. McCain has the utmost respect for Sen. Clinton and Mr. McCain has mentioned that respect time and time again on the campaign trail.”
Indeed, the two are often seen as congenial Senate cohorts, working together on issues such as climate change and Iraq. In a trip through Estonia in 2004, Clinton reportedly challenged McCain to a vodka-drinking contest.
South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint criticized the use of the B-Bomb, but had no comment on McCain’s handling of it, spokesman Wesley Denton said.
“He just thought that there’s no need to get personal and show that kind of disrespect,” Denton said.
Watching an event on YouTube is different from being there, of course. The mood at Trinity restaurant was mostly upbeat and jocular. McCain opened with a joke that compared lawyers to “scum-sucking bottom feeders,” then told another about drunk Irishmen.
“He answered it pretty well and he laughed a little bit himself,” said James Walsh, the co-owner of Trinity. “It just kind of caught everyone off guard.”
Staff writer Michael Welles Shapiro contributed to this report.