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Not Quite McCain's Macaca

(AP)
Let me say it one more time for the cheap seats.

Dear Presidential Candidates: You're always on camera.

Last year we had a Senate candidate lose his momentum because of an insult he uttered. An insult that was recorded and uploaded online, of course.

Now we've got a presidential candidate hit a political speed bump because of – and get this – not something he said, but something that was said to him that he didn't challenge, rebut or otherwise criticize.

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John McCain is having a tough couple days, as reported in the Washington Post today:

John McCain, who is drawing criticism for not challenging a South Carolina voter's vulgar reference to Hillary Clinton, yesterday issued a letter accusing CNN of having "stooped to an all-time low" in trumpeting the incident.

On Monday night, when a woman at a town hall meeting asked how Republicans could beat Clinton -- calling her a word that rhymes with "witch" -- McCain smiled as the crowd laughed and said it was an "excellent question." After citing a poll showing him beating her in a general-election matchup, the senator from Arizona said: "I respect Senator Clinton. I respect anyone who gets the nomination of the Democrat Party."

And one day ago, the Associated Press ran an article with the headline "McCain Answered Woman Who Rapped Clinton."
Republican presidential hopeful John McCain says he respects Hillary Rodham Clinton and that he said as much when a woman used the word "bitch" to describe her.

"How do we beat the bitch?" the woman asked Monday at a McCain event in South Carolina.

McCain laughed along with the crowd as he said, "May I give the translation?"

"That's an excellent question," he added. "I respect Senator Clinton. I respect anyone who gets the nomination of the Democratic Party."

(Here is where I mention in passing and without comment the informative nature of Michael Crowley's piece this week in The New Republic about the Clinton media machine. Now, ahem, on with the post.)

CNN's Rick Sanchez is featured in a lot of the news stories as being the leader of the "Shame on you, McCain" brigade. (A Google news search of "Rick Sanchez" and "bitch" came up with 211 articles.) He's been out front in saying things like "This could be real bad for John McCain" or "Is John McCain done as a result of this?" But is there a whole lot of meat to this story, aside from wishing McCain had spoken to the better angels of the woman's nature?

As a political observer, I can see the merit of this story. Yes, as anyone who follows politics knows, the level of discourse in campaigning is slipping on a regular basis. (See also: Coulter, Ann) But on a human level, I wonder what the video of McCain criticizing an older woman -- and in what looks like a small conference room -- for debasing the political climate would have looked like.

Would it have been a 21st Century Sistah Souljah Moment? Possibly. But it could have just as likely looked like he was picking on somebody's grandmother.

I spoke with CBSNews.com's Senior Political Editor Vaughn Ververs – and yes, my predecessor at Public Eye – about this particular website's decision about the story. (CBSNews.com has covered the story but not posted the video.) His thoughts?

"We have covered the story as a campaign story but have chosen not to post the video. We may be right on this or we may be wrong in terms of news judgment but we simply felt it to be gratuitous in this case," he said.

"Political discourse is coarse enough without shoving it in front of audiences."

I can agree with that. The line for news merit of politicians and irresponsible language should be drawn at what they themselves say, not what they're exposed to. They give us more than enough material to sift through.

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