Incredibly, O'Donnell followed up by saying, "I am offended on behalf of all the veterans of the Vietnam War who joined, Mr. Cain. The veterans who did not wait to be drafted, like John Kerry, who joined. They didn't sit there and wait to find out what their draft board was going to do. They had the courage to join, and to go, and to fight that war. What prevented you from joining? And what gives you the feeling, after having made that choice, you should be the commander in chief?"
Obviously, this is an absurd standard to apply, and it is difficult to imagine the Vietnam veterans that O'Donnell so opportunistically invokes being upset that a man of their generation didn't enlist after being told by his draft board that his work for the Navy was where he could contribute most.
Coming from O'Donnell on MSNBC, the lecture is especially grating. When Andrew Breitbart released his recent book, I explained at some length how he embodies many of the attitudes and behaviors that he claims to abhor in other people -- his self-serving reasoning is that liberals behave badly, so he is justified in behaving in exactly the same awful ways as a countermeasure. Rush Limbaugh does it too, complaining about race-baiting, and then doing it constantly.
In this interview, O'Donnell goes to absurd lengths to use patriotism and jingoism as cudgels to attack his conservative guest, almost as if he is doing a Stephen Colbert style parody of the tactics he imagines a right-wing blowhard might employ. Does he realize he's becoming what he claims to abhor?
That brings us to the segment of the interview that is causing the most consternation. It concerns a passage from Cain's book. Understand that it is a very strange, surprisingly unpolished book. If it had a ghost writer, he or she failed. Certain passages are offered for reasons impossible to discern. The narrative jumps from one anecdote to another, and sections that would, in a normal book, be emphasized or lead to some larger point are offered sans comment.
The passage at issue is preceded by a story about how Cain and his brother got a BB gun for Christmas, shot their cousin in the butt, and got it taken away. Immediately following that story is this:
One very hot day when he and I were out with Mom, we got very thirsty and started to walk over to a public water fountain. Mom reminded us that we must use the "coloreds" fountain. Being somewhat rambunctious, however, we made sure no one was watching us, and then we drank, first from the forbidden "whites only" fountain, and after that from the "coloreds" fountain. Then we looked at each other and said, "You know what? The 'whites only' water tastes just the same as the 'coloreds' does!"
On a day-to-day basis, because the civil rights movement was a few years in front of me, I was too young to participate when they first started the Freedom Rides, and the sit-ins. So on a day-to-day basis, it didn't have an impact. I just kept going to school, doing what I was supposed to do, and stayed out of trouble--I didn't go downtown and try to participate in sit-ins. But I well remember, as a young teenager, seeing signs printed in large black letters at the fronts of buses: "White seat from front, colored seat from rear." One day when I was thirteen, my friends and I were riding home from school in a half-empty bus--this was at the time when the civil rights movement was just getting off the ground and some police officers were just looking for a reason to shoot a black person who "got out of line." So, counter to our real feelings, we decided to avoid trouble by moving to the back of the bus when the driver told us to. By that time, the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides had kind of broken the ice, even though things hadn't fully changed. So we saw it every day on TV and read about it in the news. Dad always said, "Stay out of trouble," and we did.
The book then moves on to another subject (mathematics!) -- no larger point is made about the civil rights era. I imagine a lot of white people who read that passage shared something like my reaction: Wow, I can't imagine what it was like to live through that era as a black person -- to have kids whose "real feelings" urged them toward civil disobedience, even as you felt they were too young, and urged them against it, wondering if you were doing right, as they wondered too.