In the eighteenth century, if the captain of a warship could not identify the nationality of an armed vessel, he might order his crew to fire a cannonball across the other ship's bow. The immediate message was clear: Show your colors. Equally clear was the implied warning: If you reveal yourself to be the enemy, Sir, we shall attack.
Four weeks before the election, Barack Obama launched a brilliant shot across the bow when his campaign released a 13-minute video, "Keating Economics: John McCain and the Making of a Financial Crisis." The video had its own web site, but the logo at the bottom of the screen made clear its provenance: "Paid For by Obama for America."
Except for music eerily reminiscent of the old Twilight Zone, the video was low-key, straightforward and utterly devastating. Narrated by William Black, a federal bank regulator from 1984 to 1994, the video began with his saying:
"If you think about what fraud is, fraud is the creation of trust, and then its betrayal. And that means there is no acid more effective at destroying trust than fraud."
McCain was one of five U.S. senators who opposed bank regulators investigating the operations of Charles Keating, who looted Lincoln Savings and Loan at a cost to American taxpayers of $3.4 billion. Before the bank's collapse, McCain and Keating enjoyed a close personal, political and financial relationship. Their families vacationed together, flying on Keating's private jet to stay at his home in the Bahamas. Keating and his associates gave McCain $112,000 in campaign contributions.
Then, last month, as the McCain-Palin ticket was listing heavily to starboard and taking on water, the right began beating the drum for McCain to resurrect the infamous Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Obama had suffered in the spring from his "association" with his former pastor. In March, the Rasmussen Report linked Wright to a rapid five-point drop in Obama's favorability rating and a six-point rise in unfavorability. So, the issue had proven potency. Would it work again?
Sarah Palin responded to the drumbeat by adding Wright to her rogues' gallery of Obama's purported "pals." On October 27, the National Republican Trust PAC aired an ad in three battleground states (Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio) with images of Obama and Wright and video of the pastor ranting: "No, no, no. Not God bless America. God damn America."
After the North Carolina primary, when another GOP group ran similar ads in that state, John McCain said he would not exploit Wright. As Election Day neared and the right grew even more apoplectic about the big bad Rev, McCain chose not to take up the cudgel. It may well have been a principled decision on his part. It was clearly a wise one. Had he decided to use Wright in the final days of the campaign, Obama could have responded by saturating the air with the sordid story of the Keating Five.
Keating went to prison for fraud. In a report issued February 28, 1991, the Senate Ethics Committee found that "the conduct of each of the five Senators reflected poor judgment." The committee said McCain "violated no law of the United States or specific Rule of the United States Senate." So, while he escaped censure, the facts of his involvement with Keating painted an ugly picture of influence-peddling at its worst.
"Senator McCain knew the facts [about Keating] because we had briefed him," Black said in the video. "He knew this was a criminal enterprise. He knew that what was being done was improper. He knew how much undue political pressure - his words, at least his words originally - was being brought to bear. He was uniquely in a position where he could have protested this, and stopped it, stopped this loss, but he did nothing.
"And his statement is: once I figured out that Keating was not being abused, I no longer had any need to protect my constituents. [Keating was from Arizona.] But all the taxpayers of America were his constituents! We all ended up paying that $3.4 billion."
In his 2002 book, Worth the Fighting For, McCain wrote of his involvement with Keating:
"I would very much like to think that I have never been a man whose favor can be bought. From my earliest youth, I would have considered such a reputation to be the most shameful ignominy imaginable. Yet that is exactly how millions of Americans viewed me for a time, a time that I will forever consider one of the worst experiences of my life."
The right continues to reel from the shellshock of Obama's victory. When it does regain its senses - to the extent that it can - it will no doubt blame McCain's loss, in part, on his failure to make the Wright connection.
But McCain understood that he had been outmaneuvered. CNN's Fact Check Team reviewed the Keating video and concluded: "The Verdict: True."
Flush with money, Obama's team could have cut its Keating video into a hail of 30-second ads and targeted every battleground state. Yet, after putting the video on the Internet, the Obama campaign did... nothing. The video was briefly mentioned in the press, but when his campaign made no move to exploit the issue, it dropped from view. The shot across the bow had served its purpose. A second, deadly shot would not be necessary.
Early in the campaign, Obama made clear that he would not remain passive in the face of tactics such as the Willie Horton ad that undermined the 1988 campaign of Michael Dukakis or the Swift Boat attacks against John Kerry in 2004.
Like another Illinois politician who became president, Obama would prefer to speak to "the better angels of our nature." Yet, also very much like Lincoln, he recognizes the importance of out-thinking an adversary before going into battle. Those who would thwart him as President could come to learn that as well.