John McCain lived a life overcrowded with great and terrible moments. But the one that got replayed over and over on the news after his death was the “Lakeville moment.”
It was the moment McCain shut down one of his own supporters after she called Barack Obama — the rival who was pulling ahead of him in the 2008 presidential polls — an untrustworthy “Arab.”
“He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues,” McCain says in the 10-year-old footage, taking the microphone and turning to address the rest of the crowd in the Lakeville South High School auditorium. “That’s what this campaign is all about.”
It wasn’t a perfect moment. McCain didn’t blast the very notion that there’s anything wrong with being Arab — which President Obama is not — or the ugly racism coiled behind the question.
But at a moment when the easiest thing in the world would have been to deflect or dodge or play along, John McCain met the question head-on and tried very hard to do the decent thing. In a nation now governed by a president who describes his citizens as dogs, losers and slime balls, the Lakeville moment feels like it happened a million years ago.
McCain’s defining moment wasn’t exactly the stuff historical markers are made of. Members of the Lakeville historical society didn’t realize until their Monday morning meeting that the footage on TV had unfolded in their quiet south metro suburb. But the people at McCain’s town hall that day never forgot.
Ben Zierke, working for the Minnesota McCain campaign that year, was standing at the back of the room when he saw a little old lady in a bright red shirt make a break down the aisle in front of him and head toward the candidate.
Everyone in the room that day got there by sweat equity — volunteering for the campaign in exchange for a ticket to the town hall. Those who got a nod from the candidate got a chance to ask him a question. The woman Zierke spotted hadn’t gotten a nod, but she made her way to the microphone anyway. She was 75-year-old Gayle Quinnell of Shakopee.
“I gotta ask you a question,” she said, as McCain leaned in, nodding encouragingly. “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him and he’s not — He’s not — He’s an Arab. And — ”
But the senator was shaking his head now, reaching out to take the microphone back.
“No?” she trailed off, as she handed the microphone over.
“No, ma’am,” McCain said firmly.
Quinnell, now 85, has spent the past few days hanging up on reporters from the Washington Post and the Star Tribune.
“I don’t want to talk about that,” she said Monday before slamming the phone down.
Ten years ago in Lakeville, she wasn’t persuaded either.
“You can’t trust Barack Hussein Obama,” she told reporters after the rally, “because he is a Muslim and a terrorist.”
Zierke remembers the buzz in the room that day. It was just a month after St. Paul hosted the Republican National Convention and Sarah Palin joined the ticket. This could be it, Minnesota Republicans told themselves, the year a GOP presidential candidate carried their state for the first time since Nixon. But as Obama climbed in the polls, anxiety levels rose in the party base and the questions at the town halls were getting more confrontational.
The Lakeville moment “was such an inflection point,” he said. “What she was saying was just completely incorrect. … It was not right to leave it there.” In that moment, he said, you could almost see McCain decide, “I’m not going to let that lie.”
Jake Loesch, a college Republican at the time, was sitting near McCain during the exchange with Quinnell.
“I can remember thinking, oh, this isn’t what we should be talking about. This isn’t what he’s here to talk about,” said Loesch, who now works as a lobbyist. Looking back, he said, he realized he’d witnessed a moment of true statesmanship. “It’s an odd position to have to tell your supporters, ‘No, that’s not true.’ … Sen. McCain rose above all that.”
It was a confrontation McCain had again and again that day. “Of the 21 questions posed to McCain during 45 minutes of give-and-take,” the Star Tribune reported at the time, “one-third challenged him to take on Obama more aggressively, with a few making incendiary comments.”
One man, who said his wife was pregnant, told McCain he was “scared to raise his child in a country with a President Obama.”
“I want to be president of the United States and I don’t want Senator Obama to be,” McCain said. “But I have to tell you, he is a decent person, and a person you do not have to be scared [to have] as president of the United States.”
The crowd booed.