WASHINGTON Democratic congressman John Lewis, a
veteran civil rights leader, accused Republican John McCain and
his running mate Sarah Palin on Saturday of "sowing the seeds
of hatred and division" and said it reminded him of the
segregationist era of Alabama Gov. George Wallace.
McCain, trailing Democratic presidential candidate Barack
Obama in the polls in an increasingly tense campaign, quickly
hit back, branding Lewis's remarks "shocking and beyond the
pale" and calling on Obama to immediately repudiate them.
The Obama campaign said while Lewis was right to condemn
"hateful rhetoric" the Illinois senator did not believe McCain
or his policy criticism were comparable to Wallace or his
segregationist policies as governor of Alabama in the 1960s.
The issue of race has mostly been an undercurrent in the
presidential contest between McCain and Obama, who would be
America's first black president, and it remains unknown how
much of a factor it will play in the Nov. 4 vote.
Lewis's comments, posted on his re-election website, follow
widely reported outbursts of anger against Obama at McCain
campaign events. McCain on Friday urged his supporters to be
respectful of his Democratic rival.
"I am deeply disturbed by the negative tone of the
McCain-Palin campaign," said Lewis, an Obama supporter, civil
rights icon and Georgia Democrat in the U.S. House of
"What I am seeing today reminds me too much of another
destructive period in American history. Sen. McCain and Gov.
Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is
no need for this hostility in our political discourse," he
Noting that Wallace, a divisive political figure in his
day, had also run for president, Lewis said, "He created the
climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks
against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise
their constitutional rights."
"Sen. McCain and Governor Palin are playing with fire, and
if they are not careful, that fire will consume us all," Lewis
MCCAIN: 'BASELESS ATTACK'
In a strongly worded rebuke, McCain said: "The notion that
legitimate criticism of Sen. Obama's record and positions could
be compared to Gov. George Wallace, his segregationist policies
and the violence he provoked is unacceptable and has no place
in this campaign."
"I am saddened that John Lewis, a man I've always admired,
would make such a brazen and baseless attack on my character
and the character of the thousands of hardworking Americans who
come to our events to cheer for the kind of reform that will
put America on the right track," McCain added.
Obama spokesman Bill Burton dismissed the Wallace
comparison but said Lewis "was right to condemn some of the
hateful rhetoric that John McCain himself personally rebuked
just last night, as well as the baseless and profoundly
irresponsible charges from his own running mate that the
Democratic nominee for president of the United States 'pals
around with terrorists."'
McCain and Palin have both raised questions about Obama's
association with former 1960s radical William Ayers.
(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan; Editing by Eric