By JONATHAN TILOVEÆ
March 2, 2000
c. 2000 Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) Among the straight talk expressed by John McCain on his campaign bus has been the GOP senator’s use of the word “gooks” to refer to the North Vietnamese guards who tortured him during his nearly six years as a prisoner of war.
The racist term for Asians gained currency in the war zones of Korea and Vietnam, and is akin in its offensive power to the N-word for blacks.
In the modern era, there is no comparable example of a serious presidential candidate openly using such a racially derogatory term without a firestorm. McCain, who said he applied it only to a few sadistic individuals, has apologized and pledged to strike the word from his public vocabulary.
Beyond the details of McCain’s biography and history, expert observers say the failure of McCain’s language to ignite a greater controversy speaks volumes about the still marginal place Asian-Americans occupy on the national political scene and in the national consciousness.
Interviews with more than a dozen leaders of Asian-American civil rights, social advocacy and political action organizations indicate that there was a consistent response to McCain’s language. They understood his anger, but were upset that he expressed it in racial terms. And on a personal basis, a number of those leaders said they began to wonder about McCain.
There are more than 10 million Asian-Americans nationwide, about two-thirds of whom are foreign-born, according the UCLA Asian-American Studies Center. About 1.5 million are registered voters, concentrated in a few states, the most important of them California, where they are between 4 percent and 8 percent of the electorate. Moreover, they are an independent swing vote.
But the imbroglio has not noticeably hurt the Arizonan’s campaign in the Super Tuesday states.
The simple question _ why not? _ has a complicated answer.
It begins with the power of McCain’s personal story and his explanation of why and how he uses the word.
It also has something to do with the critical-yet-measured response of Asian-American leaders and the deep and complex relationship between McCain and Vietnamese-Americans, the community that might have been most aggrieved by his words, but which proved, on the whole, the most forgiving.
“He shed blood and suffered a great deal at the hands of the Vietnamese communists,” said Van Thai Tran, a prominent Orange County, Calif., lawyer and political activist.
Tran helped arrange McCain’s visit Wednesday to the Little Saigon neighborhood in Westminster, where throngs hailed the senator as a hero and a campaign spokesman said McCain had said all that he would about the slur.
Tran noted that McCain’s visit came 25 years after the fall of Saigon. “The South Vietnamese veterans who I have spoken to feel that it is perfectly understandable for the senator to describe his communist captors as such. In fact, they’ve told me they used much worse language,” he said.
The brouhaha that isn’t began on Feb. 17. “I hated the gooks, and I will hate them for as long as I live,” McCain told reporters as his campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express, rolled through South Carolina. “Every single one of my POW friends, that’s what we called them.”
It was not the first time he had spoken like that. An incidence was reported in September by Roger Simon of U.S. News & World Report. Simon’s piece was featured in a later analysis in The Nation of how Vietnam shaped McCain, an article reprinted elsewhere. When reporters questioned McCain about the language, he launched into the much-quoted February remarks.
In the face of mounting criticism, primarily from leaders of Asian-American organizations, McCain on Feb. 21 issued a statement declaring that, “I will no longer use the term that has caused such discomfort. I deeply regret any pain I may have caused by my choice of words.”
“With another, larger minority group, one of his handlers would have said, `You can’t say that,”’ said Robert George Lee, a historian of the Asian-American experience who teaches at Brown University.
To Lee, “the broader and much more disturbing aspect” of the issue is that it still seems acceptable to use racial epithets against Asian-Americans, “because Asian-Americans are still foreign, they don’t count for much in American politics or culture, they are are not really part of us.”
“It’s outrageous,” Lee concluded.
Lee said that Jesse Jackson’s famous _ albeit ostensibly private and off-the-record _ description of New York City as “Hymietown” while running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 had enormous repercussions “because it played into a very conscious discourse about race in America. Asian-Americans have been left out of this conversation about race.”
In other words, the broader public does not understand that the word “gook” is not a dusty relic of a bygone age but a living, stinging reality.
“The senator was trying to say he was being very specific, describing his captors,” said KaYing Yang, executive director of the Southeast Asian Action Resource Center, a national organization headquartered in Washington. But, she said, “it brought up a lot of feelings from many of s.”
“I grew up with this word,” Yang, who is Hmong, recalls of her youth in Manitowoc, Wis. “Constantly. Daily. At school. People egged our house, called us on the phone and made imitations of what they thought Asian languages sound like, saying these words.”
Matt Fong, co-chair of the Bush campaign in California and the 1998 Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, recalls his experience at the Air Force Academy during the Vietnam War.
“I knew when someone said, `gook,’ they meant the Vietcong, but it still made me duck a little bit,” Fong said.
Frank Wu, a law professor at Howard University, would wager that “a significant number of the 10 million Americans of Asian descent have had the experience of having `gook’ used against them. I’m not called a gook every day, every week or every month, but I’m called it often enough that I know it’s a racial epithet, and I’m not Vietnamese, I’m not an immigrant, I’m not a communist, I’m not a soldier.”
Wu blamed a lax press for not calling McCain more rigorously to account.
Nonetheless, “A lot of people are starting to question what kind of sentiment does he really have about Asian-Americans,” said Daphne Kwok, executive director of the Organization of Chinese Americans.
Said J.D. Hokoyama, president of Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, “It tells me something about the man.”
Like several others, Stewart Kwoh, the director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California, noted that the victim of a crime committed by an African-American would have no license to use the N-word. The thought that a person might rationalize such language by suggesting it applied only to a particular individual is ridiculous, he said.
Another prominent Asian-American wondered whether McCain’s remark was calculated.
“If I were being a hard-nosed cynic about this, one can look at the timeline of his use of the word, and then apology,” said Viet Dinh, a law professor at Georgetown University who was a Republican counsel to the Senate Whitewater Committee. Dinh suggested the rough language might have actually appealed to veterans in South Carolina, where there are few Asian voters.
But, officially, the Asian-American leadership accepted McCain’s apology and did not seek to extend or inflame the controversy.
“It’s that pride thing. Asian-Americans don’t want to be seen as whiners,” said Marion Yim, a Phoenix, Ariz. attorney and founding president of the Arizona Asian Bar Association.
“Maybe we are too cerebral,” said UCLA professor Paul Ong, a leading authority on Asian-Americans, acknowledging the stereotype.
“He’s apologized. In my view the issue is closed,” said Dan Hoang, who directs the Washington office of Vietnamese-American Public Affairs Committee.
“That’s good enough,” said Phillip Nguyen, who heads the Southeast Asian Community Center in San Francisco.
Le Xuan Khoa, the former director of the Southeast Asian Action Resource Center, was likewise relieved by McCain’s apology, noting that “Sen. McCain is a great supporter of the refugees for Indochina, especially from Vietnam.”
But even as many in the Vietnamese-American community appreciate McCain’s leadership, particularly on helping to reunite the families of former political prisoners, there are others who think the senator hurried too much to normalize relations and restore trade with Vietnam.
“As I characterize it, the relationship between the Vietnamese exile community and Sen. McCain is both emotional and complex to say the least,” said Van Thai Tran. “There is this affinity, this tie to the war.” But, he added, there are policy differences, “and now there’s a racial element.”
“Basically the older generation understands,” said Tran. “On the other hand, second-generation Vietnamese-Americans and other Asians have a problem with such language used by the senator in light of the fact he is seeking the highest office in the land, and also that he is making these statements 30 years after the war.”
Tony Lam, a city councilor in Westminster and said to be the only Vietnamese-American elected official in the nation, offers a similar assessment.
“We understand that he meant to attack the communist prison guards but the word is used here as a racial slur and he should have known better,especially since he’s been in the Senate for 17 years,” said Lam, who was already backing Bush for president. “It wasn’t just a slip, he said it coldly,” said Lam, adding, “I accept his apology.”
It seems unlikely that the flap will matter in Tuesday’s primary. However, Democrats have made plain that they will use it against McCain in the fall if he is the nominee. And Asian-Americans could, at least potentially, play a pivotal political role then.
In that context, McCain’s use of “gooks” could matter incrementally, as another bit of evidence of Republican insensitivity on race, said Christian Collett, who teaches public opinion and survey research methods at the University of California at Irvine and is writing a book on Vietnamese-American politics in Orange County.
“This is yet another noose that Gore can tie around the neck of McCain and around the Republicans,” Collett said.
Wu, the Howard law professor, put it this way: “I hope it has an effect. If Asian-Americans were to support McCain it would be puzzling. It would show a kind of passivity and submissiveness, like we were living down to our stereotype of being polite and deferential.”