The most famous Town Hall debate moment, as far as I can tell, came from the first time the format was used; it was the woman who asked George H.W. Bush how the deficit affected him personally (Adam Serwer talked about it today, thus providing proof that it’s famous).

But the other famous Town Hall debate moment should have been the startling one just four years ago, well into the age when you would think that nothing like this could happen unnoticed on TV with everyone watching. I’ve mentioned it before, but I bet you don’t know what I’m talking about, do you? It’s about John McCain.

Here’s what happened:

The first question of the debate was asked by an older white guy named Alan who asked a general question about the economy — nothing about his personal situation at all, just a general question about how the candidates would help the economy. Both candidates answer. The follow-up from the moderator, Tom Brokaw, asks the candidates for their choices for Treasury Secretary. So there’s been a fair amount of talk since the first question. The second question, then, is asked by a young African American man, who asks how the “bailout package” — TARP — would actually help people. McCain launches into an answer on Freddie and Fannie, but eventually gets around to this:

So this rescue package means that we will stabilize markets, we will shore up these institutions. But it’s not enough. That’s why we’re going to have to go out into the housing market and we’re going to have to buy up these bad loans and we’re going to have to stabilize home values, and that way, Americans, like Alan, can realize the American dream and stay in their home.

It was absolutely shocking, or at least I found it shocking (if you want a more complete retelling, I got my brother to write about it at the time in my pre-blogging days; the NYT transcript is here).

There’s simply nothing at all in either question to indicate that “Alan” but not the black guy (Oliver) would want to “realize the American dream and stay in [his] home.” Neither even asked about housing, much less talked about their own situations. And yet McCain, while looking at Oliver and answering his question, referred back to the white guy when he wanted to talk about the American dream and home ownership. (If you want to see it on the video, the question is at the 10:00 point and “Americans, like Alan” is at about the 12:00 mark — more than nine minutes after Alan had sat down after asking his question). It’s worth seeing; McCain begins by answering the question directly to Oliver, then starts moving around the debate area while he’s talking generally about housing and attacking Obama, and then returns to speaking directly to Oliver when he gets to this bit (and gestures back to Alan; he’s clearly not just confusing the names) — there’s really no other way to read it than that he’s specifically telling this African American man that the American dream is the property of white guys.

Forget about what it says about John McCain; I’m still shocked, four years later, that the press didn’t pick up on it. Did reporters notice and just not care? Did they not think it was significant? Did they not notice?

As I said, this really should be a famous debate moment.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.