Jake Tapper (now of ABC) and Arkansas journalist Suzi Parker wrote a piece for Salon back in 2000 during the last presidential election in which they revealed to the world, and to McCain, that his family in Mississippi had owened 52 slaves in Carroll County (incidentally Trent Lott's home county and a hotbed for the Citizens Council back in the day):
The family's storied military history stretches back to Carroll County, Miss., where McCain's great-great grandfather William Alexander McCain owned a plantation, and later died during the Civil War as a soldier for the Mississippi cavalry.
But what McCain didn't know about his family until Tuesday was that William Alexander McCain had owned 52 slaves. The senator seemed surprised after Salon reporters showed him documents gathered from Carroll County Courthouse, the Carrollton Merrill Museum, the Mississippi State Archives and the Greenwood, Miss., Public Library.
"I didn't know that," McCain said in measured tones wearing a stoic expression during a midday interview, as he looked at the documents before Tuesday night's debate. "I knew they had sharecroppers. I did not know that."
This documentation includes slave schedules from Sept. 8, 1860, which list as the slave owner, "W.A. McCain." The schedules list the McCain family's slaves in the customary manner of the day -- including their age, gender and "color," labelling each either "black" or "mulatto." The slaves ranged in age from 6 months to 60 years.
"I knew we fought in the Civil War," McCain went on. "But no, I had no idea. I guess thinking about it, I guess when you really think about it logically, it shouldn't be a surprise. They had a plantation and they fought in the Civil War so I guess that it makes sense."
"It's very impactful," he said of learning the news. "When you think about it, they owned a plantation, why didn't I think about that before? Obviously, I'm going to have to do a little more research."
It would seem, though, that McCain should have known about the slavery past because his cousin had written about in a book that he supposedly had read:
The writer Elizabeth Spencer, a cousin to John McCain, does mention the family's slaves in her family memoir, "Landscapes of the Heart," -- a book McCain and his co-author Slater both say they have read, though they say not closely enough to have caught her glancing references to the family's slaves.
Early in Spencer's book, she refers casually to the issue in a reference to her family's history. "All the descendents of slave-holding families I have ever known believe in the benevolence of their forebears as master," she wrote.
In 2007, John McCain said the Senate should apologize for slavery.
I wonder if he would say the same thing this year during the campaign? Oh, and what would Sarah Palin say? A bit hard to imagine.
Of course, no one's allowed to ask her anything.