From NBC's Carrie Dann
Georgia congressman John Lewis -- a civil rights leader and a man once deemed by John McCain as one of the "wisest" men he knew and one whose advice he would seek as president -- today likened the "negative tone" of McCain's campaign to that of incendiary segregation advocate George Wallace in the 1960s.
"What I am seeing reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history," Lewis wrote in a statement first posted on Politico's website. "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."
Noting that Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace "never threw a bomb" but "created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights," Lewis attributed the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church to the racial division sown by Wallace's political rhetoric.
"As public figures with the power to influence and persuade, Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are playing with fire, and if they are not careful, that fire will consume us all," the statement continues. "They are playing a very dangerous game that disregards the value of the political process and cheapens our entire democracy. We can do better. The American people deserve better."
The McCain campaign responded with a strongly-worded statement calling Lewis's remarks "brazen and baseless," and asking that Obama "personally repudiate these outrageous and divisive comments."
"Congressman John Lewis' comments represent a character attack against Governor Sarah Palin and me that is shocking and beyond the pale," reads the statement from McCain. "The notion that legitimate criticism of Senator Obama's record and positions could be compared to Governor 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.
"I call on Senator Obama to immediately and personally repudiate these outrageous and divisive comments that are so clearly designed to shut down debate 24 days before the election. Our country must return to the important debate about the path forward for America."