Cockburn book controversy figures prominently in Kaine-Stewart debate

Republican charges of anti-semitism that have swirled around the campaign of Rappahannock County Democratic congressional candidate Leslie Cockburn were amplified Saturday during a nationally televised debate between incumbent Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine and his Republican challenger Corey Stewart at The Homestead in Hot Springs.

For 10-plus minutes of a contentious 90-minute debate, moderated by journalist Judy Woodruff and broadcast by PBS NewsHour, Kaine and Stewart took turns criticizing each other for supporting controversial figures, whether they be political candidates or white supremacists who organized last summer’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.

Kaine, a former Virginia governor and 2016 vice president candidate, got the fiery exchange going when he questioned why Stewart, as chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, chose to skip a December 2017 board meeting in order to travel to Alabama on Election Day to campaign for controversial U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, a former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.

“At the time that you skipped the meeting to go campaign for Roy Moore he had been ‘outed’ as somebody who had a long history of preying on teenage girls,” Kaine charged. “Why was it so important for you to skip your job in Prince William County that night and go campaign for somebody who was such a bad apple?”

“Well, let me ask you this question,” Stewart shot back, deflecting Kaine’s question. “Why is it you skipped your entire four years when you were governor of Virginia?”

Once the ensuing smoke cleared, Woodruff pressed Stewart about his “public appearances with or else [being] endorsed by Paul Nehlen, Richard Hines and Jason Kessler, all of whom have espoused white supremacy or anti-Semitism. You subsequently said you disavowed Nehlen and Kessler, but the National Republican Senatorial Committee [NRSC] has refused to support you and there are other Republicans who ask, ‘Why this pattern of associating at all with people who promote hate?’”

Telling the Virginia audience that he believes all people “are born equal,” Stewart said “there’s not a racist bone in my body. I’m at Eagle Scout. I believe in equal opportunity for all . . . And I didn’t know at the time the way they were . . . I’ve disavowed them, every one of them. Every single time I come across somebody like that.

“But you know what, he hasn’t,” Stewart continued of Kaine. “The same standard has not been held. You and the media have failed. You have not held him accountable for the people who he associates with who are anti-Semitic and bigoted.”

His allegations referred, in part, to Cockburn, who makes her home in Rappahannock County and faces Republican candidate Denver Riggleman of Nelson County in November’s election.

“A Democratic nominee for Congress in the 5th district, Leslie Cockburn, who wrote a book where she actually believes and stated that somehow Jewish people in this country have taken over America’s foreign policy,” Stewart began his double-edged attack on Kaine and the local congressional candidate.

“She said that Jewish people were a menace, that Israelis were a menace,” the Republican charged. “She actually congratulated Saddam Hussein for attacking Israel with Scud missiles and killing Israeli children. And yet, not only has [Kaine] endorsed her, not only does he continue to appear with Miss Cockburn, but he actually shares an office with her, where I assume they share views as well, in Charlottesville.”

The candidate, who was state chairman for Donald Trump, was referring to the 1991 book, “Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the U.S.-Israeli Covert Relationship,” that Cockburn, a former investigative journalist and filmmaker, co-authored with her husband, Andrew Cockburn, who has produced numerous books and documentary films about national security matters.

Cockburn earlier told this newspaper that she was proud of the book, which she described as a “brass tacks” examination of the military and intelligence relationship between the two countries. And on the heels of the GOP accusations several months ago, the candidate organized a meeting with a Jewish community group in Charlottesville to answer any concerns.

At the same time, 2014 Israel Prize Laureate and Tel Aviv University professor and historian Irad Malkin issued a statement saying: “I wrote at length about Dangerous Liaison for Ha’aretz and to call Leslie Cockburn an anti-Semite is outrageous.”

After Stewart finished and it was the senator’s turn to speak, Kaine went back to his opponent’s association with known white supremacists, charging that Jason Kessler didn’t come to Stewart’s events, “Corey went to Jason Kessler’s events — the architect of that horrible tragedy in Charlottesville that led to the death of a paralegal, that led to the death of two [Virginia] State Troopers that I knew, that led to the horrible injuries of many others. It was Corey who sought out Jason Kessler, not the other way around.

“Corey sought out Paul Nehlen,” Kaine continued. “He is a notorious anti-Semite, anti-Islamic, violent language. And Corey didn’t just seek him out, Corey went and appeared with him and called Paul Nehlen one of his personal heroes. He paid Paul Nehlen to get his supporter list because he thought those are my kind of people and I want to reach out to them.”

Nehlen, a self-described “pro-white” nationalist, is a Republican congressional candidate seeking Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s seat. Stewart is actually on tape endorsing Nehlen last November when the two appeared at the Trump Hotel in Washington. But when questioned by the Washington Post last month, Stewart publicly disavowed the Wisconsin candidate, saying his disagreed with his “anti-Semitic” and “bigoted” views.

Stewart repeated in the debate that he has moved away from “those people” who preach hatred, and questioned again why Kaine continues to support and appear alongside Cockburn.

The senator offered that Cockburn co-authored a book that was “critical” of U.S. and Israeli foreign policy. “That’s not the same as being an anti-Semite,” said Kaine, pointing out that he is the chief Democrat sitting on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that oversees the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

“You can be critical of somebody’s foreign policy and not be an anti-Semite,” said the senator. “To say that her foreign policy views make her an anti-Semite, that’s just a scurrilous charge. It’s not true.”

Cockburn, meanwhile, is racking up the endorsements, including from former Virginia governor-turned-senior Sen. Mark Warner, and former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who says the 5th district candidate has what it takes to “stand up to the corporate gun lobby” and “keep our schools, streets, churches and communities safe.”

See the whole debate on the PBS News Hour YouTube channel.

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John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at