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John McCain gets put on the linguistic spot

June 30, 2008 |  5:06 pm

It wasn't the sort of issue that John McCain (or Barack Obama) needed to prepare for Saturday in Washington when each courted Latino elected officials at their annual meeting. But Monday, at a McCain town hall meeting in Pipersville, Pa., a woman had a pointed question for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, a query sparked by America's changing demographics.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain responds to a question at a town hall meeting in Pipersville, Pennsylvania "Why, as an American, do I have to push a button to speak English or hear English?"

The audience, a sea of mostly white faces, erupted in deafening applause.

"I think you struck a nerve," said McCain, for whom this is a delicate issue, given his support in recent years of efforts to reform U.S. immigration law that included a "path to citizenship" for most illegal immigrants that was derided by its foes as "amnesty."

"I tell ya," continued the woman, "I really get ticked. I really do."

"I can tell," said McCain.

"And then you go into Lowe's," she continued, referring to the home improvement store, "and it says 'Entrada.' And every utility bill you got has got a foreign language on it."

Oh, and by the way, she added, would he autograph a copy of his book, a gift to her husband for his 71st birthday?

On immigration, McCain gave his now-standard reply, acknowledging ...

... the importance of securing the country's borders first. English, he said, must be learned by anyone wanting to become a citizen.

"I understand your frustration," he said, before he made a subdued plea for tolerance.

"There is a great thing about America and that is we welcome all people -- we are the great, great nation that brings people together from all different backgrounds and languages and cultures. And we love the Hispanic heritage, we love the Irish heritage, we love all of the heritage that has enriched our country."

Veteran town hall emcee that he is, he did not forget the second question.

"I'd love to sign the book," McCain said, passing along birthday regards to the woman's husband.

-- Robin Abcarian

Photo credit: Bloomberg News