What McCain Said, and What It Means

John McCain's commencement address at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University has gotten a lot of coverage, both in the blogs and in mainstream media. Unfortunately, it seems to me that everyone has missed the real story.

Most of my friends in the liberal blogosphere can't get past the fact that McCain went to Jerryville at all. If he did anything short of lifting his robes to moon Rev. Falwell, he was pandering to the religious right. The New York Times' Adam Nagourney has McCain giving "a spirited defense of the Iraq War." Thanks for playing, Adam. Next time read the speech.

In reality, McCain did the only honorable thing he could have done, given that he had accepted an invitation from a man he had described in 2000 as an "agent of intolerance". He gave a lecture on tolerance.

Now, there's a lot to be said for the point that McCain shouldn't have gone to Liberty U -- and Jon Stewart said it to McCain's face on The Daily Show a few weeks ago: By speaking at Liberty, McCain is legitimizing Falwell and making him seem like part of the mainstream.

But the invitation and McCain's acceptance are old news. The new news is what McCain said. Obviously he was there to mend fences with the religious right. But how would he do it? Would he kneel down and kiss Jerry's ring? Would he beg forgiveness? Have a conversion experience while the choir sings "Just As I Am"? Maybe he would talk about his voting record on abortion -- which is pretty conservative and Jerry should love it. Maybe he'd even stake out a more right-wing position than he'd ever had before.

None of that happened. Here's an outline of what he said:

All graduation speeches have some boilerplate: You have congratulate the students on their accomplishment, point out how thankful they should be to their parents and teachers, tell them how lucky they are to be young and have so much of life ahead of them, and so on. McCain got that all out of the way in the first three paragraphs.

Then comes the Toastmasters boilerplate, the section of a speech one of my military friends describes as "getting the audience on your side". You tell some amusing self-deprecating anecdotes. If you're a true master, you not only make the audience smile, you subtly set them up to go where you want to push them. A big piece of McCain's charm is that he's very good at this. At Liberty, he recalled his own youth like this:

When I was a young man, I was quite infatuated with self-expression, and rightly so because, if memory conveniently serves, I was so much more eloquent, well-informed, and wiser than anyone else I knew. It seemed I understood the world and the purpose of life so much more profoundly than most people. I believed that to be especially true with many of my elders, people whose only accomplishment, as far as I could tell, was that they had been born before me, and, consequently, had suffered some number of years deprived of my insights. I had opinions on everything, and I was always right. I loved to argue, and I could become understandably belligerent with people who lacked the grace and intelligence to agree with me. With my superior qualities so obvious, it was an intolerable hardship to have to suffer fools gladly. So I rarely did.

McCain is setting up his tolerance lecture: You fundie grads may think you have all the answers written down in a book, but you might want to keep listening to other people anyway.

Now he gets into the meat of his lecture: "We have our disagreements, we Americans." And unlike the current president, McCain describes these disagreements as a GOOD thing. We disagree about America because we love America -- not because some of us love it and others of us hate it.

It is more than appropriate, it is necessary that even in times of crisis, especially in times of crisis, we fight among ourselves for the things we believe in. It is not just our right, but our civic and moral obligation.

In order to bring this point home, McCain needs a specific example of something he believes in that other patriotic Americans don't. This is where the Iraq War comes in. (No, Adam, it's not the point of the speech. It's an example.) McCain admits that he supported the decision to go to war -- not for empire, not for oil, but because "I believed, rightly or wrongly, that my country's interests and values required it." But what about those who opposed the war? Are they traitors? Cowards? Idiots? Should they just shut up and "support our troops"?

Americans should argue about this war. It has cost the lives of nearly 2500 of the best of us. It has taken innocent life. It has imposed an enormous financial burden on our economy. At a minimum, it has complicated our ability to respond to other looming threats. Should we lose this war, our defeat will further destabilize an already volatile and dangerous region, strengthen the threat of terrorism, and unleash furies that will assail us for a very long time. I believe the benefits of success will justify the costs and risks we have incurred. But if an American feels the decision was unwise, then they should state their opposition, and argue for another course. It is your right and your obligation. I respect you for it. I would not respect you if you chose to ignore such an important responsibility. But I ask that you consider the possibility that I, too, am trying to meet my responsibilities, to follow my conscience, to do my duty as best as I can, as God has given me light to see that duty.

Americans deserve more than tolerance from one another, we deserve each other's respect ... We have so much more that unites us than divides us.

As an example of what we have in common, he talks about our respect for "innocent human life". At this point the audience is probably expecting something about abortion, but McCain doesn't go there. Instead he talks about genocide, how we made a mistake not intervening in Rwanda, and are finally "prepared, I hope, to put an end to this genocide [in Darfur]." Being free ourselves, we have a moral obligation to help others find freedom too.

Let us exercise our responsibilities as free people. But let us remember, we are not enemies. We are compatriots defending ourselves from a real enemy. We have nothing to fear from each other. We are arguing over the means to better secure our freedom, promote the general welfare and defend our ideals. It should remain an argument among friends; each of us struggling to hear our conscience, and heed its demands; each of us, despite our differences, united in our great cause, and respectful of the goodness in each other. I have not always heeded this injunction myself, and I regret it very much.

If Falwell wants to think McCain is apologizing for calling him an "agent of intolerance", this is his chance. Both Falwell and McCain support the Iraq war, but Falwell could interpret this lesson metaphorically and apply it to the differences between them. (We know how much Falwell likes metaphoric interpretations.)

But you don't have to be a genius to extend this point in another direction. Maybe, fundie grads, he's talking about Methodists and Unitarians and even atheists (for God's sake). Maybe they, too, are "struggling to hear [their] conscience, and heed its demands. Let that thought sit in your subconscious a while and fester.

McCain closed with a story about a man named David -- not the David of the Bible, but a David who came to North Vietnam as a peace activist while McCain was a prisoner there.  (rgdurst on DailyKos suggested this is probably David Dellinger.)

He had come once to the capitol of the country that held me prisoner, that deprived me and my dearest friends of our most basic rights, and that murdered some of us. He came to that place to denounce our country's involvement in the war that had led us there. His speech was broadcast into our cells. I thought it a grievous wrong then, and I still do.

David never became a McCain-like conservative, and remained a Democrat to his dying day. But even so

We worked together in an organization dedicated to promoting human rights in the country where he and I had once come for different reasons. I came to admire him for his generosity, his passion for his ideals, for the largeness of his heart, and I realized he had not been my enemy, but my countryman . . . my countryman . . . and later my friend.

So what should we make of this speech? Two things. First, McCain did not go to Liberty University to surrender. He went there and defended his values. He was polite and did not wave any red flags at Falwell, but did not pander to him either.

Second, I think we see the outlines of McCain's message for 2008: He's going to run against polarization, as the candidate who can be in reality what Bush has been only in rhetoric: "a uniter, not a divider". I would expect him to do some other appearance that will bookend well with this one. Maybe he'll go to Hollywood and give a similarly polite and charming speech about responsibility. He's going to paint himself as the candidate who can go anywhere and talk to anybody without losing his soul.

It's an appealing image, and he might get away with it. In the primaries, he will emphasize his conservative record, but he'll be the conservative who thinks America is big enough to have liberals too. He'll try to paint his opponents as running on a platform of more partisan bickering. If it works, then he runs in November as the nice, reasonable guy who happens to have some conservative opinions, but understands that you may disagree with him. He wants your vote anyway, because America needs to come together again.

He won't get my vote. I'm as susceptible as anybody to the charm of a man who can talk about duty and honor without sounding phony. (Wes Clark rings the same bells for me. John Kerry, try as he might, doesn't.) But the gulf on issues is too big. I think McCain was wrong on Iraq and is still wrong. (So is Hillary. Please, Democrats, give me a candidate who either was right or can admit clearly that s/he made a mistake. This is not an issue you can finesse.) I don't agree with him on social issues, and I think his support for extending Bush's tax cuts is irresponsible and dishonest -- he knows better.

But if we're going to beat McCain in 2008, we can't close our ears when he talks. We need to listen carefully to what he says, and get ready for the message he plans to deliver.

Doug Muder
14 May 2006
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