Straight Talk Distress

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Back in 2000, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) called the Christian fundamentalist Jerry Falwell ''an evil influence'' on the Republican Party and an “agent of intolerance” in the American political discourse. These quotes have recently made a reappearance in history owing to McCain’s decision to give the commencement address at Falwell’s Liberty University in early May and the now-infamous appearance McCain made on “Meet the Press” a month earlier, when he disavowed those previous comments made six years ago.

Recall this is the same Jerry Falwell who not only hawked a video on television accusing then-President Clinton of murder and drug-running but two days after 9/11 explained, “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'”

This, from a man who the “straight-talking” John McCain now thinks is no longer intolerant or destructive. But the bigger flap occurred last week when McCain gave essentially the same address at the New School in New York, in what some mainstream media pundits — who have been acted as unpaid publicity agents for McCain for more than a decade now — praised as a balanced approach, proving that McCain willingly takes on all comers.

Indeed, mainstream media pundits praised McCain’s mostly milquetoast speech, with George Stephanopoulos calling his mention of the Iraq war a smart move. McCain should “still get some points for courage because he's talking about an unpopular issue right now, Iraq," said Stephanopoulos. A day later, on “Meet the Press,” Judy Woodruff claimed that it was a “smart speech” because it was safe and he “didn't say anything he's going to have to defend.”

It seems to some mainstream pundits that McCain, by doing practically nothing at all, is doing everything right. But the speeches themselves still generated a storm of debate in the media, especially after McCain was heckled during his speech at the New School and publicly called to task by a student speaker for making his appearance a campaign event rather than a commencement speech. In response to the student’s critical comments, and her post about the event at the Huffington Post, Mark Salter, McCain’s chief of staff, posted a truly pathetic response on the site, writing that in her speech the graduating senior "succeeded in making [herself] look like an idiot."

Even with this kid-gloves treatment, conservatives, including National Review's Rich Lowry and former New Republic editor and current Daily Dish blogger Andrew Sullivan, find themselves offended. “The solipsism of the student Left is incredible,” cried Rich Lowry. “That a war hero would come to talk to you about what he's learned in life, and your reaction would be to shout — ‘it's about me!’ Amazing.” Sullivan, drinking from the same Kool-Aid bowl, chimed in that McCain was “subjected to the usual leftist incivility. Too bad. If the left cannot respect McCain, they cannot respect anyone who differs from them.”

Interesting sentiment, considering that the main complaint of the students was that they didn’t appreciate McCain using their graduation as a campaign stop. But there’s something else that Lowry, Sullivan, and other conservatives have failed to comment on — the story the broke Wednesday, May 24 about the commencement speech by Court TV host Catherine Crier at Western Connecticut State University. In her address, Crier voiced some opinions critical of the war in Iraq, which caused one graduating student, who was upset that Crier "slammed Bush [and] our occupying Iraq," to stand up and challenge her, after which a group stood and turned their backs to Crier.

If only those intolerant lefties at the New School were as well behaved as supporters of the war.

What’s more, Lowry and Sullivan’s analysis leaves out the gross intolerance conservatives have shown for war veterans who happen to be Democrats: Wearing purple Band-Aids at the 2004 Republican National Convention mocking the Purple Heart that combat veteran John Kerry won in Vietnam; or comparing Vietnam vet and multiple amputee Max Cleland with Saddam Hussein in a campaign ad.

Or consider Ann Coulter’s mockery of Cleland’s loss of three limbs while serving in Vietnam. She noted that "during a routine noncombat mission," Cleland picked up a live grenade. "He could have done that at Fort Dix. In fact, Cleland could have dropped a grenade on his foot as a National Guardsman," she said. "Luckily for Cleland's political career and current pomposity about Bush, he happened to do it while in Vietnam.”

But aside from all this, there is, of course, the love affair the mainstream media has had with McCain and the myth of his “straight-talking” style. Time magazine’s Matthew Cooper wrote on Monday, May 22 that McCain’s visits to the two schools was “pure political genius.” Cooper, while making some valid points about the general message McCain was delivering (that we should allow political opponents to make their case and debate them civilly), nevertheless takes his point a little too far.

In the process, Cooper props up the canard that the Senator from Arizona is a "straight shooter" who is more interested in the truth than in scoring political points. By speaking at both schools, Cooper writes, McCain “bolstered his credentials as a 'straight shooter' with a political class that's easily impressed by such pirouettes." Cooper does admit that McCain's “call for tolerance and civility was not especially controversial or courageous," which is saying a lot coming from a part of the political class that regularly treats McCain as the great truth teller of American politics. Now that McCain looks to be running for president, it will be interesting to see how long the mainstream media can applaud stunts like the above.

But let’s take a moment to examine this talk of McCain reaching out to both sides by speaking at a “liberal” university and “conservative” university, because it highlights the genuine differences between liberal and conservative, at least as they currently exist in our political debate. “Conservatives” like Falwell practice sexism and racism — forbidding inter-racial dating, etc=, and accuse their political opponents of murder and blame them for terrorist attacks. Liberals do none of this.

Even if you leave Mr. Falwell out of the equation, Liberty University is the kind of place where if you do not do as everyone else does or says in matters of religion or sexuality, you are either harassed or banished. Freedom of thought or of speech is anathema. At a “liberal” school like the New School, you can do whatever you wish, be whomever you wish to be. You can even be a conservative. You just can’t force other people to be like you (though you are welcome to try to persuade them).

Of course if we had a genuine “conservative” movement in this country, it might not be so easy to score points like the above.

P.S. America lost a genuine conservative last week. We have damn few of them left.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His most recent, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences, was just published in paperback by Penguin.

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Eric Alterman

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