Magazine article The Spectator

Was This the Day McCain Won the White House?

Magazine article The Spectator

Was This the Day McCain Won the White House?

Article excerpt

Lynchburg, Virginia John McCain has definitely had happier days than last Saturday. As he mounted the podium at Virginia's Liberty University, once memorably described by its founder, his longtime enemy, as a 'bible boot camp' he had a wistful, almost haunted expression. When it was his turn to address his audience of starryeyed Christian students, there was none of the usual McCain passion and verve. 'Let me just say that I wish you all well, ' he said.

It was hardly the speech to send them out afire to change the world. Rather it was his host, the university's founder and chancellor, the Revd Jerry Falwell, resplendent in academic robes, who was doing all the beaming -- and no wonder.

Six years ago when running against George W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination, McCain denounced Falwell, an icon of the Christian Right, as one of America's 'agents of intolerance'. Then as his campaign imploded, destroyed by a vicious but brilliantly effective smear campaign orchestrated by social conservatives, he went even further and accused Falwell of having an 'evil influence on the party'. Now as McCain prepares for another presidential tilt -- this time not as an insurgent, as in 2000, but as the party's frontrunner -- he was at Falwell's side, delivering the university's annual graduation address.

Has the craggy Arizona senator sold his soul to the devil, as many Democrats believe? Is his appearance with Falwell a sign that the straight-talker of 2000, the moral force who broke with his party to take the Bush administration to task over torture and a range of other issues, will in fact flip-flop and tack like any other bog-standard politician?

A hugely successful television evangelist, Falwell led the Christian Right's charge in the 1980s and 1990s against gays, feminists, abortion and anything else he thought undermined the nation. Even as the smoke was still rising from the ruins of the World Trade Center, he suggested that 'abortionists' and gays were partly to blame for the attacks for angering God by their deviant ways.

'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 . . . all of them who have tried to secularise America, I point the finger in their face and say: you helped this happen.' He later apologised, but only grudgingly and without retracting his words.

I spent the evening before Saturday's rapprochement 40 miles from Lynchburg with Dave 'Mudcat' Saunders, an outspoken local Democratic consultant. He is trying to reconnect his party with the 'Reagan Democrats', the blue-collar and rural 'Middle Americans' who abandoned the Democratic party in the 1980s and have never really looked back. He was outraged at the idea that I was going to Liberty University. 'Guys like Jerry Falwell are the Pharisees. If Jesus came back and started talking about loving your neighbours, they would kill him again, ' he said. 'This visit will backfire on McCain.' Many Republicans share his distaste for Falwell and will salute his biblical comparison, but I am convinced that his point about McCain is wrong. I left Liberty confident that I had witnessed one of the key moments in the undeclared but already bubbling 2008 presidential campaign. There is no doubt that if McCain gets the Republican nomination, he will face many more demonstrators like the lone protester on the road leading away from Liberty's campus on Saturday. …

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