By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 14, 2006
LYNCHBURG, Va., May 13 -- Six years after labeling the Rev. Jerry Falwell one of the political "agents of intolerance," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) delivered the commencement address Saturday at Falwell's Liberty University, and vigorously defended his support for the war in Iraq while saying that opponents have a moral duty to challenge the wisdom of a conflict that has exacted a huge toll on the nation.
McCain's presence on the campus here was as remarkable as what he had to tell the graduating class of 2006, given his clashes with religious conservatives during his 2000 campaign for president. His appearance continued a rapprochement that has been underway for months with a critical constituency in the Republican Party as McCain prepares for another possible campaign in 2008.
The Arizona senator's speech was shorn of religious references and avoided controversial social issues. Instead, he focused on constitutional principles while touching on themes of humility, patriotism, respect for political opponents and forgiveness that may be relevant to his preparations to seek the Republican presidential nomination again.
The former Vietnam prisoner of war warned of dire consequences if the U.S. mission in Iraq fails. "Should we lose this war, our defeat will further destabilize an already volatile and dangerous region, strengthen the threat of terrorism and unleash the furies that will assail us for a very long time," he said.
McCain added that it is the "right and obligation" of those who oppose the war to speak out against it. "Americans should argue about this war," he said. "It has cost the lives of nearly 2,500 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."
Saturday's commencement address is one of four speeches McCain will deliver to college audiences in the next month, including the New School in New York and Columbia University next week, and Ohio State University in June. McCain advisers said none of the speeches will be tailored for individual audiences.
At times Saturday, McCain appeared to be anticipating what could be a hostile reaction next Friday at the New School, where there already have been protests about his appearance. Saying he respects opponents of the war, McCain pleaded, "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."
McCain said all Americans should find common ground in attempting to end "the awful human catastrophe underway" in Sudan's Darfur region. Saying intervention may be necessary to protect human life, he described the conflict not as a clash of civilizations but as a clash of ideals between Islamic fundamentalists and the West.
"We're insisting that all people have a right to be free and that right is not subject to the whims and interests and authority of another person, government or culture," he said in one of the handful of applause lines of the speech. "Relativism in this contest is most certainly not a sign of our humility or ecumenism. It is a mask for arrogance and selfishness. It is, and I mean this sincerely and with all humility, not worthy of us. We are a better people than that."
McCain's appearance came eight months after the founder of the Moral Majority visited him at his Senate office in what both men said was an effort to put their contentious past behind them. This weekend, Falwell rolled out the red carpet for his old adversary, assembling about 150 church leaders from around the country for a Friday night reception and later hosting a small, private dinner for the senator.
At Saturday's commencement ceremonies, McCain and Falwell marched side by side onto the stage in the university's basketball arena. After a sometimes raucous faculty processional, in which students and faculty members doused one another with aerosol cans of string, Falwell warmly praised his guest, saying, "The ilk of John McCain is very scarce, very small."
Neither McCain nor Falwell made even an oblique reference to past differences. After his loss to George W. Bush in the South Carolina primary in 2000, an angry McCain went to Virginia Beach to challenge the power of Christian conservative leaders in the Republican Party and singled out Falwell and the Rev. Pat Robertson by name. Unexpectedly, he set fire to his own campaign.
His differences then with Falwell and Robertson came principally over campaign finance reform, but his words carried a far harsher message about the power of the religious right. A day later, McCain used the word "evil" to describe his opponents, but afterward, he and his advisers regretted it.
Falwell's visit last September began a process of reconciliation between the two men. "The senator did what I do quite often: spoke out of his emotions and later felt bad about it," Falwell said of that 2000 incident. But in their meeting, he said, "no apologies were asked for or given."
Asked whether he believes their reconciliation helps McCain politically, Falwell, in a telephone interview on Friday, said, "I don't think there's any question about that. There are 80 million evangelicals in this country. My intent was to say that John McCain and I are friends, that I respect him and that there are no problems with yesterday."
Cooler relations persist with some other Christian conservative leaders. The Rev. James Dobson, who leads Focus on the Family, declined a request for an interview about McCain's appearance at Liberty University, and knowledgeable social conservatives say Dobson has a distinctly dubious view of McCain as the prospective leader of the Republican Party. McCain and Robertson have made no attempts to patch up their differences.
Others said McCain will have to demonstrate more consistent respect for religious and social conservatives. "John McCain has to get in line behind a number of other people that have already won our respect and admiration and, in some cases, already our support," said the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition.
Next month, McCain will part company with religious conservatives on the Senate vote over a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. He opposes the amendment on the grounds that it is an issue for states to decide. Falwell said the two agree that marriage should be between a man and a woman but differ on the means to ensure that.
Other social conservatives are less forgiving of McCain on the issue, including Gary Bauer, president of American Values, who endorsed McCain in 2000 after quitting his own bid for the nomination. Bauer said McCain must demonstrate in a very direct way his respect for the values and political power of religious conservatives.
Asked how much Saturday's appearance would count in that effort, Bauer replied, "It's one speech, and I think the jury is out as to whether it will lead to anything broader or more lasting."