Straight Talk Unexpressed

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

It was always too much to expect that when Sen. John McCain went down to deliver the commencement address at Liberty University, he would turn toward its chancellor, Jerry Falwell, and call him, as he did during the 2000 campaign, one of the "agents of intolerance." The McCain who would have done that is a romantic construct of his more liberal fans and not, anymore, the man he wants to be. Instead, the new McCain -- the real McCain -- began his speech with words some of us thought we would never hear: "Thank you, Dr. Falwell."

For what?

Well, for certifying McCain as a true conservative. This, of course, was the whole reason for McCain's speech -- never mind that it is just part of his seasonal trek from commencement to commencement, including one at New York's famously liberal New School. The Liberty University speech, though, should not be seen as a grand attempt by McCain to appear more conservative than he is. It is instead an attempt to reveal himself as the conservative he always has been.

The case for that is pretty compelling. In 2000, when McCain last ran for president -- which is what he is doing now -- he earned the support of Gary Bauer, a conservative Christian, because he promised Bauer he would "appoint pro-life judges." This, Bauer told the New Yorker, was farther than George Bush was willing to go at the time. The future president said he eschewed litmus tests. Hah!

On these and other issues -- the teaching of intelligent design, for instance -- there is virtually no difference between McCain and the man who, with Falwell's help, beat him so soundly in the South Carolina primary, beginning a romp to the GOP nomination. Significantly -- no, not just significantly but also ominously -- McCain has backed the president all the way on Iraq. He does not like the way the war has been managed, but he has no problem with the war itself. For McCain, this could spell trouble.

"I supported the decision to go to war in Iraq," McCain said at Liberty University. "I stand that ground because I believed, rightly or wrongly, that my country's interests and values required it." Yes, I understand. I once felt the same way. But it is now clear that the war was a mistake and the prime reason for it -- to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction -- was bogus. The war has cost us plenty, more than 2,400 American lives and billions of dollars, but also many people's faith in the honesty of their leaders. No one can support this war and not address its immense cost. No one, not even McCain.

McCain's next presidential campaign will not be like his last. Back in 2000 there was no war, and so one could overlook McCain's martial temperament, his occasional bellicosity. The world has changed since McCain's aptly named "Straight Talk Express" hit the road in New Hampshire, but McCain's rhetoric hasn't, really. He has talked tough on Iran and North Korea. But the president we once elected is not the president we now want. Either/or, good/evil formulations no longer work. McCain cannot simply assert his support for the war. He needs to explain it.

It's not possible for me to read McCain's speech and not find those qualities that I have always found so attractive. There's the humor, the modesty, the honesty, the decency and -- always -- the stunning capacity to grow, to shed hatreds. In his speech, McCain recounted his friendship with the late David Ifshin, a onetime antiwar activist. McCain had first heard of Ifshin when his antiwar speech was broadcast into the cell in Hanoi where McCain was being held as a POW. Ifshin later apologized, and McCain, in a lesson to all boys about manhood, accepted it. "It was an easy thing to accept such a decent act," McCain said. You're a better man than most, John McCain.

McCain's virtue is his virtue -- those aspects of his character that mirror his physical courage. He has been the politician who would not play politics, the presidential candidate who would sweep out the White House, put K Street in its place, rein in Congress and, always, talk plainly and candidly to the American people. In short, he was the man who could restore faith in government.

But he cannot do that if, at the same time, he defends a war fought for nonexistent reasons, preceded by fibs, lies and exaggerations, draining America of blood and treasure and leaving us worse off now than before those bombs were dropped where -- as it symbolically turned out -- Saddam Hussein was not. Times have changed. The Straight Talk Express is in a ditch.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company