We know presidential wannabe Rudy Giuliani is trying to get religion. Is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)? Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press, McCain was grilled by Tim Russert, who tried to establish a McCain embrace of the "religious right." McCain did his best to say his past tiffs with right-of-center religious leaders were simply politics and he does not hold a grudge. Apparently the religious leaders don't either. But McCain also refused to associate with the politics of those leaders, particularly Jerry Falwell's:
MR. RUSSERT: But Senator, when you were on here in 2000, I asked you about Jerry Falwell, and this is what you said.
(Videotape, March 5, 2000):
SEN. McCAIN: Governor Bush swung far to the right and sought out the base support of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. That's -- those aren't the ideas that I think are good for the Republican Party.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you think that Jerry Falwell's ideas are now good for the Republican Party?
SEN. McCAIN: I believe that the Christ -- quote, "Christian right," has a major role to play in the Republican Party. One reason is, is because they're so active, and their, and their followers are. And I believe they have a right to be a part of our party. I don't have to agree with everything they stand for, nor do I have to agree with everything that's on the liberal side of the Republican Party. If we have to agree on every issue, we're not a Republican Party. I believe in open and honest debate. Was I unhappy in, in, in the year 2000 that I lost the primary and there were some attacks on me that I thought was unfair? Of course. Do I -- should I get over it? Should I serve -- can I serve the people of Arizona best by looking back in anger or moving forward?
MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe that Jerry Falwell is still an agent of intolerance?
SEN. McCAIN: No, I don't. I think that Jerry Falwell can explain to you his views on this program when you have him on.
Seconds later, McCain excused his address at Falwell's Liberty University graduation ceremony as no different than speaking at "the New College or Ohio State University" and said addressing a student body doesn't mean that he agrees with their politics.
McCain is making a careful distinction, which reporters should note (the AP handled the story quite well here). He is not aligning himself with Falwell's policies, but he is strongly courting Falwell's support. And apparently courting the support is enough for Falwell, at least at this point. Russert's insistence on getting McCain to admit support for outlawing gay marriage and abortion kept him from missing the big picture: that Falwell finds McCain's politics acceptable.