POTUS wannabe but for now just Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., spoke at a religious institution this past weekend. This sent political reporters at the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post into a tizzy writing about how weird it was to see two man that apparently once despised each other sit there in their funny robes acting friendly with one another. An amazing political development! Except we already knew about it. Months ago. Everyone's been talking about it. Someone should tell Janet Hook of the LAT and Dan Balz of the Post.
Tim Russert of NBC's Meet the Press grilled McCain within an inch of his life about the appearance more than a month ago, and more than enough ink has been spilled on the subject since then. So while I admire both reporters' ability to do a bit of spot news reporting, I think their skills can be put to better use. (Plus, I'm sure Lynchburg, Va., is just a wonderful place to spend a weekend. I really hope they found time to go hiking in the beautiful surrounding mountains.)
The problem with spot news these days is that by the time the actual event took place, it's already old news. Was there any real news in Bush's Monday night speech? And by the time the article appears in the dead-pulp version known as a newspaper, it's pretty much as old as the dinosaurs. So why bother?
Media organizations should throw a copy of the transcript and maybe some video clips on the good ol' website and link to an already written story detailing the situation and historical context surrounding the event. Anybody who cares enough to read 1,200 words on a speech (that's the approximate word count for the Post's article) will take the time to visit the website.
Nevertheless, let's get down to business. I had issues with Balz's word usage. Check out the third graph:
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.
I'm not sure where Balz grew up, but it certainly was not on a farm. Last time I checked, the word "shorn" refers to the removal of something, usually hair or fleece. So how were religious references "shorn" from the speech? Did Balz obtain some earlier draft that contained religious references? If so, he should have mentioned it.
Balz also quoted McCain advisers as saying that his speeches (there will be four of them in the next month) will not be tailored to individual audiences. Well, this is in fact partially true.
A GetReligion investigation of the Liberty speech alongside a speech McCain gave Tuesday to Columbia University graduates Tuesday revealed that he droned on for an additional 1,000 words at Liberty. Nothing substantial was added to the Liberty speech other than a bit more nuance, but I'm curious to know whether McCain was given additional time at Liberty.
To the credit of the LAT's Hook, her article contained a substantially greater degree of reporting and historical background than the Post's version. The Post piece is more of a forward-looking piece and that's also to its credit.
For a bit of analysis, David Kusnet over at the New Republic writes that McCain preached "a sermon about a religion" despite avoiding the topics of "abortion, evolution, school prayer, same-sex marriage, stem-cell research, or the role of religion in public life."
McCain's message was grounded in "civil religion" and "the restoration of virtue." I'm not sure whether I am ready to categorize those topics under religion, but Kusnet makes an interesting case in his attempt to catch McCain's subtle religious undertones:
For all its seriousness, McCain's message is softened by the fact that the messenger takes pains not to seem to take himself too seriously. Unlike the televangelist who was his host on Saturday, McCain managed to preach without sounding preachy. While Falwell and Robertson present themselves as paragons of virtue, McCain is ceaselessly self-deprecating; he is one moralist who claims never to have met a virtue he hasn't neglected to display or a sin he hasn't repeatedly committed. To hear McCain tell it, he was a poor student and an arrogantly opinionated young man who grew up to become a glory-seeking adult whose only redeeming merit has been his occasional ability to achieve a reconciliation with his enemies. Only when he alluded to his heroism as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam did McCain's reminiscences become sketchy, alluding vaguely to a time "when I confronted challenges I never expected to face" and "in that confrontation, I discovered that I was dependent on others to a greater extent than I had ever realized."
Shrewdly and skillfully, McCain apologized to Falwell and Robertson by advocating the very virtue -- tolerance -- that most challenges his host and his followers. Managing to echo Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, McCain explained: "Let us remember, we are not enemies. We are compatriots defending ourselves from a real enemy. We have nothing to fear from each other." In an oblique reference to his own harsh words for Falwell and Robertson, as well as anything intemperate he has ever said, he added: "I have not always heeded this injunction myself, and I regret it very much."
I've always found that McCain takes a certain pride in his humility. Wait, that makes no sense, at least on the surface. McCain's humility is a confusing thing to write about because in the one opportunity I had to meet him back in 2000 (after he had been defeated by George W. Bush), I was struck by this very humility that everyone writes about. But as every reporter knows, McCain never met a television camera or a microphone that he did not like. How is that showing humility? Go figure.
Ultimately, political reporters attempting to cover the story that is the break between McCain and the religious right in 2000 and the supposed reunification need to keep their powder dry and wait for more data to come across their radars. One speech at one university doesn't mean much on the surface and it will take a lot more for evangelicals to embrace the good senator from Arizona.