- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2000

Is winning really worth a smear?

I would as likely have believed that we would be seeing pterodactyls perching on the Capitol Dome as that accusations of anti-Catholic bigotry amongst our political leadership would be intruding its atavistic screech into the national debate. And yet, in the first spring of Christendom's 2000th year and three-and-a-half centuries since the end of the Thirty Years War (in which 10 million Protestant and Catholic Europeans murdered each other over their theological differences) just such a topic leads the evening news.
Sen. John McCain, seemingly with all due deliberation, first implied that George W. Bush is an anti-Catholic bigot, and then proceeded to condemn by name the two most prominent leaders of conservative Protestants Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. These actions raise both ethical and strategic questions. But the full impact of these actions must be viewed in the context of a similar, ongoing accusation of anti-Catholicism put about by Dick Gephardt and other congressional Democrats against the Republican speaker of the House, because Speaker Dennis Hastert passed over a Catholic priest for House chaplain.
Let it first be noted that the people making these charges don't believe the truth of them. Dick Gephardt doesn't believe Mr. Hastert is a bigot nobody who knows him could believe such a thing. The charge is being made solely for purposes of electoral advantage. The Catholic vote in November will be about 30 percent of the electorate. If Republicans get 45 or 50 percent of that vote, they will hold the House. If the Democrats can hold that percentage to 35 or 40 percent, the Democrats will retake the House. Henry IV of France, on converting from Protestant to Catholic in order to become king in 1589, observed that "Paris is worth a mass." Apparently, for Dick Gephardt, the House is worth a blood libel.
Neither does Mr. McCain believe Mr. Bush is a bigot. All the senator's top men have gone on television and piously claimed that the McCain telephone campaign that implicitly, but not quite explicitly, attributed Bob Jones' anti-Catholicism to George W. Bush, was not intended to make such a suggestion. Then why the blazes did Mr. McCain spend thousands of dollars calling Catholic voters in Michigan with the message?
Of course he intended them to draw the obvious if false inference. Apparently, in a heartbreaking lapse of ethical judgment, Mr. McCain was prepared to win the nomination at the price, not only of unfairly ruining a good man's reputation, but at the risk of inflaming schismatic Christian passions not seen in American politics in generations.
The danger of such cynical tactics is that counterfeit charges by politicians may ignite honest, if misguided, passions in the public indeed, that is their purpose. We recently have seen such morally barren leadership elsewhere. In Bosnia just a decade ago the leaders of Croatia and Serbia Franjo Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic intentionally reignited long-dormant religious animosities in order to secure their dominance of their domestic politics. While America is a vastly healthier society than the Balkans (and Messrs. McCain and Gephardt are good men who have slipped not monsters), the time to stop playing politics with our religions is at the beginning of the game.
Mr. McCain and Mr. Gephardt have been far too cynical; and Mr. Bush and Mr. Hastert have been unpardonably clumsy. In politics, as in nature, bleeding sheep attract wolves. Mr. Hastert received and ignored the wise counsel that after 200 years of Protestant chaplains, "It's a Catholic's turn." He now seems intent on bulling his way ahead, thereby keeping the false issue alive and burning, right until November. Combined with the high drama of the false anti-Catholic charge against Mr. Bush, Republican control of the House is further threatened. Already, one of Mr. Gephardt's men is wandering around Washington showing off his knowledge of the Catholic vote percentages in swing congressional districts.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bush has been leading with his well-chiseled chin. After being shellacked by Mr. McCain in New Hampshire, he over-calibrated his lurch to the right in South Carolina opening himself to Mr. McCain's shotgun marriage of Mr. Bush to Pat Robertson. Then, after being slow to respond effectively to the anti-Catholic charge, he wrote a letter of regret to Cardin al O'Connor, which undercut his prior weeks of righteous denials.
But, if Mr. Bush can turn Mr. McCain's anti-Catholic play around on him, Mr. Bush may yet secure his nomination. If, however, Mr. McCain makes it in the New York primary next week, he may be able to make it anywhere.

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