- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2000


Just when we thought the Republican presidential campaign couldn't get any meaner, it did.

Let's blame George W. (as usual).

He's reprising, accurately, John McCain's voting record in the Senate, pressing the buttons hottest and dearest to all the usual Democratic suspects the senator counts on most breast cancer research, the environment, milk-price supports, fuel subsidies for the poor.

"These are anti-New York votes," said Gov. George E. Pataki, who heads the Bush campaign here and the man in charge of reminding New Yorkers just how "anti-New York" the senator is.

"We deserve a candidate with a record on women's issues we can trust," says a Long Island woman identified in a radio commercial as a breast-cancer survivor and "advocate."

This is naturally regarded as dirty pool by the people who don't like Mr. Bush. The senator squealed like a razorback hog caught in a barbed-wire fence, to employ a metaphor brought back by popular demand from one of Bill Clinton's old Arkansas campaigns. (Such bucolic metaphors are swiftly going out of fashion and we have to use them up while we can.)

You can't really blame the senator for squealing. Nobody, and a pol least of all, wants to be reminded of his record. It's the ultimate "negative" politics. "My message," he said, "is this, 'Governor Bush, get out of the gutter.' I have strongly supported breast cancer research."

But apparently not always. The governor, employing a weapon that every pol wants to see outlawed under the Geneva Convention, cited as evidence the remorseless dot.coms of the Internet. He noted that Mr. McCain's Internet site has breast-cancer research bills listed under a drawing of a smug little pink pig, and calls the research proposal at issue "everyday, garden-variety pork."

Mr. McCain complained as well about broadcast commercials in New York, Ohio and California that portray him as a foe of cleaning up the environment. This is no doubt a stretch, since nobody is against clean water and a nice lawn, but the senator more or less asks for it since his new constituency is made up of people who regard any vote against anything called "environmental" as a crime punishable by slow death.

Mr. McCain could only retort that he is worried about the "negative tenor" of the campaign because "there is the potential of hurting the Republican Party." Well he should be, because indeed there is. The bitter Republican fratricide has all the makings of a November meltdown, but assigning Mr. McCain to worry about it is akin to assigning the madam of the bordello to worry about declining moral standards at the high school.

He apologized for describing Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as "evil," after first saying he wouldn't, and the next day a top aide insisted that he hadn't, so we're entitled to decide for ourselves what he really meant when he said he was sorry. He was getting so much mileage out of the contretemps at Bob Jones U. that everyone was beginning to think he owed the university a dorm, a library or maybe even a football stadium.

But that was before we learned at the end of a dizzy week that not so long ago, Mr. McCain had a pretty high opinion of Bob Jones U. himself. Only days before George W. spoke there, it now turns out, the McCain campaign tried to negotiate a date for an appearance by the senator. He skipped Bob Jones U. not because he was too principled, but because Bob Jones was too busy.

So much for the Straight Talk Express, and so much for high-principled tut-tutting by Mr. McCain and his liberal Democratic allies. Some of them have been waiting for years to break up the unlikely coalition of evangelical Protestants, Roman Catholics and a growing number of conservative Jews, a coalition that has prospered as relations among these traditionally suspicious groups has warmed over the past decades.

Who is the most self-righteous among us with the most to gain by promoting a phony religious war? Not George W., as events of the past week demonstrate. The senator, and his cynical allies in the media, know that Bob Jones U., isolated in its racial and religious attitudes, does not speak for evangelical Christianity and it does not speak for George W. Bush. "I personally think that the senator in a moment of frustration said things that he normally would not say," Jerry Falwell said of the McCain outburst. "And it's out of character for him to be that way."

Well, maybe. We expect our preachers, priests and rabbis to think the best of us. Sometimes, they're generous to a fault. The rest of us usually aren't. To be continued here in New York and in a few other places, on Tuesday next.

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