- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2000

Primary is overstimulating the nation's central nervous system

Karl Marx famously said that religion is the opiate of the people. But in the presidential primaries of '00 religion is an amphetamine, overstimulating the central nervous system, hyping both candidates and voters. Everybody's mad.

Not since Al Smith lost his campaign for the presidency, ostensibly because he was Catholic, has religious bigotry so boldly entered a presidential campaign. As a Jew, I feel like a bystander in a holy war, watching Christians bash each other. My mother, age 89, who remembers the 1928 presidential campaign when she was told that "A vote for Al Smith is a vote for the pope" is surprised and relieved: "Thank God they're not attacking us." (She also remembers when anti-Semitism was pervasive, as depicted in the 1947 movie, "Gentleman's Agreement.")

No one should expect politicians to act on the Golden Rule, but John McCain's attacks on George W. as an anti-Catholic bigot are over the line. If George W. were Jewish, the anti-Defamation League would rightly be demanding Mr. McCain's head on a platter, like the head of John the Baptist.

The governor of Texas made mistakes at Bob Jones University. He admitted them. He wasted an important opportunity to rebuke Bob Jones' anti-Catholicism and its ban on interracial dating. (He could have denounced similar insults to both his father and Billy Graham.) His performance and prominence there was ill thought-out, but it doesn't prove bigotry. It was also the height of hypocrisy when Mr. McCain exempted his supporter Rep. Lindsey Graham from similar criticism for his accepting an honorary degree from Bob Jones U., and not uttering a single syllable of criticism. Now it turns out that Mr. McCain's campaign tried to negotiate an appearance at Bob Jones U. but couldn't work out a date. As Gertrude Stein might have said, a bigot is a bigot is a bigot. But no one believes that bigotry characterizes either George W. or Lindsey Graham.

Mr. McCain's accusation was purely political and most voters will eventually see the accusation for what it is: below-the-belt politics. That seems to be what's happening in New York, where many Catholics who had turned against George W. after the initial smear have, according to the polls, returned to the governor.

When John McCain dumped on Jerry Falwell, he was more desperate than courageous. Mr. Falwell has not been an important political player since 1989, when he disbanded the Moral Majority. Pat Robertson may be a more appropriate target because his followers called Warren Rudman a "vicious bigot." (After, it should be said, Mr. Rudman called the religious right a coalition of bigots.) But Mr. Robertson had already been pushed into the electoral suburbs by the Bush campaign.

Smears against Mr. McCain have been gross, too, including the rumors not supported by any evidence, that he fathered an illegitimate child and that his wife had a pharmaceutical drug dependency, but they were not part of a script approved by George W. When the senator OK'd the accusations of anti-Catholic bigotry against George W., he showed a side of himself that had only been rumor before, that when cornered he can be nasty and mean-spirited.

By contrast, George W.'s humility and apology to Cardinal John O'Connor of New York suggest the maturation of a boyish candidate. The smirk has disappeared and in its place is an appeal to higher principles and a sharper focus on the issues. Liberals watch the Republican religious wars with bemusement, hoping to see the two leading Republican contenders destroy each other. But just as Mr. Bradley's attack on the veep strengthened the vice president, Mr. McCain's attack on George W. has given the governor gravitas.

Nor did John McCain's comparison of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as the Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan of the right inflict the damage on George Bush that he thought it would. It was a false correlation, but a corollary of that equation highlighted a problem the Democrats have with their support of racists. When Al Gore, Bill Bradley as well as Hillary Clinton go out of their way to ignore Al Sharpton's incendiary racism, conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans are offended.

It's the conventional wisdom that conservatives are split between the social conservatives and the fiscal conservatives. There's some truth in that, but social conservatism has become mainstream, gathering momentum during the '80s and '90s because men and women of different stripes are unified in their concern about moral anarchy.

But the times, they've changed. Welfare reform was backed by both fiscal and social conservatives as they emphasized old-fashioned values of work and identified the devastating consequences of sexual promiscuity, illegitimacy and single-parent families.

Not so long ago George W. prescribed "compassionate conservatism," for what ails us, bringing attention to the most vulnerable among us requiring a safety net. John McCain's appeals to bigotry knocked George W. off his stride. The big test now is whether he can regain it when everyone goes off amphetamines cold-turkey.

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