- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2008


ST. PAUL, Minn. — America should be proud of itself. When all is said and done and all the pundits are finished with their punditry, we have four pretty good candidates running for president and vice president in both parties.

Either way, we will make history — the first African-American president or the first female vice president.

I still have serious doubts about Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s qualifications to be one heartbeat from the presidency and about her extreme views on abortion — prohibiting all abortions, no matter how early the term, even in the case of rape and incest, except to save the life of the mother but not to protect her health.

But her speech Wednesday night, despite a few irritating cheap shots at Sen. Barack Obama, was impressive, well-delivered and, under the circumstances, a home run — despite, shall we understate it, a bit of pressure on her to perform well in her very first nationally televised speech.

It was, to put it simply, a helluva speech.

But as great a speech as Mrs. Palin made, that’s how disappointing and uninspiring was Sen. John McCain’s speech. Thus, in my headline, I’ve split the normal “three cheers” by half.

Let’s face it: John McCain is a good and honorable man who can’t read a great speech. And in fairness, he was forced not only to follow Barack Obama but Sarah Palin — two tough acts to follow!

Still, Mr. McCain deserves a lot of credit for what I still feel was a risky decision to pick someone so inexperienced in foreign affairs for the vice-presidential slot. But I must admit, Mrs. Palin seems to have the intellect and political savvy to learn quickly on the job. Certainly, the Republicans cannot criticize Mr. Obama for lack of foreign policy experience without conceding Mrs. Palin’s weakness in this regard.

We’ve had presidents who were also said to be inexperienced before becoming president. Take Abraham Lincoln, who became one of the greatest presidents in U.S. history. Harry Truman. Or Bill Clinton, for that matter.

Regarding Mr. McCain, my admiration for him remains — despite his apparent inability to inspire an audience larger than a town-hall meeting and without having to read the dreaded teleprompter.

I first met Sen. McCain 10 years ago when he refused to shake my hand. But it went uphill from there.

It was in the winter of 1998 or early 1999, when I was in the “green room” (the waiting lounge area) at CNN about to go on Wolf Blitzer’s show to defend President Clinton during the height of the impeachment crisis. Mr. McCain walked in. I had never met him, walked over to introduce myself and reached out to shake his hand. He didn’t move, keeping his hands at his side. Other guests in the green room, chatting away, suddenly noticed and fell silent.

I said, “Senator McCain, why are you refusing to shake my hand?”

He said, “Because I’ve seen you on TV, and I don’t like the way you attack Ken Starr’s motives rather than his judgment.”

I responded, “But I don’t think I do that.”

And he said, somewhat brutally, “Oh yes you do. And I don’t like your type of attack dog in politics.”

He hit me where it hurts — since I don’t like those types of attack dog in politics either. (Indeed, I wrote a book entirely based on that dislike in 2006, “Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America.”)

The next time I was on a TV show and asked to criticize Mr. Starr, I began by saying, “While I do not question Mr. Starr’s sincerity or good faith, I do question his judgment.” I repeated that phrase from that point on as a prelude to any criticism I might have had of Mr. Starr.

Months later, I was at the 2000 White House Correspondents Dinner, and I saw Mr. McCain surrounded by TV cameras and popping light bulbs on cameras moving in the direction of the table at which my wife, Carolyn, and I were sitting. As he came closer, I suddenly realized he was heading toward me.

“Oh, my God,” I said to Carolyn. “I think Senator McCain is heading to me. Look out for a public scolding.”

This time, he stuck his hand out to me. I tentatively reached out to shake it. “Lanny, I saw you several times on TV since you and I met at CNN months ago. You made the distinction between personal attack and questioning judgment. I congratulate you and apologize for my rudeness the last time we met.”

I thanked him and sat down, relieved. And I thought: “This is a different type of politician. This is someone who says what he means and means what he says.”

Bringing me back to his pick of Mrs. Palin as his vice-presidential running mate: Mr. McCain has shown a willingness to take risks, recognizing he had to change the dynamic of the campaign that has thus far favored Mr. Obama. His vetting, perhaps unavoidably, was unfortunately done in haste. Whether he ultimately made a wise decision remains to be seen.

But I have changed my mind about one thing: His decision reinforces the most effective theme he can run on — his sometimes persona as a maverick, a tough leader with a stubborn mind of his own, and with a thick skin to take the heat to pursue the beat of his own internal drummer. And given his POW experience and incredible courage during that ordeal, that is some internal drummer he has.

I support Barack Obama — strongly and passionately — because I agree with him on the major issues facing the country and disagree strongly with most of Mr. McCain’s.

But let’s face it: These are four people running who can lead the debate on the great issues facing the country — the economy, tax policies, energy, global warming, the war in Iraq and against terror — so long as all four remain committed to the distinction Mr. McCain taught me almost 10 years ago — maintaining the distinction between challenging positions and judgment versus attacking motives and the integrity of their opponents.

If the four of them do that, then whoever wins or loses, the American people will be the ultimate victors.

Lanny Davis is a prominent Washington lawyer and a political analyst for Fox News. From 1996 to 1998, he served as special counsel to President Clinton. From 2005 to 2006, he served on President Bush’s five-member Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.



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