THAT WAS a pretty good speech by Sen. John McCain, his defiance hurled at two prominent figures in the Christian political movement. The headline in the International Herald Tribune was as inexact as Mr. McCain claims his tormentors to be. It read, "McCain Takes Aim/At Religious Right." What he took aim at was Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.
His brief against Mr. Robertson paid little note to Mr. McCain himself having sponsored telephone calls in Michigan whispering to voters that George W. Bush was anti-Catholic. The madness of it all is that Mr. Bush retroactively endorsed the charge of anti-Catholicism by apologizing to Cardinal John O'Connor of New York for having let pass an "opportunity" to dissociate himself from whatever it is that Bob Jones U. does to belittle the Catholic Church.
Tight reasoning would hold as follows: If by appearing at Bob Jones you are endorsing, however indirectly, anti-Catholic thought, then you can be suspected of having spoken at Bob Jones because you yourself harbor anti-Catholic thought. George W.'s position for two achingly long weeks was that, dammit, you can come and go at Bob Jones without harboring the remotest itch of anti-Catholicism.
I gave two lectures at Bob Jones University in the 1950s, and if the administration really thought me, as a Catholic, an emissary of a satanic cult, it's time for the Bob Jones people to apologize to their theological muses for letting me slip in, though maybe I just transcended it all -- more than you could expect from mere popes.
But the political situation is sharpened, to the advantage of John McCain. To begin with, he did not criticize "the religious right": "Let me be clear. Evangelical leaders are changing America for the better. Chuck Colson, head of Prison Fellowship, is saving men from a lifetime behind bars by bringing them the good news of redemption. James Dobson, who does not support me, has devoted his life to rebuilding America's families. Others are leading the fight against pornography, cultural decline and for life. I stand with them." Playing that theme, John McCain qualifies to be speaker at the next Baptist convention.
Unfortunately, Mr. McCain lapsed into his "anti-money" obbligatos. He told the audience in Virginia that he does not "ascribe to their (Mr. Robertson and Mr. Falwell's) failed philosophy that money is our message." Come on, senator. This fixation is a part of Mr. McCain's obsession with the "rich," which includes those who give appreciated securities to charity and earn tax reductions. Mr. McCain's populist leaning causes him to rail against any suggestion to reduce the highest tax as un-American and as complicity in special-interest government.
But the dramatic political scene scores yet again at the expense of George W. Bush. The governor calls up the image of a general backed by legions of soldiers, a great armada of ships, two winters' rations of grain and buckshot. And then -- nothing happens. Robin Hood comes out of the forest, fires everybody up with his rich-people talk and his vigorous presence, and starts to win important victories, foremost of them the space he is given by the editorial pages.
It is a great lesson for George Bush, conceivably too lately learned to permit remobilization of the central command. But a lesson, also, for Bill Bradley, who is currently lost in the mists of radioactive ideological dust kicked up by Al Gore, who wants to increase the duties and responsibilities of government with the end that no American shall have an undetected, unfilled cavity.
Mr. Bush is left pretty much with his nice, good, defensible truisms about reduced government expansion. What he apparently never realized was that a political victory is something that is won or lost by an amalgamation of forces, one of them being the rhetorical and personal appeal of the candidate. In particular this is so of a candidate who is fighting against major landed forces.
The gunnery crews prepared to load the ammunition in pocket districts in primaries around the country may be able to sustain the cause of their isolated general. A great enough supply of rhinestones can overpower the photoflash of a few diamonds; but there isn't much time for George W. to lose, and it would be fatal to his cause if it were absolutely to settle in the Republican mind that he simply would not have a chance against the chain-sawing of Al Gore. By contrast, John McCain would probably decapitate Mr. Gore in the first round.
It is very late for Mr. Bush.
William F. Buckley Jr. is a syndicated columnist.