Making confession on the Straight Talk Express

April 21, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Sen. John McCain's call in South Carolina Wednesday for the Confederate flag to be hauled down from over the state capital there was not as surprising, given all the advance buildup, as his confession that he never believed it should have been up there in the first place.

The figurative driver of the Straight Talk Express said he dodged the issue earlier because "I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary [which he lost anyway]. So I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth."

While confession is always good for the soul, this particular one appears to have more purpose than simply easing Mr. McCain's conscience.

It takes no Albert Einstein to figure out that Mr. McCain seized on the opportunity to speak to the South Carolina Policy Council to put some teeth into his promise at the time he suspended his presidential campaign "to keep trying to force open the doors where there are walls of -- cynicism, or intolerance."

And it doesn't take a genius either to recognize that in traveling to Columbia and finally coming out against the continued flying of the Confederate flag over the state capital, he was going out of his way to put the squeeze on Gov. George W. Bush to do the same.

Note the timing

It's interesting to note that Mr. McCain decided at this particular time to accept a longstanding invitation to address the policy council. According to Ed McMullen, president of the council, the offer had been extended "months ago" and only last week did a McCain aide call to say the senator wanted to address the group in Columbia, and the sooner the better.

Mr. McCain insisted to reporters after the speech that he was motivated solely by a desire to get a decision with which he remained uncomfortable off his chest. Asked whether his belated call to take the Confederate flag down was likely to push Mr. Bush into the same position, Mr. McCain said it wasn't for him to say.

But his trip to South Carolina and his remarks there look very much like an effort by Mr. McCain to raise the heat under Mr. Bush to take steps that may give him a chance to win over the reformist McCain constituency. Mr. McCain conspicuously avoided "peace talks" with Mr. Bush after their bitter primary fight, and their scheduled May 9 meeting in Pittsburgh is taking on all the trappings of an old Cold War summit.

Only the day before Mr. McCain's speech, Mr. Bush said in Michigan that although Mr. McCain said he wasn't interested in being his running mate, he wanted "to look him in the eye and visit with him on that -- I'll find out how uninterested or interested he is." Pressures on Mr. Bush by Mr. McCain on such matters as the flag issue in South Carolina don't seem very conducive to Bush-McCain ticket. Mr. McCain said in South Carolina that he didn't want to be considered and that he "would categorically state to Governor Bush that `I do not wish to be asked.' "

During the South Carolina primary, both Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush dodged the flag issue, saying it was up to the people of the state to decide what to do about it.

On his Straight Talk Express bus, Mr. McCain was repeatedly asked why he wouldn't take a position on an issue that had brought an NAACP boycott against the state. His standard reply was: "They want me to stay out of it; I'll stay out of it."

`Change the subject'

One of Mr. McCain's chief backers in South Carolina, Rep. Lindsey Graham, asked one day on the bus what advice he was giving Mr. McCain when the flag issue came up, replied: "Change the subject."

Mr. Bush has continued to say he intends "on principle" to leave the decision to South Carolinians. Mr. McCain basically said the same in his speech, observing, "I am encouraged that fair-minded people on both sides of the issue are working hard to define an honorable compromise."

Although the state Senate has voted to haul the flag down and move it to a Confederate soldier monument on the state house grounds, members of the House are split, with black members heavily against it.

So it's uncertain whether Mr. McCain's "confession" will achieve much more than make him feel better.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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