McCain's supporters trust that he's lying

May 19, 2006|By MICHAEL KINSLEY

All successful politicians must have at least some talent for lying about what's in their hearts and convincing people that it is the truth.

But Sen. John McCain has a unique genius for telling the truth from his heart and making people believe that he is lying. And these people are his supporters! They admire him as a straight talker and they forgive him for taking positions on big issues that they find repellent on the grounds that he doesn't really mean what he says.

"Oh, he has to say that to get the Republican nomination," explain many Democrats with a crush on the charming, funny, intelligent and heroic Republican senator from Arizona, and/or a special loathing of their party's own star, the junior senator from New York. "That" might refer to Mr. McCain's strong right-to-life stand on abortion, his strong support for the war in Iraq or his recent rapprochement with the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

These Democrats admire Mr. McCain as a straight shooter among sneaks, a truth-teller amid bull artists. They long, understandably, for some fresh air in the fetid atmosphere of politics.

Even better, he delivers the fresh air without the cloying aroma of piety. He can be pious, but he can also be devilish, and each quality, desirable in moderation, protects Mr. McCain from the danger of excess in the other.

Mr. McCain is not the only politician who makes jokes about himself. That's attractive, but sometimes it's nothing but a party trick. Like Bob Dole, Mr. McCain makes jokes - good jokes, mean jokes - about other people. That takes more wit and more guts.

In a presidential run, Mr. McCain would have the votes of millions who disagree with him on major issues. His challenge will be to get the votes of people who agree with him. Toward that end, Mr. McCain is delivering four university graduation speeches. He gave two this week, virtually identical. The texts (available online) are marvels of wit, honesty and surprise. It would be wonderful to have a president whose speeches were not a duty to listen to.

But how many Americans and Iraqis should die so that we can enjoy entertaining presidential speeches? If you support the war, that is a nonsense question. If you don't, it is more pressing.

Mr. McCain is admirably clear: He supported going to war and he supports continuing it until ... well, not so clear, but longer than most Democrats would care for. His discussion of the Iraq war is a bit of a cop-out. It's mostly about how we all have the duty to express our beliefs and the right to disagree.

This discussion is also a guarded reference to Mr. McCain's famous feud with Mr. Falwell. In 2000, Mr. McCain called Mr. Falwell "an evil influence" on the Republican Party. That won Mr. McCain a lot of the points he now enjoys among people to his left. Now he needs some to his right.

But if the subject is "evil," it is not good enough simply to say that we all have the right to disagree. And "evil" is not too strong a word for Mr. Falwell. This is a man who promoted tapes during the Clinton administration accusing the president of murdering political opponents. Sure, he has the right to say whatever he wants. But that is not the key point about Mr. Falwell. Mr. McCain made the key point six years ago. Today, he ducks it.

Mr. McCain is like another larger-than-life character in American politics: Colin L. Powell. Both men are so admirable and so likable that people convince themselves against all evidence that Mr. Powell or Mr. McCain must agree with them on the big issues.

In Mr. Powell's case, the theory always was that he was speaking truth to power from within while telling the necessary public fibs to hold onto the privileged position this service required.

With Mr. McCain, something more magical is going on. He says plainly that he is for the war, or against abortion rights, and people hear the opposite. It's a gift, I guess.

Michael Kinsley is a social commentator who lives in Seattle.

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