04/03/2006 11:48 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Will McCain Condemn Rev. Falwell's Bigotry?

This weekend John McCain took his Right Wing pandering to a new level. He went on Meet the Press and recanted his criticism of Jerry Falwell, the radical preacher who McCain has called an "evil influence" and an "agent of intolerance." Yet now McCain says Falwell is not an agent of intolerance.

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This nonsensical reversal is another step in McCain's attempt to reinvent himself as a Right Wing Bush Republican, just like his recent embrace of creationism, tax cuts and a gay marriage ban. It can be disturbing to see these public displays of fealty to the extremists who McCain once challenged. But Sunday's interview hit a new low. As Matt Stoller highlighted, McCain went beyond the usual pandering and policy reversals; he literally refused to condemn Falwell's bigotry.

Asked to react to Falwell's notorious statement blaming the 9/11 attacks on American pagans, abortionists, feminists and gays, McCain could not muster enough "straight talk" to disagree. (Even Falwell has apologized for the remark, although it is just one part of a long record of extremism.)

Instead, McCain alluded to general differences and changed the subject to "liberal" universities' policies regarding military recruitment on campus. Here is his exact answer:

"I am speaking at the, at the graduation of his, his university. I'm not embracing all of the tenets that are expressed at the new college in New York City, nor other liberal universities and institutions that I have spoke at. For example, I don't agree with the Ivy League colleges barring recruiters--military recruiters from their campuses, but I still speak there."

This answer is very revealing. McCain could have condemned Falwell's prejudice directly, but he did not. He could have said he was sickened by such hateful attempts to manipulate the tragedy of 9/11 for demagoguery against Americans, but he did not.

Instead, he implied that Falwell's bigotry is like a university's stance on public policy - you can disagree and still get along. But that is obviously a false and offensive comparison. There is no room for a legitimate debate on the merits of bigotry, and silence implies complicity.

There was a time when even John McCain criticized politicians for such silence. After George W. Bush spoke at Bob Jones University without addressing the school's interracial dating ban, McCain said in February 2000: "Governor Bush went there and never said a word. I would never ever do such a thing."

On May 13, McCain will have a chance to follow his own advice. He is speaking for the first time at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. The school's press release on the appearance explained that while McCain and Falwell have political differences, "the two men share a common respect for each other and have become good friends in their efforts to preserve what they see as common values." McCain's address will determine whether those values include bigotry.

UPDATE: Arianna weighs in on The Tragic Irony of John McCain's Faustian Bargain