05/08/2006 01:20 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

John McCain's College Tour Turbulence

McCain College Speech.jpg

John McCain's college tour is experiencing turbulence, from the conservative Liberty University to the progressive New School.

There was a huge outcry after McCain agreed to speak at the university of Jerry Falwell, who McCain had previously denounced as an "evil influence." The media portrayed the appearance as a sign of 2008 pandering, while bloggers slammed his hypocritical embrace of a demagogue who blamed the 9/11 attacks on feminists (among others). Now Falwell says he is "astounded" by those reactions. He wrote a New York Times op-ed this weekend claiming the speech has little political significance and criticizing "those who would make it something it is not."

Falwell's denial is absurd, since the graduation appearance is a politically charged, public embrace of his former adversary in presidential politics. McCain has also been downplaying its meaning, comparing the speech to his address to the "very liberal" New School in New York. Last month he said, "I haven't heard anyone aroused about me speaking at the New School." Actually many people are aroused, according to today's New York Sun:

Hundreds of New School students, staffers, and faculty members want the university to rescind its invitation to Senator McCain, who is set to receive an honorary degree and give the keynote speech at the graduation ceremony in two weeks... about 1,000 signatures have been collected on paper petitions and at an Internet site...

The petition urges the New School President, former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey, to withdraw McCain's invitation. Uptown at Columbia College, students organized a website countering McCain's speech at their Class Day, declaring "McCain does not speak for me." The students emphasize their respect for free speech, but criticize McCain's views on Iraq, abortion, gay rights and his "decision to share a stage with the Rev. Falwell at Liberty University's commencement just days before he speaks to us."

It is unfortunate to see the politicization of speaking events at universities, where diverse views should always be welcome. Some are criticizing the students for injecting politics into their graduation, but it is actually John McCain who has been fanning the politics of his college speeches.

When challenged about Jerry Falwell's bigotry on Meet the Press, McCain ducked the issue and used his New School invitation as a shield, saying he does not embrace "all the tenets" of either school. (At the time, I criticized McCain's refusal to directly condemn Falwell's bigotry in this entry.) McCain used the same ploy on Fox News, saying the New School is a "somewhat liberal institution." David Epstein, of InsideHigherEd, observed that these statements have led "some students and faculty members at the university think that McCain is just using his visit to balance out the Liberty stop and seem more moderate than he is."

If McCain wants to speak at graduations not as a candidate, but as a statesman, then he better start acting like one. This Saturday, he faces an crucial test at Liberty University, where he can stand up to Jerry Falwell's bigotry, or quietly stand down.

Back in 2000, McCain criticized George W. Bush for speaking at Bob Jones University without discussing its ban on interracial dating, saying "Governor Bush went there and never said a word. I would never ever do such a thing." Will McCain keep his word and challenge Falwell's bigotry and post-9/11 demagoguery? Or will he pander to his audience and then defend the performance by talking up the New School's liberalism?

If McCain panders at Liberty, the follow-up reception he gets at the New School on May 19 might just expose the first cracks in his popularity on the left. Somehow, McCain has remained Democrats' favorite Republican -- 57% of Democrats viewed him favorably in March. Some people may change their minds as they learn more about him.