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Posted at 8:45 AM ET, 10/31/2007

One Up, One Down for John McCain

By Michael Dobbs

"In case you missed it, a few days ago, Senator Clinton tried to spend $1 million on the Woodstock cultural museum. I wasn't there. I am sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event. I was tied up at the time."

--John McCain, Republican debate, Orlando, Florida, October 21, 2007

In the six weeks since this column was launched, we have committed at least two sins of omission. Alone among the leading presidential candidates, John McCain has somehow escaped our attention. We have yet to award our "prized Geppetto checkmark," recognizing statements that contain "the truth, the whole, truth, and nothing but the truth." We are rectifying both oversights today.

In order to qualify for the Geppetto checkmark, a statement must not only be 100 percent truthful, it must also be memorable. (OK, I just added that requirement, to prevent this column from becoming too cosy with the political class.) In past debates, Senator Lloyd Bensen's stinging dismissal of Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice-presidential debate--"I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine, Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy"--would qualify for both truthfullness and memorability. We invite readers to nominate other candidates.

With that high standard in mind, we award the first Geppetto checkmark of the 2008 presidential campaign to John McCain of Arizona, for his recent attack on Hillary Clinton. Speaking at the Republican debate in Orlando, Florida, McCain reminded the audience that Clinton had earmarked $1 million in the Senate for a cultural museum in Woodstock, in upstate New York, scene of the great hippy festival in August 1969. He then added the sardonic zinger, "I was tied up at the time."

The statement checks out. At the time of Woodstock, McCain was in a cell in the infamous Hanoi Hilton. He was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967, and not released until 1973.


Paul Begala, a senior White House official under President Clinton, described McCain's "I was tied up" remark as "the best line of 2007." "I love Hillary but you have to give him his due," Begala told CNN. "McCain is showing Republicans the best way to attack Hillary Clinton, with humor, dignity, and class, and some self-deprecation that also reminds us he is a war hero."

***

"A recent poll found that 55 percent of Americans believe the U.S. Constitution establishes a Christian nation. What do you think?"
"I would probably have to say yes, that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation."

--John McCain interview with Beliefnet.com, September 2007.

"No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

--Article 6, U.S. constitution.

Just to make sure that the Geppetto award does not go to McCain's head, we must take the senator belatedly to task for his statement to a religious website that "the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation." It is true that the statement came in response to a question about a public opinion poll. Nevertheless, it displays either a remarkable ignorance of U.S. history or an unseemly determination to pander to an influential section of the electorate, according to constitutional scholars.

"The constitution is completely neutral on the subject of religion," said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar with the First Amendment Center, who has written extensively on religion and the constitution. He notes that there is no mention of God in the preamble to the constitution--a controversial point in the late 18th century, and article six expressly prohibits the selection of leaders on a religious basis. "Obviously a Christian nation would have to have Christian leaders."

Haynes notes that attempts were made to amend the constitution around the time of the Civil War to include references to God and to Christ, but they were deflected by Abraham Lincoln. The phrase "In God we Trust" was added to coins during the Civil War, and became a national motto during the Cold War, but was never sanctioned by the constitution. The first amendment stipulates that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

McCain was taken to task by non-Christian groups for his interpretation of the constitution. The National Jewish Democratic Council denounced the McCain statement as "repugnant." The Council for American-Islamic Relations said it went "against the traditions of American pluralism."

McCain later later attempted to revise and extend his remarks. He told supporters in New Hampshire that he had meant to say that the United States was founded on "the Judeo-Christian values" of "human dignity" and "human rights."

Too little, too late. We award the inventor of the Straight Talk Express three Pinocchios, to conform with the three Pinocchios we awarded his fellow Republican candidate Mike Huckabee for the claim that "most" of the Founding Fathers were clergymen.

(About our rating scale.)

By Michael Dobbs  | October 31, 2007; 8:45 AM ET
Categories:  Candidate Record, Candidate Watch, History  
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