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Commentary: John McCain

By Lee Cullum, KERA 90.1 Commentator

Dallas, TX –

There's no question that John McCain, at this moment, is the Republican with the best chance of winning the White House in 2008. But that could change. For one thing, the photograph of him hugging President Bush two years ago, with Bush a head taller than McCain and McCain looking like a drowning man desperate to be saved, may haunt him in the same way that the picture of Jimmy Carter kissing Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev on the cheek at the conclusion of a strategic arms limitation treaty helped kill his reelection in 1980.

McCain's embrace of Jerry Falwell, the fundamentalist preacher, may not be a boost either. The senator perhaps supposes he can give the graduation address at Falwell's Liberty U, then scamper back to the mainstream, but it rarely happens that way any longer. Ronald Reagan may have made it work for him, but the right wing has changed a lot in 20 years. Today these are not half-a-loaf people. If they decide to help McCain get his party's nomination, they will expect plenty in return. This may begin to worry moderates who otherwise are drawn to the Episcopal senator from Arizona. It might have been wiser for him to demonstrate his religious convictions in other settings.

A more serious question involves our relations with China. After North Korea created a diplomatic crisis by testing seven missiles, McCain said that if China did not step up to bat and support America's call for sanctions there should be "consequences in our relationship." What might those consequences be? According to one observer, we could stop working with the Chinese on space programs, call off our military exchanges with them, stop helping China with its environmental problems or get tough on promises made to the World Trade Organization by Beijing but not kept.

But would this help? A former journalist with long experience in that part of the world says no. Those actions would only be symbolic, and besides, we learn things about Chinese capabilities from those military exchanges and it is hardly in anybody's interest to let China's environment move any closer to calamity than it already is. Also, Beijing is important to us on other issues, such as Iran. Sen. Christopher Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut, responded to McCain that "China's not our enemy on this," meaning North Korea. Dodd is right.

Then there's the trip by Sen. McCain to Vietnam after he lost his campaign for president in 2000. He made some unfortunate remarks about the war there, which certainly were understandable given his suffering as a prisoner of Hanoi, but nonetheless were ill advised for a major figure in American politics. It makes me wonder if McCain has the temperament to lead the nation, or would his temper, known to be hot, also be his undoing?

As a champion of legislation, however, John McCain has been admirable. His bills on tobacco and campaign finance as well as on military standards for interrogating prisoners have been gutsy and worthy of respect. What is needed now is a sense of who he really is-a man of the Senate, like Robert Taft or Barry Goldwater, or a senator who is capable of more, such as John F. Kennedy.

Lee Cullum is a contributor to the Dallas Morning News and to KERA.

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