Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Commencement Day for McCain as he cosies up to the fundamentalists

I have a soft spot for commencements in the US. In one sense, the term is a mite perverse. A commencement ceremony is an ending, marking graduation from university. But it is also a beginning; the day a student steps out from sheltered academe to begin a new life in the wider world, in the middle of spring, the season of renewal and fresh starts.

For an Englishman, it should be said, the occasion is also rather disorienting. No commencement is complete without Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance March No 1" - better known, of course, as the unofficial English national anthem of "Land of Hope and Glory", but in America the traditional accompaniment as graduates receive their scrolls and gongs.

More to the point, no commencement would be complete without a speech - ideally delivered by an alumnus who's made good, but in any case by someone as famous as possible - in which the listening multitude is treated to Kiplingesque words of wisdom about life's great race that is about to begin.

Commencements also make news. Sometimes the news is in what is said. Back in 1947, then Secretary of State George Marshall was due to deliver the commencement address at Harvard. Just beforehand, his aides tipped off the BBC's man in Washington that, beyond the usual platitudes, the Secretary might have something of interest to say. That "something" proved to be the first word of the Marshall Plan, which helped save Western Europe from Communism.

More recently, George W Bush was the scheduled commencement speaker at West Point, where he unveiled to the US Military Academy's class of 2002 a new strategic doctrine of "pre-emptive war", used a few months later to justify the invasion of Iraq. Incidentally, Bush will be back at West Point this year for commencement day - which could be bad news for Iran.

Sometimes, however, the venue itself is the news. Which brings me to the point of this column, the undeclared but near-certain presidential bid by John McCain, Arizona's senior senator and the early front runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.

Now, this is not McCain's first bid for the White House. Six years ago, he gave Bush a tremendous run for his money, as he toured the primary states in a campaign bus dubbed "Straight Talk Express". The media loved his free-wheeling style and his readiness to provide a good quote. And in the primary in quirky New Hampshire, the quirky and underfunded McCain duly trounced his rich and favoured rival.

But the show soon moved to South Carolina, in the heart of the Bible Belt, home of the conservative religious right. Facing defeat, Bush chased this vote for all he was worth, most notably in an infamous appearance at the Protestant fundamentalist Bob Jones University, whose honorary degree holders include the Rev Ian Paisley. McCain, though, made a point of shunning it, instead reserving special barbs for the gay-bashing fundamentalist televangelist Jerry Falwell, whom he called "an agent of intolerance".

Liberals loved it, but religious voters not liberals decided South Carolina's Republican primary. Had McCain won it he would probably be President now. In 2008 he will not be making the same mistake, as his up-coming commencement calendar reveals.

Like many top-drawer politicians, McCain will be visiting several campuses next month. Among them is Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, founded by - you've guessed it - one Jerry Falwell. And what has caused this astounding change of heart? "I no longer consider Jerry Falwell an agent of intolerance," explains McCain, adding that Christian conservatives have "an important role" in the party.

Falwell certainly hasn't changed much since 2000. He described the 9/11 attacks as God's punishment for "pagans, abortionists, feminists, the gays and lesbians and others who were attempting to secularise America... you helped this happen". In 2002 he called the Prophet Mohamed a "terrorist", and just last month he re-asserted his view that Jews could not go to heaven unless they became Christians.

The person who has changed is McCain. He is following the most ancient rule in the political book: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. The olive branch to Falwell is just one example. Old differences with Bush have disappeared as if by magic. McCain has embraced tax cuts he once railed against, and has been an unwavering supporter of the war in Iraq.

He loyally stumped for Bush's re-election in 2004, and has even hired some of the President's former campaign strategists for next time around. It all makes perfect sense - but it's rather sad. McCain is gambling that even if he plays it safe for the primaries, enough of his old appeal to independents will survive for him to prevail in the general election.

Yet we're losing a rare breath of fresh air in the over-choreographed, consultant-poisoned world of presidential politics. Yes, they'll say and do anything to get elected. But somehow, from John McCain, we expected better. I can't see the Liberty commencement being much fun.