Mud-slinging with a spin

Bush: McCain is intolerant for saying I'm too tolerant of the intolerant. Understand?

Topics: George W. Bush, John McCain, R-Ariz.

Republican voters in Michigan never had a chance to fully comprehend the nuance in the attacks that raged on their phone lines leading up to Tuesdays primary. Behind the rhetoric lay a profoundly confusing question: Which is worse, tolerance of bigotry or intolerance of the tolerance of bigotry?

To shore up his conservative credentials in South Carolina, Texas Gov. George W. Bush cozied up with the racist, anti-Catholic Bob Jones University. Called upon to denounce its policies against interracial dating and their anti-Catholic rhetoric, Bush said he “disagreed” with the bigoted policies.

But at a press conference in South Carolina, when I asked how he could condemn prejudice and bigotry and yet tolerate the hatred so endemic to Bob Jones, Bush said, “I don’t think it was done out of hatred and bigotry. I didn’t ask them the cause of their policy.”

Because Bush remained mum, Bob Jones might have done irreparable damage to his reputation among black voters. And it might have given McCain the crucial ammunition he needed against Bush to win in Michigan, which is heavily Catholic.

The transcript of a “Catholic Voter Alert” phone message received from the Bush campaign describes Bush as having “campaigned against Sen. John McCain by seeking the support of Southern fundamentalists who have expressed anti-Catholic views.” The message was sent to Catholic Republicans in Michigan.

“Several weeks ago, Governor Bush spoke at Bob Jones University in South Carolina,” the phone alert says. “Bob Jones has made strong anti-Catholic statements, including calling the pope the anti-Christ, the Catholic Church a satanic cult! John McCain, a pro-life senator, has strongly criticized this anti-Catholic bigotry, while Governor Bush has stayed silent while seeking the support of Bob Jones University. Because of this, one Catholic pro-life congressman has switched his support from Bush to McCain, and many Michigan Catholics support John McCain for president.”

Tuesday, Bush retaliated with the statements of nine GOP governors condemning McCain for making the allegations — Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, Frank Keating of Oklahoma, Jeb Bush of Florida, George Pataki of New York, Mike Leavitt of Utah, Paul Celucci of Massachusetts, Mark Racicot of Montana, John Engler of Michigan and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin.

Racicot, a Roman Catholic who praises McCain as “an extraordinary human being,” also says that he found his campaign’s phone calls to Catholic voters “opportunistic,” as well as “unfortunate and disappointing.”

“Gov. Bush went to Bob Jones University to speak about his beliefs and his agenda,” Racicot says. “It’s the same rationale that leads Al Gore and Bill Bradley to go to Al Sharpton — that their visits would somehow indicate that they endorse what Al Sharpton has said in the past is ridiculous. They were trying to persuade him to be constructively engaged in the political process, and the same is true of George Bush. If we employ this mentality that you don’t go to wherever it is if everyone there doesn’t agree with you, how would we ever be able to try to bridge these gaps that exist in this culture?”

Bush “should go everywhere” to “bring his message of hope,” Racicot says.

When asked if Bush shouldn’t have spoken out against anti-Catholicism while in the lion’s den, Racicot argued that Bush is long-established as being “passionate in defense of religious tolerance.” He argued that slamming Bush “based on whether or not you’re arguing with [Bob Jones's views] or calling them to a higher plane of living, that somehow that’s endorsing those thoughts, is ridiculous.”

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On Monday morning, Bush complained at a press conference that McCain was “paying for calls that call me an anti-Catholic bigot.”

But Patrick Scully, director of communications for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, says the phone message didnt call the front-runner anti-Catholic.

“It’s saying that he failed to denounce the view of Bob Jones University, which is exactly what our press release says … I don’t see anything factually in error” in the phone message, Scully says. The Catholic League is unaffiliated with the church, and was founded to be a more zealous version of the Anti-Defamation League, except on behalf of Catholics.

So Bush’s tactic becomes: Denounce McCain for “going negative” by denouncing Bush for tolerating bigotry. Its an interesting trick. But not everybody buys it.

“Its an absurdity to try to turn this around,” says Chris Matthews, host of MSNBCs “Hardball” (and also a Catholic). “Reacting to dirty politics is not dirty politics.”

But turning it around is what Bush has been consistently trying to do. In an attempt to combat the impression that he is the only Republican presidential candidate who has — in the words of McCain backer Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. — “aligned himself with some pretty unsavory elements,” Bush and his allies have attempted to make former New Hampshire Sen. Warren Rudman an anti-Christian albatross around McCain’s neck.

When McCain condemned Bush for unsavory alliances during last week’s CNN debate, Bush countered, “Warren Rudman, the man who you had as your campaign man in New Hampshire, said about the Christian Coalition that they’re bigots.”

But Rudman, the former Republican senator from New Hampshire, never said “about the Christian Coalition that they’re bigots.”

In 1996, four years after he retired from the Senate, Rudman’s book “Combat: Twelve Years in the U.S. Senate” was published. In it, Rudman argued that “in my experience, religious zeal and politics don’t mix. Look at Belfast, Beirut and Bosnia if you want proof.” Rudman decried the presence on the political right of “anti-abortion zealots, would-be censors, homophobes, bigots and latter-day Elmer Gantrys.” But he never tied any of those pejoratives to any group or name, certainly not the Christian Coalition.

Rudman’s harshest analysis came when describing a press conference held in November 1995 by a number of Christian conservatives to denounce retired Gen. Colin Powell, and to discourage him from even thinking about running for president. These leaders included Paul Weyrich, Gary Bauer, David Keene and Grover Norquist.

Rudman wrote that “in a remarkable display of political obtuseness, a group of far-right leaders called reporters in and denounced” a possible Powell candidacy.

“Not only did these political pipsqueaks question Powell’s views on such issues as abortion and gun control,” Rudman wrote, “but they challenged his character and his military record. This from people who not only have never heard a shot fired in anger, but have never even dropped by a PX for an ice cream cone. It was an amazing display not only of arrogance but of fear, because these people know that Colin Powell embodies the very opposite of the ignorance and bigotry that they represent.”

That’s it. That’s the passage on which Bush based his accusation that Rudman “said about the Christian Coalition that they’re bigots.”

That hasn’t stopped Bush from squeezing as much political energy out of it as he can. A taped phone message from televangelist Pat Robertson told Michigan voters that McCain’s buddy Rudman is “a vicious bigot who wrote that conservative Christians in politics are anti-abortion zealots, homophobes and would-be censors. John McCain refused to repudiate these words.”

But, again, Rudman never “wrote that conservative Christians in politics are anti-abortion zealots, homophobes and would-be censors.” He wrote that there are some “conservative Christians in politics” who fit that description, but he certainly never said that all of them do.

Matthews, however, argues that the shot against Rudman is a fair one. “Clearly Warren Rudman is a man of tremendous individualism,” Matthews says. “And when he left office, he decided to clear the decks, and I think he was too broad-brushed in [what he wrote].”

You can’t expect people not to factor their religious views into their political perspective, Matthews argues, so Rudman’s argument that “religious zeal and politics don’t mix” is fallacious. “Metaphysically and philosophically, a person who believes that abortion is the taking of a human life, one that’s indefensible … to say that that person shouldn’t let that view guide them in their voting — I mean, of course it should affect their ideology and philosophy. Rudman made the mistake of being so unaware of what he wrote that he didn’t know it would hurt his candidate.”

Still, when it comes to Bushs refusal to condemn the policies of Bob Jones, Matthews says, “I hear the same silence that you do.”

McCain staffers point out that Bush’s tactic accomplishes its goals, which are to change the subject from Bush’s tolerance for indisputably racist and anti-Catholic sentiment and to muddy the waters by saying that if Bush’s buddies are racist and anti-Catholic, McCain’s are anti-Christian and therefore bigoted as well.

McCain is “pitting people against each other in this nation on the basis of religion,” says Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer. But that’s not quite what’s going on. McCain is trying to pit Catholics against Bush for cozying up to anti-Catholics.

“Bush has proven to be a master at taking any criticism McCain throws at him and hurling it back twice as hard, painting McCain as negative in the process,” says Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz. “The success of Bush’s effort in South Carolina was gauged by the remarkable fact that more people thought McCain had run a negative campaign than Bush, even as Bush was bombarding the state with negative ads. The problem in all this for McCain is that the more he’s involved in a mud-throwing contest with Gov. Bush, the more he loses the reformer’s aura that had powered his campaign until recently.”

Its a skillful game of spin, and Bush is already trying it out against the man he might oppose in November.

Campaigning in Michigan on Sunday, Bush was told that Vice President Al Gore had derided his willy-nillying on the Confederate flag and his palsy-walsying with Bob Jones. “What Vice President Gore likes to do is the typical Washington politics of calling people names,” Bush said. “He likes the politics of personal destruction and the people are sick of it. I look forward to debating — his kind of politics are so stale and so negative.”

“Shame on him. Shame on him,” Bush said.

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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