Obama, McCain appear together for first time
The former colleagues performed the political equivalent of an air kiss. Sharing the stage at an evangelical mega-church in California for barely 10 seconds, Barack Obama and John McCain hardly had time for anything more.
“Good to see ya!” said Obama.
“Good to see ya!” said McCain. But the body language did not match the words. The two approached each other gingerly, shook hands and then leaned awkwardly together, embracing while maintaining clear blue political sky between them.
It was the most eagerly awaited moment of an eagerly awaited event: the first time the pair had appeared together since becoming presumptive presidential nominees. The two candidates had not met for months, their erstwhile cooperation in the Senate a long-forgotten shadow from another political age, subsumed by the nasty daily grind of the campaign.
The Saddleback Civil Forum offered the first chance to match the candidates. Saddleback church is in Lake Forest, a few kilometres south of Disneyland, where the shopping malls meet the desert; there is little evidence of either lake or forest. Against this backdrop, the two candidates did not debate, but answered a near-identical set of questions put by Pastor Rick Warren, one of the United States’s most prominent clerics, in front of an audience of evangelicals. The upshot was a glimpse of two very different approaches and a hint of an intense campaign to come.
Where Obama was thoughtful and cautious, McCain was abrupt—so abrupt that his short responses meant that he answered more questions in his hour than his rival.
Obama went first, assured by Warren that his rival would not overhear the questions. “We have placed Senator McCain in a cone of silence,” he said, suggesting an array of arresting images.
The questions betrayed Warren’s knack for the pithy and the popular, requisites for any mega-church leader. “Does evil exist?” he asked. “Define rich,” he challenged. “Why do you want to be president?” he queried.
The abortion debate was reduced to its essence: “At what point does a baby get human rights?” they were asked. “Well,” said Obama, “I think that whether you are looking at it from a theological position or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity is above my pay grade.”
Where Obama waffled, McCain interrupted the question before it was finished. “At the moment of conception,” he declared to applause. “As president, I will be a pro-life president and this presidency will have pro-life policies.”
For the flock outside the church leaving the event, such exchanges were manna from heaven.
“John McCain did a very good job, very straightforward,” said Jill Frick, who has been attending the church for eight years. “I think Barack Obama is very likeable and emotional, but he skirted the issues. The evening definitely cemented my views.”
Ken Mills agreed. “Barack Obama was just like a regular politician, he didn’t answer the questions,” he said. “I think McCain blew him out of the ballpark.”
While Obama tended to engage with the questions in a sometimes cerebral way, McCain exhibited a tendency to lapse into a campaign speech. At one point he showed up Warren’s deficiencies as an interviewer to “take 30 seconds” to preach his foreign policy doctrine of catching Osama bin Laden.
Responding to the “evil” question—“If it exists, should we negotiate with it, contain it or defeat it?”—McCain had a Dr Strangelove moment, almost shouting: “Defeat it! If I am president of the United States, my friends, I will follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell and I will get him.”
The slogans poured out of the candidate: “We’ve got to drill now and we’ve got to drill here!” McCain declared when he got a chance to talk about energy policy; “Choice and competition,” he said, when the subject turned to education.
The two differed most, perhaps, in their answers to the question on wealth and tax: “Define rich.” Obama first softened it with a dig at his host, who not only leads a mega-church but is also a mega-million-selling author of self-help books. “If you’ve got book sales of 25-million, then you qualify,” Obama told Warren, adding: “If you are making $150 000 or less as a family, then you are middle class, or you’re poor. If you’re making more than $250 000, you’re doing well.”
McCain’s position was more nuanced. “Some of the richest people I’ve known in my life are the most unhappy,” he said. His wife applauded from the audience. “I don’t want to take any money from the rich, I want everybody to get rich,” said the man who has professed that economics is not his strongest suit. “If you’re just talking about income, how about $5-million? It doesn’t matter because I don’t want to raise anyone’s taxes.”
Warren nodded his understanding. Pastor Rick, whose church is considered to be at the vanguard of compassionate Christianity—different to the old model peddled by some social conservatives over the past decade—understands many things, money among them.
“He’s a fabulous marketing man,” said Richard Schweinberg. A local government officer who attended the forum, Schweinberg was one of the early adopters of Warren’s message, joining the church the year Pastor Rick started it, in 1980.
“There were 70 people in a school auditorium,” he remembered. “It was just Pastor Rick and his wife. She played the piano and he was the preacher. Now there are three main preachers: in my household we call them the teacher, the comic and the marketeer. Pastor Rick is the marketing pastor. He knows how to sell himself and the church and religion. I don’t know if he knows that that’s what he’s doing.”
There is little, one suspects, that Warren is not aware of. Already anointed as “America’s most influential pastor”, the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency has given Warren an even greater pulpit from which to preach. Surely, great things beckon. The forum’s next guest, in September, is one Tony Blair.—guardian.co.uk