Editor’s note: This column originally ran in The New York Times, May 7, 2006.
Many have wondered if my invitation to Sen. John McCain to deliver the commencement address next Saturday to our graduating class at Liberty University represents my support for his possible run for the presidency in 2008. It does not.
The senator’s speech does not symbolize an endorsement of an unannounced candidacy on my part, and it does not mark the quest for such an endorsement on his part. Mr. McCain has never sought such an endorsement, and I have not offered one.
To understand the significance of Mr. McCain’s commencement address, it helps to understand Liberty University.
Since I founded it in 1971, Liberty has grown into a liberal arts university with more than 23,000 students. While Liberty maintains its evangelical Christian roots, there is a healthy religious, political, geographic and racial diversity within an atmosphere of academic excellence. Part of our tradition is to expose students to outstanding leaders from all walks of life, including some who may not completely agree with Liberty’s philosophy.
Our commencement exercises present an opportunity to do this. Past speakers like George H. W. Bush, Clarence Thomas, Billy Graham and Ed Meese have all shared their wisdom with our students. What these speakers have in common, despite their differences, is the belief that America is made better through a life dedicated to public service. Mr. McCain fits squarely within this tradition.
I have been astounded by the reaction of some to Mr. McCain’s agreement to deliver the commencement speech, particularly by those who would make it something it is not.
Many in the news media have portrayed my invitation to the senator as an effort to repair a relationship damaged during the 2000 Republican primary. Nothing could be further from the truth. While I have long been a supporter of President Bush and his father, I have been around hardball politics long enough to know that elections often place good people in opposition. I have always admired Mr. McCain, and nothing said or done in the 2000 campaign changed this opinion.
In September, I called a meeting with Mr. McCain to put aside any past misunderstandings. We did not ask for apologies from each other, nor were any offered. No ideological deals were brokered.
The decision to ask him to speak to our graduates was a reflection of our agreement on many important issues facing our nation, but it did not mean our positions were in perfect harmony. For example, both of us agree that the traditional family needs to be protected, but we disagree on how it should be done. I support the Federal Marriage Amendment, while Mr. McCain favors protections passed by individual states.
These differences, however, do not separate us as friends. As we continue to prosecute the war on terrorism – a war that I have argued is just – I could not think of a better example for our students than Mr. McCain, who knows both the civilian and military sides of a country at war. That is why several months after our meeting I asked him to be our 2006 commencement speaker.
The next election for president is more than two years away. Mr. McCain is the front-runner for the nomination and is the kind of conservative candidate whom I would have little trouble supporting.
The electoral landscape, however, is vast and fickle, apt to change over the next many months. If Mr. McCain receives the nomination for president, then I will work for his election. But if another candidate who shares our values wins the nomination, then I will work to support that candidate, too.
In the commotion surrounding Mr. McCain’s appearance, some seem to have forgotten that we have invited him to speak at a graduation ceremony, not at a political rally or fund-raiser. It’s also worth pointing out that Mr. McCain will speak at other universities and places where he will not totally embrace the views of his host and his audience.
I invited John McCain to speak at Liberty because I want our students to become acquainted with one of America’s most profound heroes – whether or not he becomes president. Who better to challenge and inspire a graduating class than a speaker who has served his country as a soldier and a statesman? Who better to remind us that sometimes deep sacrifices for our country are necessary to protect the freedoms – like freedom of speech – that we all enjoy?
Two years from now, Mr. McCain’s commencement address at Liberty will most likely have vanished from the political landscape. It will no longer be viewed through the prism of endorsements, alliances or election outcomes. It will, however, live on in the memories of our graduating class.
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