Saturday, August 23, 2008

Pastor Rick Warren, John McCain, and Barack Obama

Pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church interviewed presumptive presidential candidates Obama and McCain this past week. He stated, at the start of the interview, that he would be asking both candidates identical questions, that Obama would go first as a result of a coin toss, and that McCain was in a "cone of silence." It seems that Warren conducted the coin toss by himself, with neither candidate present. Also, Warren told Larry King that he thought McCain would be isolated in the church's Green Room when Obama started answering questions. That way, McCain would not be able to get advance notice of the actual questions; he would have to answer them on the spur of the moment, just as Obama was having to do. Warren says that he knew McCain was not yet actually at the church, shortly before he, Warren, was about to begin questioning Obama. It developed that McCain was actually being driven to the church during Obama's questioning. Thus, it would have been possible for McCain to watch Obama's questioning on TV, hear it on radio, or receive a relay of the questions via telephone, BlackBerry, or other electronic device. When confronted with that reality, Warren told CNN that he trusted John McCain not to do that. It appears that John McCain did know in advance that there would be a question about Supreme Court justices -- that he asked about that question before Warren actually got to it. When he asked that question, Warren seems to have replied by saying, OK, "you got all my questions." I am writing this post because I am surprised that CNN and the New York Times do not seem to have been covering this matter in much detail. They have evidently concluded that it is hard to pin the matter down. In my judgment, Warren made two critical mistakes at the start: he held the coin toss without any representatives for the candidates being present, and he went ahead with the program without confirming John McCain's whereabouts. These two mistakes, assuming they were innocent, were sufficient to make it appear that Warren was stacking the deck in McCain's favor. Favoring a Republican would be typical, of course, for an evangelical Christian in recent presidential elections. I noticed, myself, that Warren said he did not manage to get to a question about the environment -- that they ran out of time -- and I wondered why that topic, on which Obama would have an advantage, was the one that happened to be left out. In such regards, Warren has given ammunition to those who consider fundamentalist Christians politically untrustworthy and corruptive of the American system of government. It is not clear to me what Warren could have done, given that major news media were on a schedule. He does not seem to have wrestled with the question. It is incongruous for a minister, presumably committed to truth in some sense of the word, not to acknowledge that, with the entire nation watching, these irregularities would provoke legitimate controversy. In dismissing the issue as "bogus," he seems to be playing a political rather than honest-broker role. I do think that, if Warren were committed to a fair process, he would have done something. He might have deferred the start until McCain was determined to be securely located in the Green Room. He might have called McCain and made an announcement to indicate that the senator was still on his way and the process would be postponed until he arrived. Surely he should not have assured the nation that McCain was in a "cone of silence" when, by his own latest information, he was not. The reporters do not seem to be asking where McCain was during that time. It is not presently clear exactly when he got to the church. How is it possible that the major news networks and other sources, with dozens of personnel swarming the church, would not manage to send so much as a single junior reporter to watch the Green Room and keep an eye on McCain? The information I have been able to find, so far, seems to indicate that McCain may have been absent during the bulk of Obama's interview. If that is correct, how would it be possible? Where was McCain starting from, that would make him unable to be even remotely on time for a major media event? There is a question as to whether McCain cheated, with or without Warren's assistance. The focus of that question is on whether he actually listened to the questions being posed to Obama. But if cheating means not playing by the rules, then there is no doubt about it: McCain did cheat, by not being present at the church, as Warren seems to think he was supposed to be. Concerns about cheating would be reduced if McCain's campaign had already addressed these questions -- if, say, they had released a statement explaining why McCain was late and where he was. The best I can find on McCain's website, however, is a piece that says McCain was "off-stage, unable to hear the questions that would be posed to him later." But that is not literally true. He was able to hear them if he turned on the radio or was otherwise able to receive communications -- which he apparently was. The more accurate statement would be that he "did not" hear the questions; but there seems to be nobody who can verify that, and to my knowledge nobody has gotten around to grilling McCain on why he told Warren that he was trying to listen "through the wall," as if to create the impression that he had been in the building the whole time. The available information tends to indicate that there was something shady going on, and that McCain and Warren were comfortable with it. It does not seem there will be much further investigation, though. So evidently this will go down as one more minor piece of political gamesmanship that will fade quietly from the presidential contest -- at least until we come to the debates, at which time there will be another direct comparison of McCain against Obama. William Kristol to the contrary notwithstanding, however, Rick Warren is certainly not someone who should be leading future presidential interviews or debates.