The Right Stuff

How Bush Met His Maker in South Carolina

World itself exists almost unnoticed in relatively progressive Asheville, North Carolina, an hour north of Bob Jones U. But Christian-right Americans know it. Belz also cranks out 333,000 copies of a Christian version of The Weekly Reader and sells books to Christian schools and the home-school movement. And he and Olasky have set up a World Journalism Institute to train Christian reporters. Olasky and Belz have a lucrative relationship. Belz says he and Olasky, still a tenured prof in Austin, annually pull down about $100,000 each from the World empire, a tax-exempt, religious nonprofit organization.

"We make no apologies," says Belz. "Religion is not an aspect of life. It is all of life. Everybody has a worldview. Mine is that God is at the center of things.

"I know this sounds arrogant, but there are a few people who deny gravity—and they do it at their own risk. If I believe your eternal destiny is at stake, I think I owe it to you to point that out."

Olasky insists, "I'm against anyone trying to force anyone else to believe anything." Nevertheless, he argues that the Old Testament is full of sacrifice stories that don't have punch lines. "The Old Testament is a cliffhanger," says Olasky. "The New Testament completes it. I just want to put that out there in the marketplace of ideas."

Only it's not just another idea to them. "We Christians have been horribly wrong, starting with the Crusades and with race and so on," says Belz. "But none of that negates the fact that there's such a thing out there as the truth."

Except on the campaign trail, where Bush's real gaffes have helped McCain sell an unreal "reformer" image.

The day before the South Carolina vote, McCain's Straight Talk Express makes a desperate dash up the state's Atlantic coast. Ooh, McCain is so accessible that he even has reporters on his bus and talks to them! In reality, McCain likes to chitchat, but not every reporter is deemed worthy of being co-opted. The largest paper in his home state, the Arizona Republic, is banned from the bus. It and other papers have detailed McCain's vacations to the Bahamas with convicted financiopath Charles Keating and his relationships with other power brokers.

Just as McCain has done throughout his career, you've got to follow the money. Those pesky McCain-bashers, Olasky and Belz, acknowledge that one reason McCain, an antiabortion conservative, is held in such contempt by the Christian right is that his original McCain-Feingold campaign-reform bill would have severely limited conservative Christians (among others) from lobbying while encouraging advertising in the despised "liberal" mainstream media. Some on the left have pointed out that, rather than reform campaigns, McCain-Feingold would have restricted First Amendment rights.

But just as most reporters have swallowed G-Dub's view of himself as a "compassionate conservative," they have swallowed McCain's invention of himself as a reformer. And the "hero" stuff has them captivated. During his last frenetic day of campaigning, McCain's staff schleps around other Vietnam War POWs to punctuate their man's own ordeal as a captive. South Carolina knows all about captives.

In a state that's 30 percent African American, his audiences are practically all white, as are the reporters and camera crews following him around. During one stop for a breather, reporters relax on the gracious patio of the Hampton Inn, on Meeting Street in the charming former slave port of Charleston, and put on the feed bag courtesy of McCain. While they rest, a local journalist is quietly at work across the street. Krenston Price, accompanied by his son Jordan, is filling a newspaper box with copies of Black News, part of a big chain of black papers here. To Price, the campaign seems irrelevant. Neither candidate is talking about the constant in-your-face racism that people of color have to put up with here. The old plantations are now resorts, but still called plantations, and black folk still clean the toilets in the Big House. The Confederate battle flag flies over the state capitol in Columbia, but don't think it's a matter of history or heritage. It's been up there only since 1962, erected in defiance of integration.

So how's that civil rights struggle going, now that the Civil War's been over for 135 years? Price points to his leg and says, "It's as if you once had an open sore and now it's got a scab over it. But it's infected. It's under the surface, but it's deeply infected."

White progressives have no place to go in this campaign, either. Well, practically no place. McCain's last campaign stop this day is at the NASCAR Cafe in Myrtle Beach. As the Straight Talk Express pulls into a parking lot the size of Manhattan, ex-POW Bud Day, warming up the crowd for McCain, gestures to a sign behind him, conveniently placed right in view of camera crews. The sign says, "Replace the bum in the White House with a real American hero!" The crowd whoops and hollers. McCain gives his spiel and everybody goes home.

The next day in Charleston, election day, the man with the "replace the bum" sign stands on Meeting Street, whipping up more support for McCain. His name is Paul Piccirilli; he's a retired steelworker from Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, and it turns out that he's a leftist. The last sign he carried was an anti-scab screed on a Christmas Day a few years ago.

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