LYNCHBURG, Va., May 13, 2006 — -- Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., gave the commencement address at Liberty University today, the evangelical college started by a man who was once one of the senator's fiercest political foes, the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
"The ilk of John McCain is very scarce, very small," Falwell told graduates and their families Saturday morning at the Vines Center auditorium, recounting McCain's experiences as a prisoner of war during Vietnam. "And so we today pay tribute to a great American, a man who, young people, has made your bright future of the 21st century a continuing reality."
McCain delivered an address arguing that dissent and disagreement in American political life are good things. It was a not inappropriate topic given both his past animosity toward Falwell and other conservative Christian activists, and the fact that he'll be delivering the same address next week before more liberal audiences in Manhattan, when he speaks at Columbia University's class day and at commencement for the New School. At both locations, students and faculty are protesting his presence, given his support of the war in Iraq, his opposition to same-sex marriage and his rapprochement with Falwell.
"We have our disagreements, we Americans," McCain said in his speech, referring to debates over government, faith and national security. "These are important questions, worth arguing about. We should contend over them with one another. It is more than appropriate: It is necessary that even in times of crisis, especially in times of crisis, we fight among ourselves for the things we believe in. It is not just our right, but our civic and moral obligation."
The fact that McCain continues to harbor not-so-secret presidential ambitions is, of course, a part of this simultaneous turning of other cheeks.
"If McCain's second bid in 2008 is going to end up differently than his first bid in 2000 he's got to reach out to fundamentalist and evangelical Christians," said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, "and this is a great way to do it."
The Liberty University graduates and their families with whom ABC News spoke seemed to like what McCain had to say.
"A lot of his views are similar with a lot of stuff President Bush says, and I feel they would be really similar," effused Bush supporter and honors graduate Natasha Spruance.
But some healthy skepticism remains, indicating McCain still has work to do to win over this important bloc of GOP primary and caucus voters, as he acknowledged.
"I liked what he had to say but I'm not sure whether or not that might change in six months," said Lee Chastain, whose wife was receiving her master's degree.
Added honors graduate Caleb Austin, "His willingness to be here does say a lot. But was his message overall evangelical or conservative? No."
Of course, where McCain says he's reaching out, some critics say he's selling out. Most pithily, liberal blogger Arinna Huffington wrote: "Watching a true American hero hang a For Sale sign on his principles is a profoundly sad thing."
Huffington, a former conservative, and now a liberal, said she finds "it deeply ironic that, at a time when voters are desperately longing for a political leader with authenticity, a man who defined the authenticity brand has now decided to screw with the formula. The New McCain is the political equivalent of New Coke -- and will meet with the same disastrous results. … The saddest thing is not how McCain has betrayed us -- it's how he has betrayed himself."
Falwell, of course, has made remarks that charitably could only be regarded as intolerant.
Most recently, after the 9/11 attacks, Falwell said that "the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle -- the ACLU, People for the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.' "
In 2002, he told "60 Minutes," "I think Muhammad was a terrorist. I read enough by both Muslims and non-Muslims, [to decide] that he was a violent man, a man of war."
McCain's response to these comments is to say he and Falwell continue to have disagreements.
Speaking at Liberty University "is smart nomination politics," said Sabato. "But what's good for the nomination may hurt McCain for the general election. It's making him less acceptable to a broader public, which has always been his strongest selling point."
McCain's speech -- which also discussed Iraq and Darfur -- underlined that political debates need to remain civil, which would distinguish it in his mind from the Republican presidential primary battle of 2000, when McCain saw Christian conservatives attack his honor, ethics and personal life.
At the time, when he and then-Gov. George W. Bush were earnestly competing for votes in the South Carolina primary, Falwell said, "McCain has sold out to the liberal element of the party and is purposely closing himself off from the important conservative base of the GOP. The result of that policy will not result in a 'big tent,' but a circus tent."
Falwell said he felt "accountable to conservative people of faith who are attempting to decide who they will support for president. I believe I must tell these people that John McCain's policies dramatically counter the historic canons of conservatism and threaten the sovereignty and well-being of our nation."
McCain responded with a forceful address in which he labeled Falwell and the Rev. Pat Robertson "agents of intolerance" and urged his party to reject their message.
But last fall, Falwell reached out to McCain to bury the hatchet.
"We had some little differences, nothing doctrinal, slightly personal," Falwell told ABC News. "I wanted to heal that breech, and we did, and that took about five minutes, and we spent the rest of the afternoon talking about the issues and the future."
Falwell said he was taking a note from the Good Book: "Obey the scriptures: 'Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.' Get it straightened out and move on. And we've done that."
McCain agreed to move on.
"One of the lessons I've learned in life, and I have to relearn it all the time, [is] don't hold a grudge and don't get personal, and then you can be much more effective and successful," he told ABC News in an exclusive interview this week.
McCain has said he no longer regards Falwell as an "agent of intolerance," and noted that Liberty University has 14 percent minority enrollment.
Does he regret calling Falwell that powerful epithet?
"In the heat of a campaign you can look backwards and say, 'I regret this,' and 'I regret that,' and 'I should have done this,' and that also is not a very good exercise," McCain said.
For his part, Falwell effuses that McCain could well win the GOP presidential nomination and even "become the champion, the hero of religious conservatives."
McCain concluded his remarks by talking about his rapprochement with the late Democratic activist David Ifshin, who came to Hanoi in 1970 while McCain was a prisoner of war "to denounce our country's involvement in the war that had led us there. His speech was broadcast into our cells. I thought it a grevious wrong then, and I still do."
Years later, Ifshin apologized to McCain. They worked together to promote human rights in Vietnam and McCain "came to admire him for his generosity, his passion for his ideals, for the largeness of his heart. I realized he had not been my enemy, but my countryman … and later my friend."
Ifshin died of cancer in 1996.
"His country was a better place for his service to her," McCain said. "And I had become a better man for my friendship with him."
The message seemed to be that if he could forgive a liberal Democrat who offended him as a prisoner of war, making nice with a fellow conservative Christian over a political dispute wasn't that big a deal.
ABC News' Sam Brooks, Dan Harris and Wonbo Woo contributed to this report.