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“I think the fence is least effective. But I’ll build the goddamned fence if they want it.”

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John McCain is profiled in the new Vanity Fair, and it won’t be very helpful to his fledgling campaign.  The opening graphs find him vacationing at his second home, Chris Matthews’  Hardball, and go this way:

The setting is the Stephens Auditorium at Iowa State University, in Ames, and the questioner is Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s Hardball, who is pitching an hour’s worth of interrogatories to the American media’s favorite politician.

It is three weeks before midterm elections that will prove to be a decidedly mixed bag for McCain. His party will experience the electorate’s repudiation of the war in Iraq, which McCain has always supported, and at the same time the voters will repudiate the cozy and corrupt Washington culture as a whole, which McCain has always loathed. Matthews wants to know McCain’s views on the prevalence of gay people in all walks of life, a subject whose predicate is the scandal involving Representative Mark Foley and his come-hither instant-messaging with congressional pages. “Should gay marriage be allowed?,” Matthews asks.

“I think that gay marriage should be allowed, if there’s a ceremony kind of thing, if you want to call it that,” McCain answers, searching in vain for the less loaded phrases he knows are out there somewhere, such as “commitment ceremony” or “civil union.” “I don’t have any problem with that, but I do believe in preserving the sanctity of the union between man and woman.” It may not be clear just what McCain is trying to say, but it’s easy to see how his words could be skewed in a direction that the Republican right might not like at all.

Fast-forward to the next commercial break, during which McCain and Matthews reposition themselves from the stage to the auditorium floor to take questions from the students. McCain’s longtime political strategist, John Weaver, a lanky, laconic Texan, moves in to whisper some advice. The next question is about the pending federal farm bill, and McCain repeats his long-standing opposition to certain agricultural subsidies.

But then, out of nowhere, he adds, “Could I just mention one other thing? On the issue of the gay marriage, I believe if people want to have private ceremonies, that’s fine. I do not believe that gay marriages should be legal.” There: he said it, the right words for his right flank. It might seem that this audience, the sons and daughters of a socially conservative and culturally traditional bellwether state, would accept, if not approve of, what McCain has just declared. But they are the Wi-Fi wave of the future, and they can smell a pander bear as surely as they can a hog lot. They erupt in a chorus of deafening boos. “Obviously some disagreement with that last comment,” McCain says tightly. “Thank you. It’s nice to see you.”

Moments later, McCain remounts the stage for the program’s final segment, and he bores into Weaver, standing quietly in the wings, with a cold look that seems to mingle irritation at Weaver’s whispered advice with regret that he took it, and demands, almost hisses, “Did I fix it? Did I fix it?”

No, he didn’t fix it, and as the title quote shows, Senator McCain still doesn’t understand the fence. He still doesn’t understand that the vast majority of people believe the 700 miles of fencing will in fact be effective, and that the anger over it from amnesty proponents and the Mexican government proves the point.  He also still fails to realize that regularization of the 14 million illegals begins with the fence construction, not with McCain-Kennedy and social security benefits for years worked following an illegal entry.

Read the whole thing.  It may be a sort of slow-motion Roger Mudd moment. 

There are some fine lines in the piece, as when McCain introduces a New York Times’ reporter: “This is Adam Nagourney, New York Times. They’re a Communist paper, but he’s O.K.”

But when McCain jokingly refers to the press as “his base,” he is doing much more than getting a deserved laugh –self-awareness is charming– he is also underscoring the extraordinarily thin support he enjoys among party regulars.  And when the writer Todd Purdhum announces thatMcCain “is visibly older, thinner, balder


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