In the war for the Republican presidential nomination, George W. Bush has deployed the traditional big guns of the party establishment and carpet-bombing TV ad campaigns. Yet he's been unable to subdue John McCain, whose mobile, guerrilla operation is bolstered by a merry band of fellow travelers in the press.
Imagine that, in a roomful of journalists, Bush or Al Gore had told a joke about the ugliness of the teenage daughter of a political rival. Or had used a racial slur. You'd expect loud, negative news coverage. However, if the candidate is McCain and the room is his "Straight Talk Express" campaign bus, you get not a bang, but a whimper from reporters.
When McCain referred to his Vietnamese captors as "gooks" months ago, not one journalist objected, and few reported it. His campaign last week said he will discontinue using the term. When he belittled the teenager, according to U.S. News and World Report, "one reporter just begged McCain to shut up and protect himself." Journalists on board sometimes seem more like campaign aides.
McCain's bus may be the most celebrated since Ken Kesey's psychedelic bus crisscrossed the U.S. in the days of Barry Goldwater's campaign. The LSD-ingesting Merry Pranksters on Kesey's bus sought to create their own magical reality. The assumably sober journalists on McCain's bus are supposed to find their way to objective reality.
The senator has dazzled reporters with his candid (often simplistic) talk. Refreshingly independent, folksy and blunt, McCain is as charismatic a leader as Kesey, author of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Unlike the Pranksters, however, political journalists aren't commune members on a trip barreling toward unified consciousness.
To do solid reporting, journalists must be independent of their subject. Loyalty in Kesey's commune was tested by asking: "Are you on the bus or off the bus?" In McCain's traveling roadshow, journalists should be--at least mentally--off the bus.
A big part of McCain's appeal to elite journalists is Vietnam guilt. Many baby-boomer reporters were well-connected collegians who dodged the war. In McCain, they see a hero: someone who didn't evade the war and who bravely survived brutality in captivity.
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Was it heroic, however, to bomb a poor country 7,000 miles away in a war that killed more than a million Vietnamese--many by napalm and other chemical agents dropped from U.S. aircraft? Was the killing made easier by dehumanizing those on the ground, including civilians, as "gooks"?
Where are the reporters brave enough to ask McCain not only about the racist legacy of Confederate flags, but also in the U.S. war against Vietnam? Not on the bus.
Few journalists have seriously scrutinized how McCain's Vietnam experience fuels his headlong interventionist streak from Kosovo to North Korea.
It's not just "the boys (and girls) on the bus" who have fallen for McCain. Supposed TV tough guys CBS' Mike Wallace and ABC's Sam Donaldson both aired puff pieces on McCain. Wallace later told a reporter that if McCain wins the nomination, he might quit his job to support the senator.
Over and over, MSNBC pays homage to McCain's life and legend with specials that gloss over McCain's less-than-heroic moments. No mention, for example, of the 1993 fund-raiser he headlined for a fervidly anti-gay group in Oregon--an event that began with a speaker praising an Oregon woman who had shot a doctor who performed abortions. (McCain justified his presence by speaking vaguely about tolerance.)
In view of claims that the political press corps is leftist and ideology-driven, it's telling that journalists have shown such sympathy for a candidate who is conservative on almost every issue of social, economic or foreign policy except campaign finance and tobacco. He votes consistently anti-choice on abortion and against gun control measures like the Brady Bill and the assault-weapons ban. He opposes a minimum-wage hike. Last year, the League of Conservation Voters ranked McCain's environmental voting record at 11%, up from zero in 1998. The liberal Americans for Democratic Action gave his overall voting record last year a 5% ranking.
The "Straight Talk Express" may not roll over Bush, but it already has run over and killed the myth of the liberal news media.