The Press Corps' Unshakeable Crush on McCain
Some straight talk about the media's favorite 'maverick'
If you pay even passing attention to national politics, you know that presumptive GOP presidential candidate John McCain is a maverick who bucks his own party's line and never wavers in his political beliefs. At least, that's what the corporate media say-reality tells a very different story.
A candidate could only get away with such an elaborate and long-running con with the media as willing accomplices. "The press loves McCain," explained NBC host Chris Matthews (9/10/06). "We're his base."
For much of the press, the early stages of the 2008 presidential campaign were a chance to fall in love all over again. "Those of us on the Straight Talk Express eight years ago got a breathtaking journalistic opportunity: to be inside the lively mind and heart of a leading contender for president," Newsweek's Howard Fineman recalled (3/3/08). "McCain was as joyously combative as Popeye and as earnestly confessional as Oprah."
Fineman was actually restrained when compared to some of the coverage from eight years prior. "I know it shouldn't be happening, but it is," wrote Charles Lane in the New Republic (10/18/99). "I'm falling for John McCain." Lane's confession was in turn surpassed in awkwardness by another writer in the same magazine: Michael Lewis (9/30/96) declared that his feelings for McCain were like "the war that must occur inside a 14-year-old boy who discovers he is more sexually attracted to boys than to girls."
The maverick is born
The origin of the McCain the Maverick storyline is hard to pin down, but it gained a serious boost after CBS's 60 Minutes delivered a mostly fawning segment headlined "The Maverick From Arizona" (10/12/97) that celebrated his quest to reform the campaign finance system. CBS interviewed several of McCain's harshest home-state critics, but that tape was left on the cutting room floor (New Republic, 5/24/99). And CBS's allegedly tough-as-nails correspondent Mike Wallace was clearly enamored with McCain, going so far as to say that he was considering joining his campaign: "I'm thinking I may quit my job if he gets the nomination," Wallace declared (Washington Post, 6/8/98).
It's hard to overstate how vital this "maverick" meme is to media coverage of McCain.
"McCain is nothing if not a maverick," declared U.S. News & World Report (3/31/08), while CBS host Bob Schieffer (7/15/07) called him the "most famous maverick of the last half of the 20th century." Time magazine (1/21/08) dubbed McCain "a free-ranging, fence-jumping, kick-the-corral maverick."
Contrasting McCain's maverick ways with Barack Obama, New York Times columnist David Brooks (1/8/08) explained that McCain "is allergic to blind party discipline and builds radically different coalitions depending on his views on each issue." ABC reporter Claire Shipman, meanwhile, once argued (7/15/07) that the McCain-as-maverick line is actually what the public prefers: "Look, that McCain is the underdog, the maverick, is the storyline the American public really likes for John McCain."
The real record
McCain, of course, is actually quite conservative, with a 9 percent lifetime rating from Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal group that rates lawmakers' voting records. But what's most fascinating-and rarely discussed in the press-is not just that McCain is so conservative, but that, for a brief time, McCain's voting record did line up with the media myth-before McCain reverted back to form.
New Republic writer Jonathan Chait produced one of the most detailed accounts of McCain's ideological meanderings in the magazine's February 27, 2008 issue. Chait, who was once an admirer, argued that the media storyline "gets McCain almost totally backward. He has diverged wildly and repeatedly from conservative orthodoxy, but he has also reinvented himself so completely that it has become nearly impossible to figure out what he really believes."
Chait went on to argue that "McCain's ideological transformation is unusual for two reasons: First, he has moved across the political spectrum not once-like Al Smith or Mitt Romney-but twice. And, second, he refuses to acknowledge his change."
Chait pointed out that in Bush's first term, McCain performed almost exactly like the media's version of himself-voting against the Bush tax cuts, co-sponsoring a patients' bill of rights and taking on his party over emissions standards and climate change. By Bush's second term, however, McCain was more of a team player, sticking with the party on an estate-tax repeal and aligning with Bush's position on immigration "reform."
In other words, McCain wasn't much of a maverick when the media affixed that label to him. He became one very briefly, and then returned more or less back to where he started.
McCain's voting pattern bears out this analysis. Before the 2000 campaign, McCain was consistently among the party's most conservative members. In the 107th Congress (2001-02), McCain was the sixth most liberal Republican senator, according to the VoteView statistical analysis of voting patterns. In the next congressional session, he was the fourth most conservative.
And he's more or less stayed there since. According to VoteView, McCain's voting record in 2005-06 made him the second-most conservative senator in the 109th Congress, and the eighth-most conservative in the 110th Senate. Outside of McCain's brief tack to the middle, his overall voting record makes him a reliable member of his party's caucus.
'The renegade returns'
Indeed, for a brief time it looked as if many in the national press had arrived at the sad conclusion that McCain's 2008 campaign would represent the end of his maverick ways. His turnabout on prominent religious right figures like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, whom he deemed "agents of intolerance" in the heat of the 2000 campaign, was early evidence that things might be different this time. A March 15, 2007 was headlined "McCain Fighting to Recapture Maverick Spirit of 2000 Bid." Two days later, the Los Angeles Times was pondering the same question, under the headline "McCain Loses Some of His Rebel Edge."
The most significant problem, as the press saw it, was that McCain had begun his 2008 campaign as the front-running candidate of the party establishment-the very opposite of the underdog McCain the press had come to admire. The campaign's financial collapse months ahead of the Iowa caucuses nearly derailed McCain's chances, but as the pundits saw it, this saved the day: The Maverick was reborn.
Under the headline "The Renegade Returns," Newsweek (8/15/07) reported:
The scrappy war vet was never very convincing as the Anointed One anyway. Now he's reverting to the formula that helped him win New Hampshire in 2000: a lean, insurgent candidacy heavy on retail politics and promises to take on Washington.
The magazine, somewhat self-consciously, noted parenthetically, "It's the same underdog storyline the media, which McCain used to call 'his base,' once found so appealing.
And they would find it appealing again. Time's Joe Klein turned in a piece (10/17/07) headlined "McCain Is Back," which heralded this return to form. Klein wrote that McCain was "rising from the crypt, but not as a zombie. The foolishly conventional Republican McCain of last year was the zombie. No, this is the funny, free-range McCain reincarnated."
The return of the Maverick McCain was important: Months later, Time's Michael Scherer (2/21/08) was predicting that McCain's nomination would transform the GOP and "shift its priorities on key domestic issues ranging from global warming to the cheap importation of prescription drugs"-before asking: "Does this sound too good to be true?" Standing in the way, complained Scherer, was not its inherent improbability but the fact that "liberal advocacy group Media Matters has been releasing broadsides against any journalist who dares describe the sometimes maverick McCain as a maverick."
'Who's the greenest?'
With McCain's maverick credentials a given, reality must be warped in remarkable ways by the press in order to maintain the storyline. Newsweek's April 14 cover story, "Who's the Greenest of Them All?," reached the remarkable conclusion that the answer could very well be John McCain. Readers first learned that Obama and Clinton received high marks from the League of Conservation Voters before Newsweek finally noted sheepishly: "Admittedly, McCain's 2007 league rating is zero, putting him in the company of eight other Republicans, including the global-warming denier James Inhofe."
To soften that blow, the magazine offered that "a more relevant statistic might be his lifetime LCV rating, which is 26 percent, compared with an average of 16 percent for all Republicans." Given that Obama and Clinton scored 96 and 90, respectively, it would be highly unusual for a group to offer its endorsement, as the magazine suggested the LCV might do, to a politician who mostly disagrees with their positions. But Newsweek wasn't about to give up, crediting McCain with having "sided with environmentalists on fuel-efficiency standards and the talismanic issue of protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge." As columnist David Sirota pointed out (4/4/08), McCain's position on Alaska drilling has shifted back and forth over the years; most recently, in 2005, the senator voted to support drilling.
Newsweek's Jerry Adler sounded like he had convinced himself, at least, that McCain was actually the greener candidate:
So, ironically, McCain-with a voting record that would put him at the bottom of the heap among Democrats-is sometimes perceived as more passionate about the environment than his Democratic opponents, whose objectively much stronger records are viewed as a matter of party orthodoxy.
Such are the benefits of being a maverick; your actual record is much less important than how you are "perceived" by journalists.
When John McCain unveiled his Straight Talk Express campaign bus in 1999, the rolling metaphor helped establish a political identity that would prove nearly impossible to challenge. The maverick storyline was seamlessly integrated with the theme that McCain simply stands his ground and sticks to his guns, no matter what the political consequences. When the 2008 campaign was still looking somewhat shaky, ABC's Terry Moran (3/26/07) congratulated McCain for doing "what he's always done, play it as straight as possible. A directness that still startles." The Washington Post's Dana Milbank declared (12/13/07): "He is the bravest candidate in the presidential race. While his rivals pander to primary constituencies, the former prisoner of war gives audiences a piece of his mind."
For a more typical politician, McCain's myriad flip-flops would be a serious liability. But McCain mostly manages to get along just fine. Next to his turnabout on Jerry Falwell, McCain's highest-profile reversal might be on Bush's tax cuts. McCain bucked the White House by voting against both the 2001 and 2003 packages, pointing out that they were tilted in favor of the wealthy. In the 2008 campaign, McCain is running in support of extending the very same tax cuts. McCain's campaign talking point now is that he opposed the cuts because they were not accompanied by spending cuts, a boldly disingenuous argument that is rarely challenged by the press corps. (The Associated Press was one notable exception-1/31/08.)
McCain has even managed a flip-flop on one of his signature issues-immigration policy. Though he was cheered by some pundits for co-sponsoring legislation with liberal Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), McCain would eventually distance himself from that bill. On NBC's Meet the Press (1/27/08), he tried to avoid answering a direct question about whether he would sign his very own bill as president, saying the "bill is dead as it is written" and that "the lesson is they want the border secured first." The "they" he's speaking of would seem to be the right-wing of the party, whom McCain had angered by resisting such "security first" demands for many months.
U.S. News & World Report (3/24/08) signaled that McCain's shift away from his own position was good news...for John McCain. The failure of his own bill "turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it gave McCain room to maneuver." The piece even pointed out that days after McCain's Meet the Press appearance, he more clearly declared he was no longer in favor of his previous immigration bill. In the 2000 campaign, McCain won praise for speaking out against ethanol subsidies, a highly problematic position for anyone running in the Iowa caucuses. By the time the 2008 campaign got rolling, McCain had a distinct change of heart, which Fortune (11/13/06) dubbed "a flip-flop so absurd it'll be a wonder if it doesn't get lampooned by late-night comedians, not to mention opponents' negative ads." But the about-face was hardly an issue.
Flipping on foreign policy
On foreign policy, McCain has moved from being a non-interventionist conservative to one of the leading politicians embraced-and advised-by prominent neo-conservatives, a journey summarized nicely by John Judis in the New Republic (10/16/06). McCain went from questioning troop deployments to Lebanon, Haiti and Somalia to pushing for a ground invasion during the NATO bombing of Serbia.
In a major policy address in March of this year, McCain sounded a somewhat different tune, signaling a need to work more closely with international allies. Washington Post columnist David Broder (3/30/08) cheered that this "repudiation of unilateralism was just the first of many efforts to distinguish McCain's approach from Bush's." It's also different from McCain's former approach, which for some time was to ridicule international objections to the Iraq War. As the website ThinkProgress noted (3/26/08), McCain once ridiculed the French by saying they "remind me of an aging movie actress in the 1940s who's still trying to dine out on her looks, but doesn't have the face for it." The New York Times reported (2/13/03) that McCain derided French objections as "part of a continuing French practice of throwing sand in the gears of the Atlantic alliance."
McCain is often portrayed as one of the vigilant critics of the Iraq War's execution; less well known is the fact that McCain assured that the war would be "fairly easy" (CNN, 9/24/02) and could be won "in a very short period of time" (CNN, 9/29/02). He would later complain (8/22/06) that people "were led to believe that this would be some kind of a day at the beach, which many of us fully understood from the very beginning would be a very, very difficult undertaking."
And while he's relentlessly congratulated for having the foresight to see the weaknesses in Donald Rumsfeld's Iraq strategy, Judis pointed out that McCain certainly didn't think so at first, writing in May 2003:
Thanks to a war plan that represented a revolutionary advance in military science, to the magnificent performance of our armed forces, and to the firm resolve of the president, the war in Iraq succeeded beyond the most optimistic expectations.
At other times, McCain's talk is so far from straight that it actually becomes difficult to parse. Journalist Matt Welch's book McCain: The Myth of a Maverick recalls several striking episodes. In an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, McCain seemed genuinely befuddled by an Arizona state initiative that would ban civil unions. In the course of a few televised moments, McCain declared he voted in favor of the proposition, but was not against civil unions-but then answered "No" when Stephanopoulos asked if he was for civil unions.
This echoed a 2006 appearance on MSNBC's Hardball (10/18/06), when McCain announced, "I think gay marriages should be allowed," only to change his tune moments later after an aide whispered in his ear. McCain's new line was, "I do not believe that gay marriages should be legal."
Perhaps most striking was when McCain was asked-aboard the Straight Talk Express, no less-an extraordinarily straightforward question: "Do you think contraceptives help stop the spread of HIV?"
McCain responded by saying, "You've stumped me." When the questioner offered some help ("I mean, I think you'd probably agree it probably does help stop it?"), McCain still wasn't able to offer a response:
I'm not informed enough on it. Let me find out. You know, I'm sure I've taken a position on it on the past. I have to find out what my position was. Brian, would you find out what my position is on contraception-I'm sure I'm opposed to government spending on it, I'm sure I support the president's policies on it.
McCain would go on to plead with an aide to "get me [Sen. Tom] Coburn's thing" to figure out his position. New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney wrote on the paper's website (3/16/07) that "this went on for a few more moments until a reporter from the Chicago Tribune broke in and asked Mr. McCain about the weight of a pig that he saw at the Iowa State Fair last year." That bit of press interference seemed to reflect the broader media trend, as McCain's strange performance got remarkably little attention.
Given the media's investment in McCain's image, they have an incentive to not pay too much attention to his double-talk. Some opt to use soft language to describe this reality. Time magazine's Michael Scherer noted (3/27/08) that McCain's "self-image...as a saint operating in a sinner's world" puts him in a certain bind-namely, the burden of actually practicing what he preaches. McCain the campaign reform advocate is also a "vigorous fund-raiser" whose "inner circle includes current and former lobbyists," who has "begged discount private-jet flights from companies seeking his favor." Scherer wrote off these contradictions as "nuance" that might get "lost" in the "free-fire information war of a presidential campaign." Scherer concluded that "McCain is, in other words, not an easy man to judge." Actually, politicians saying one thing and then doing another are usually labeled pretty easily.
When McCain undeniably shifts his positions, the press often looks for unusual ways to describe this. The Los Angeles Times (3/27/08) labeled a major McCain foreign policy speech as a "political pivot" because he was clearly changing his tune. When McCain changed his position on mortgage relief to appear more concerned about homeowners in trouble, the New York Times (4/11/08) labeled it a "pivot" and a "shift in tone."
McCain has been praised in the media for opposing the White House and demanding an end to U.S. torture practices-which made his vote with the White House on a bill that could have limited CIA interrogation practices a surprise to some. Time's Scherer (Time.com, 4/10/08) complained that "there is nothing the Democrats would like to do more than portray McCain as a rank hypocrite." That charge was simply untrue, explained Scherer; the Democrats "turned a grain of truth into a misleading landslide of overheated accusation. A review of the record shows that McCain has neither changed his position on torture nor taken sides with President Bush on the substance of the issue."
McCain may have gotten the most media help on his comment that it would be "fine with me" if U.S. troops were in Iraq for 100 years-a statement that has received significant media attention, much of it directed at the unfairness of McCain's opponents for speaking about it. New York Times columnist Frank Rich began his April 6 column, "Really, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton should be ashamed of themselves for libeling John McCain." The Associated Press published a fact-check (2/29/08) that began bluntly, "No, John McCain is not proposing a 100-year war in Iraq."
The problem, reported AP, was that "Democrats leave out a vital caveat." That caveat, though, is McCain's nonsensical argument that a long occupation is acceptable "as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed"-while occupying a country "in a very volatile part of the world where Al-Qaeda is training, recruiting, equipping and motivating people every single day."
A Washington Post fact-check (4/3/08) also came down on McCain's side, though the paper did note that McCain has managed to both endorse a comparison to the U.S. occupations of Korea and Germany and reject the same historical analogy. Apparently the Democrats have to be more careful about criticizing McCain-if they can figure out what his position is.
'The world's worst panderer'
For some pundits, it seemed necessary to deny that McCain could be suspected of any duplicity at all. "To be sure, no one can accuse McCain of pandering," wrote the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz (4/26/07)-ironically, in an article that detailed other pundits' disappointment with McCain's shifting positions.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof dealt with all this dissonance by penning a February 17, 2008 column headlined "The World's Worst Panderer." Kristof admired McCain not for his positions, but for being "abysmal at pandering." For example, Kristof wrote that McCain had denounced ethanol subsidies for years-and then abruptly reversed course in the early part of the 2008 campaign. This was acceptable, because "he was so manifestly insincere and incompetent in this pandering that the episode was less contemptible than amusing."
Kristof went on to write that when McCain "does try double-talk, he looks so guilty and uncomfortable that he convinces nobody." Kristof concluded: "In short, Mr. McCain truly has principles that he bends or breaks out of desperation and with distaste. That's preferable to politicians who are congenital invertebrates."
The Washington Post's Richard Cohen (2/12/08) wrote a nearly identical column that seemed more personally sad than anything else: "McCain's true virtue is that he is a lousy politician. He is not a convincing liar, and when he adopts positions that are not his own, they infect him, sapping him of what might be called integrity energy."
It's worth noting that Cohen and Kristof were beaten to the punch by another pundit, almost two years earlier. "Go ahead, senator, flip-flop away," wrote Jonathan Chait in the Los Angeles Times (4/19/06), trying to explain McCain's shifting positions. "I know you're with us at heart."
In the end, the question is not so much whether McCain will win the hearts-and votes-of the mainstream media. More important is what voters will think. The Washington Post (3/16/08) noted that a visit to several countries by McCain in March 2008 produced strikingly different press treatment: "Newspaper articles in Paris, London and Jerusalem raise questions about which McCain would become president: the moderate one who supports free trade and efforts to fight global warming; or the more conservative one, who vows never to let Iran acquire nuclear weapons."
American journalists, by and large, long ago decided to sell a moderate, "maverick" McCain to the U.S. public.