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Poor John McCain: Forced Against His Honor to Run an Ugly Campaign

Time's Ana Marie Cox, in a Bloggingheads discussion with Ann Althouse, does an excellent job of expressing what is still, amazingly enough, the prevailing media view of John McCain:  namely, that this deeply honorable and principled man is vehemently opposed to running an ugly, dirty campaign against Barack Obama, and that is happening despite McCain's deep opposition to such campaigns and the way it profoundly violates his code of honor.  Cox, who is traveling with the McCain campaign (yet again), first shared a few memories and sentiments about her experiences with the candidate over the years:

When I got on the plane the other day, McCain said hi to me. . . .

When he had that conflict with that crowd in Minneapolis, or Lakeview, that really energized him. Going on offense against his own voters and supporters in this weird way made him more energetic. . . .

Some of the happiest times I had with John McCain are when everyone counted him out.

When asked by Althouse (who, fairness compels me to acknowledge, was surprisingly reasonable here) about the "Obama-is-a-Terrorist" tactics the McCain campaign has been using and whether some of those tactics attempt to stoke nationalistic or racist sentiments, Cox repeatedly contended that such tactics are deeply anathema to the noble spirit and elevated soul of John McCain:

Cox:  What McCain's reacting to, is something that other Republicans are reacting to, iscu the kind of ugliness of the criticisms [towards] Obama. I think McCain in his heart of heart wants to win this fair and square. He wants to win this because he's the better candidate. He doesn't want to win this because people think Obama is a Muslim or is a terrorist or he's not really American. He wants to win this on his own merits. It upsets his sense of fair play -- to win -- to think that the support he's getting is because of what he thinks are bad reasons. . .

Althouse:  But in the last month or so, he's been losing ground, and resorting to this terrorist meme --

Cox:  I think that hasn't worked for them. I think they recognize that to the extent that that does work, that's not how McCain wants to win. 

I adore the guy. I think he's fantastic in many ways. I respect him, I admire his service to the country. I think ultimately he's very principled and, to coin a phrase, honorable. . . .

I do think that McCain is one of the most unique individuals that I've ever personally met. As I said, I greatly admire him and think he's sort of an amazing person . . .

[The McCain campaign], not out of malice or intent, didn't allow themselves to think through how some of these images would be taken by their audience.

McCain has spent weeks overtly linking Obama to "terrorists" and "Palestinian donors" and posing the sinister question:  "Who is the real Barack Obama"?  Right this very minute, the McCain/Palin campaign is running massive robocalls in numerous battleground states, including North Carolina, alleging that Obama "has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, whose organization bombed the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, a judge's home, and killed Americans" and, if elected, "will enact an extreme leftist agenda."  Last night on national television, McCain vehemently defended Sarah Palin's repellent and patently false accusation that Obama "is pallin' around with terrorists."

But McCain's vaunted principles and honor make him absolutely hate these tactics and he vehemently does not want to win this way.  "It upsets his sense of fair play to think that the support he's getting is because of what he thinks are bad reasons."   It just keeps happening despite McCain.


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And what of the fact that these ads and accusations have spawned the widespread, hateful perception among the GOP base that Obama is a foreign, Muslim, un-American, subversive-Black-Terrorist?  Why, the naive and innocent strategists running the McCain campaign had absolutely no idea that such a thing would happen.   They just failed "to think through how some of these images would be taken by their audience" -- but "not out of malice or intent" (probably just due to time constraints; they've been really busy lately and didn't have time to contemplate what perceptions their attacks would unwittingly spawn).

It's not a coincidence that the hardest-hitting interviews of McCain have been conducted by everyone except the national press corps that follows him.  Last night, David Letterman -- the comic -- grilled McCain about his relationship with convicted felon and post-Watergate extremist G. Gordon Liddy after McCain claimed that Obama associates with terrorists, the first time (to my knowledge) McCain has been asked about his friendship with Liddy despite its being written about for months.  And the toughest and most adversarial interviews of McCain came from the hosts of The View and from a reporter on a local news station in Maine (here).

The national press corps continues to revere John McCain despite what is widely acknowledged to be the toxic and ugly campaign he's running because they still think that this campaign is being run despite McCain's character and wishes, not because of them.  The idea that someone should be judged by their actual conduct never seems to occur to them, nor do they accept what ought to be the rather self-evident proposition that someone who repeatedly does dishonorable things is, by definition, dishonorable.  By their fruits ye shall know them.  Or, as former/long-time McCain-lover Andrew Sullivan put it:

I'm afraid that [Atlantic Editor] Jim [Fallows] is dealing with what we're all dealing with: the fact that the myth we had of McCain is, in fact, a lie. The real McCain - dishonest, dishonorable and despicable - is now in plain sight. To say I'm disillusioned would be an understatement. The last six weeks have shown us all something we'd rather never have found out. But we can't ignore it now, can we?

Some obviously can -- and are.

Cox does say that she doesn't intend to vote for McCain because the way he has run his campaign demonstrates that he's too scattershot and "erratic" (a word that Cox, fairly enough, accuses the Obama campaign of using as "code for senile").  But in explaining that, this is what Cox says:

As I said, I greatly admire him and think he's sort of an amazing person but that doesn't meant I want him to have control of my country's future in his hands. . . . I don't particularly want my commander-in-chief to have that whimsical attitude towards government.

If I could be granted one small wish about our political discourse, it would be that reporters and pundits would accept -- as disappointing  and unglorious as it is -- that, under our Constitution and basic government design, people who aren't in the military don't have a "Commander-in-Chief."  The President isn't your "commander," and the "Commander-in-Chief" power, now synonymous in our political culture with "President," is actually extremely limited (Art. II, Sec. 2:  "The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States"). 

This endless festishization of "President as Our Commander-in-Chief" is one of those small but pernicious reflections of how militarized we've become, of how we are a society in a state of perpetual and endless war.  And -- though I don't think there's a strong complaint to be made that the media generally has been unfair to Barack Obama -- this "Commander-in-Chief" fetish is also one of the principal causes of the ongoing media reverence for John S. McCain.


UPDATE:  I'll be on Rachel Maddow's radio show tonight, at a time to be determined (will post it once I know it), talking about the McCain campaign and the Palin effect.  Live audio feed and local listings are here.


UPDATE II:  Here's another long-time/former McCain-admirer -- Time's Joe Klein -- today writing about "Senator Honorable in the Sewer," noting McCain's ongoing reliance on tactics that were previously used by the Bush apparatus against McCain and which McCain -- back then -- endlessly decried.

Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, constitutional lawyer, commentator, author of three New York Times best-selling books on politics and law, and a staff writer and editor at First Look media. His fifth and latest book is, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents around the world. Prior to his collaboration with Pierre Omidyar, Glenn’s column was featured at Guardian US and Salon.  His previous books include: With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the PowerfulGreat American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican PoliticsA Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency, and How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok. He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism, a George Polk Award, and was on The Guardian team that won the Pulitzer Prize for public interest journalism in 2014.

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