The Media's Favorite Marlboro Man


How to account for it? He's pro-life, boasts a conservative voting record, yet has Washington's sensibly liberal prestige press drooling all over him. He's become the television producers' go-to guy for comment on issues ranging from foreign policy to presidential erections. He's been profiled favorably by so many media outlets that, as The Weekly Standard's Andrew Ferguson notes, "NBC news, the Washington Post, and other news outlets have assigned reporters to do favorable stories explaining why the stories about John McCain are so favorable."

Many people have theories about why this is so. Conservative activists grumble that McCain owes his press clippings to his willingness to trash Republican orthodoxy. Phoenix New Times writer Amy Silverman, a fierce McCain critic, offers a comprehensive explanation: "He's a war hero; he's a neopopulist; he reminds them of themselves; he's accessible; and, finally, they say, his image is genuine, not manufactured."

I agree with it all, and offer one addition. McCain's life story is fun to tell and makes an easy metaphor. It's pleasing to write such prose as, "Not since he was fished out of a North Vietnamese lake in 1967 has John McCain faced such a challenge…"

OK, so I made that up. But check out these passages.

"Mayday! Mayday! Tiger Two to Naval Command. I'm taking flak from my left and heavy ack-ack from my right," liberal Boston Globe columnist and leading McCain sycophant David Nyhan begins a June 3, 1998, piece, later adding, "The last time John McCain was in a similar pickle, he was shot down over Vietnam and landed in pain, in prison and in the hands of torturers. Now, Big Tobacco is trying to do what the North Vietnamese prison guard couldn't do in six years of trying: Make him say 'Uncle.' "

The Economist's "Lexington" columnist blew McCain this kiss in June: "After all, there is no other Senator with quite the same experience of the trick of fate: shot down over Vietnam; horribly tortured during more than five years' captivity in the 'Hanoi Hilton', half of them in solitary confinement; financed in his early political career by a man who turned out to be a crook. No wonder the deep-brown eyes have a piercing quality to them; no wonder the energy level is almost frenetic, as though there is too much to do and not enough time to do it in."

"Already a war hero for defying North Vietnamese torturers," Roll Call executive editor Morton M. Kondracke wrote on April 13, 1998, "McCain now is cast as St. George doing battle with the cancer-dragon Big Tobacco."

But no one piles it as high as the high-dollar writers who cross the line that separates blowing kisses from kissing butt.

"McCain's ambition is outlandish: not to win a debate (there's no one to debate), or to cut a deal (there's no one to cut it with), but to create a climate of political opinion-a national mood-that will overwhelm the immediate interests of some of the shrewdest characters on the planet," Michael Lewis wrote in a May 1997 New York Times Magazine article. "The goal is not merely to take money out of politics but to change the nature of public life."

McCain may want to change the nature of public life. But Esquire's Charles Pierce wants to change the nature of political profiles, filing this paragraph filled with words as melodic as they are meaningless:

"It's a perilous thing, this act of faith in a faithless time-perilous for McCain, who still has to put it all at risk in the daily business of being a politician, and perilous for the people who have to come to him, who must realize the constant risk that, sometimes, God turns out to be just a thunderstorm, and the gold just stones agleam in the sun."