An Open Letter to Editorial Page Editors

Re: Your coming endorsement of John McCain


Dear former colleagues,

Look, I'm not here to talk you out of endorsing John McCain. Partly because I'm not in the habit of inflicting my crazy electoral preferences on other people, but mostly because I know you're going to endorse McCain regardless of what anyone else says. (And not merely "endorse" him, either: You'll compare his "firm principles" to "the gyroscopes that keep ships and planes on course," you'll unleash an additional "anti-endorsement" upon his one-state-over rival, and you'll keep endorsing away all season.)

No, I bring you all here on this Michigan primary day to make one last plea on behalf of the dwindling number of us who read or care about newspaper editorials. Before passing on your McEnthusiasms to the Copy Desk, please remember your canonical journalistic responsibility not to make shit up or pass along easily debunkable falsehoods. Particularly when the subject of your affection has provided copious evidence to the contrary of your claims.

For instance, in the most telegraphed endorsement of the campaign season (and perhaps the most fitting, given the masthead) The State newspaper of Columbia, South Carolina, would have us believe the following:

John McCain has shown more clearly than anyone on the American political scene today that he loves his country, and would never mislead or dishonor it. He is almost unique in his determination to do what is right, whatever the cost. [italics mine]

Never mislead? Does a "lie" count as misleading in South Carolina? Because that's what McCain repeatedly copped to, after flip-flopping in the Palmetto State during the 2000 campaign on the Confederate flag, calling it a "symbol of racism" one day and a "state's rights" issue the next. "The politician who promises to put patriotism before selfishness, who promises not to lie, and then reneges," he reflected in his 2002 political memoir Worth the Fighting For, "does more harm to the public trust than does the politician who makes no issues of his or her virtue."

Considering that McCain in New Hampshire this month railed against "negative ads" while running them, and then bragged in his victory speech that he "always told you the truth," it seems timelier than ever to double-check, rather than rubber-stamp, the new front-runner's honesty. Particularly since his voluminous writings are filled with warnings like: "the worst decisions I have made, not just in politics but over the course of my entire life, have been those I made to seek an advantage primarily or solely for myself."

Perhaps it's asking for too much to expect due diligence out of an editor who says "if John McCain has no chance, America has no chance," but surely they're not drinking the Kool-Aid in Kalamazoo? Think again:

He has made mistakes, for example, getting too close to the "Keating Five" in the savings and loan scandal of the 1990s. But he has been open about his mistakes and appears to have learned from them.

First of all, the contentious closeness in the Keating Five scandal was not McCain's relationship with his fellow four senators, but with the first great benefactor of his political career: the crook Charles Keating, on whose behalf McCain met with regulators to ask that they expedite investigations into Keating's failing savings & loan business.

But the real howler in the Keating Five context is that McCain "has been open about his mistakes." During the scandal, and as recently as Worth the Fighting For, McCain pleaded guilty only to "poor judgment" in attending a measly two meetings on behalf of a major employer in his state, and expressed great bitterness at being target of what he believed to be a partisan witch-hunt. Remarkably, in his book Hard Call, he finally changed his tune about the meetings, 20 years too late:

I did so for no other reason than I valued [Charles Keating's] support….Had I weighed the question of honor it occasioned and the public interest more than my personal interest to render a small service to an important supporter, I would not have attended the meeting….I lacked humility and an inspiration to some purpose higher than self-interest.

OK, so I don't expect you to read all those books. But other things are more easy to discern (and debunk) from the public record. For instance, Port Huron Times-Herald, there is a fatal flaw in this couplet:

For much of his career, McCain has stood by what he believes, no matter how unpopular. He opposed GOP tax cuts in 2001 and 2003.

I'll say this slowly, since it keeps coming up: You cannot credibly cite McCain's record on tax cuts as evidence of his politics-be-damned straight-talkiness. Why? Because he flip-flopped on the issue once he began clearing the decks for the 2008 campaign. A man who "stood by what he believes" would have been either a consistent tax-cutter or a consistent only-when-we-also-cut-government guy, not both.

But the most boggling (and significant) McCain legend being perpetuated by editorial boards is the following:

McCain is strong on national defense but he's no warmonger.

John McCain was the neoconservatives' great hope in 2000, running as an interventionist against George Bush's purported "humble" realism. He is the third generation in a family whose basic bedrock belief is that U.S. military power alone can and must guarantee world safety. He told me personally that America's percentage of global defense spending—currently more than one-half—is too small. When you ask him about the propriety of having U.S. troops in Iraq for 100 years, he doesn't even understand the question. He sees imminent threats from North Korea to China to Iran.

And most importantly, he was for pre-emptive war before it was cool. Before signing off on that endorsement, consider your own often contrary views on Iraq and the overstretched U.S. military, and then read this passage:

[T]he proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is the clearest danger we currently confront. Nowhere is the threat more worrisome than in rogue states such as Iraq, North Korea and others. The United States should formulate a policy, in many ways similar to the Reagan Doctrine, of supporting indigenous and outside forces that desire to overthrow the odious regimes that rule these states. Call it rogue state rollback if you will. Such a policy serves both our security and our ideals because, again, they are inseparable from one another.

I offer one caution, however. If you commit to supporting these forces, accept the seriousness of the obligation. Don't abandon them to the mercies of tyrants whenever they meet with reversals as the administration did in the north of Iraq. Character counts, my friends, at home and abroad. […]

The world's only superpower should never give its word insincerely. We should never make idle threats.

We know you like the guy, already, but please try to tell readers who he actually is, rather than who you'd like him to be.

Yr Pal,

Matt Welch is Editor in Chief of reason, and author of McCain: The Myth of a Maverick.