News & Criticism

The McCain Mutiny

Correcting media myths--and erecting new ones

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For those of us who have been writing critically about John McCain over the years, keeping tabs on the 2008 presidential campaign through the media is a bit like getting your war news via Saddam Hussein's old information minister: The street names may be right, but the big picture looks funny.

"No other modern politician has received as much favorable press as John McCain has in the past decade," write (plainly irritated) David Brock and Paul Waldman in "Free Ride: John McCain and the Media." "The rules are simply different for McCain."

Boy, are they. Though he flip-flops and prevaricates like any politician, McCain all but has the phrase "straight talker" tattooed on his skull-plate. A lifetime Beltway insider and third-generation naval officer with an heiress wife and an heiress mother is still referred to, without irony, as a "Man of the People." And though his heavily interventionist governing philosophy, both at home and abroad, is spelled out in his five easy-to-find books, he continues to receive mash notes from newspapers like the Des Moines Register for being a man who, because "he knows war," would be "reluctant to start one."

Such funhouse-mirror distortions are more than just giggle-worthy. Partly because of his reliably sympathetic portrayal in the media, McCain—who was advocating pre-emptive war against "rogue states" four years before it ever occurred to George W. Bush—nonetheless won by ratios of two to one among GOP primary voters who described themselves as "anti-war."

So if nothing else, "Free Ride" comes as a necessary corrective. Lefty partisan co-authors Brock and Waldman work for Media Matters for America, a "progressive" nonprofit "dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media." Therein lies the book's strength and weakness. There's nothing like a bit of the old political bile—especially when it pays!—to focus the mind and support staff on cataloguing the sins of the other team while bashing the media for failing to notice.

Thus the authors upbraid Beltway journalists for failing to recognize that "McCain has an act, and not having an act is his act." When the candidate bashed President Bush's Iraq policy in 2007, ageless Washington Post columnist David Broder pronounced that "candor, even belatedly, becomes him." When his campaign stumbled over immigration that spring, Newsweek was there to solemnly proclaim that "it may be because he is not, at heart, a politician. He is a warrior."

How did a Republican end up charming the liberal press? Brock and Waldman rightly point out three reasons: McCain's heroic war record, his "anti-politician" support for campaign finance reform and the copious amounts of access he has consciously given national reporters for the past two decades. "The McCain-Feingold bill in particular," they write, "became a vessel into which the press could pour all of its disgust with the practice of politics."

But media criticism works best when new interpretive light is shined on the subject being mis-covered. And it's here that the authors' partisan agenda and ideology get the worst of them.

They argue, improbably, that McCain has always been a "staunch" and "reliable conservative," in the tradition of Barry Goldwater. In fact, McCain's famous regulatory zeal on the Senate Commerce Committee—meddling into the affairs of amateur athletes, Hollywood marketers and tobacco companies—has been the opposite of Goldwater's principled libertarianism, and indeed the younger maverick never did understand why the man he replaced in the Senate failed to fully embrace him.

And what about McCain's furious tack to the left from 1999 to 2003, when he opposed Bush tax cuts on class warfare grounds, co-sponsored a patients' bill of rights, and voted to federalize airport security, all while trumpeting the career of trust-buster Teddy Roosevelt and flirting openly with defecting to the Democrats? "A few well-chosen breaks," they claim. Well OK then.

Lacking any ability or willingness to analyze McCain's peculiar strain of National Greatness Conservatism, Brock and Waldman fill the pages by exaggerating the extent to which McCain is handled with kid gloves (The New York Times in particular has been disproving that notion almost every day); complaining about journalists referencing his Vietnam imprisonment, and relying on such crude measuring sticks as the voting scorecards of activist groups.

The results correct some myths, but erect new ones in their place.

Matt Welch, editor-in-chief of reason, is the author of "McCain: The Myth of a Maverick." This story originally appeared in The New York Post.

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  1. Meh. Media love “moderate Republicans” who stick in the craw of conservatives. I’m guessing it doesn’t last much longer, esp. with McCain’s rightward tack of late and Obama as his opponent.

  2. Too many inches of McCain argle-bargle and not eonugh about David Brock and Paul Waldman’s book. About the only critique Matt has of it, is that the authors call McCain a “staunch and reliable” conservative. Matt opens and closes claiming they invented new McCain myths. I seriously doubt (read dead sure) they’re not the first to call McCain a conservative. So what are these new maverickian myths?

  3. I think the media loved McCain because his warrior credentials and proven patriotism gave him great moral authority when he went after conservatives. Now that he is the conservative flag bearer I expect all that to change. The media will suddenly discover he is a duplicitous bastard.

    Personally, I always saw McCain as a military aristocrat in the mold of those who ran the British Empire in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. They viewed the free-market as means to an end to be jetisoned instantly as they saw fit. They considered business people their social inferiors. They thought of themselves as servants to a higher collective good and really had no respect for individualism not directed towards that goal.

    Like McCain, they had that studied arrogance that they new best.

  4. Funny thing was I knew more or less exactly what Brock would say about McCain before reading Welch’s column, let alone Brock’s latest. He has one narrative (The media is bias towards conservatives and makes them out to be more moderate than they are.) and just throws it at whatever comes along. Hence the inexplicable insistance that McCain represents orthodox conservativism.

    The simple explaination is that the media loves anybody who talks crap about their own party, since it generates drama, especially if they do it with a “bipartisan” flavor. McCain does this on a regular basis, hence ensuring his fawning media coverage, although it’s tappering off a bit from its peak since he has to play GOP standard bearer now. Lieberman benefits from the same phenomenon and the two of them have a symbiotic relationship, although he hasn’t mastered it as well as McCain.

  5. three reasons: McCain’s heroic war record, his “anti-politician” support for campaign finance reform and the copious amounts of access he has consciously given national reporters for the past two decades.

    Almost. Four reasons, actually. Reason #4: He annoyed the Republican Party Machine for many years. From the mainstream media’s perspective, any Republican that annoys the party powerful is always seen as an “honest, straight-talker” not afraid to tell the truth.

    See: NPR’s gushing story on soft-spoken, straight-talker Jim Jeffords during his departure from the GOP.

  6. Personally, I always saw McCain as a military aristocrat in the mold of those who ran the British Empire in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

    Interesting, Shannon. I think you’re onto something there.

  7. I realize that I’m betraying my partisanship here, but how can you take seriously any group that exists solely to counter so called “right-wing bias” in the media? Right-wing bias? Maybe if your media universe consists entirely of Pat Buchannan and Rush Limbaugh, but certainly not on this planet.

    Of course ol’ Pat and Rush don’t like McCain as they don’t think he’s a real conservative. The “right-wing” media love McCain, not despite this fact, but because of it. Gee, maybe the right-wing media bias isn’t so right-wing?

  8. I just read Matt’s “John McCain Wants You” in the NY Times (March 26).

    Matt, what you don’t point out either in that article or in this one is that the media’s love affair with McCain is leading us straight back to the “I’d like to have a beer with that guy” theory of picking a president.

    Where has that gotten us recently?

    Don’t get me wrong. I love irony and self-deprecating humor as much as the next guy or gal. But the mastery of such post-modern coolness is not a suitable criterion for picking a president.

    Maybe you think I’m being too stiff-faced and serious. Maybe I am, but consider the families of the more than 1 million dead or wounded on both sides of the Iraq war. They think their adored father/son/wife/child was important in the scheme of things!

    Now that is some potent irony.

  9. What is your view on the role of the federal gov’t, Mr Welch? Apparently Mr McCain’s efforts, eg, at increasing gov’t regulatory power is not a good thing(?) You speak in favor of Mr Bush’s tax breaks. Baffling.

  10. Shouldn’t you tell us more about his solid conservative voting in the Senate on taxes and expenditure ? Did he get a 88% conservative rating (of votes) for nothing ?

  11. Ralph, not that you’re all that wrong… but when was the last time Americans didn’t want to elect an “I’d love to have beer with that guy” or “action star” president? George Washington was an action star way before the Outlaw Josey Wales or The Terminator were conceived. Sure, there’s the John Q Adamses along the way, but scanning the “greats” there’s more of the former than the latter, IMHO.

  12. ……..In 2001, McCain founded the Alexandria, Va.-based Reform Institute as a vehicle to receive funding from George Soros’ Open Society Institute and Teresa Heinz Kerry’s Tides Foundation and several other prominent non-profit organizations.

    Arianna Huffington, syndicated columnist and creator of the HuffingtonPost.com, has served on the Reform Institute’s advisory committee since the group’s inception.

    McCain used the institute to promote his political agenda and provide compensation to key campaign operatives between elections.

    In 2006, the Arizona senator was forced to sever his formal ties with the Reform Institute after a controversial $200,000 contribution from Cablevision came to light.
    McCain solicited the donation for the Reform Institute using his membership on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
    In a letter to the Federal Communications Commission, he supported Cablevision’s push to introduce the more profitable al la carte pricing, rather than packages of TV programming.
    The July 6, 2001, homepage of the Reform Institute archived on the Internet lists founder McCain as chairman of the group’s advisory committee.

    Prominent senior officials on the McCain 2008 presidential campaign staff found generously paid positions at the Reform Institute following the senator’s unsuccessful run for the White House in 2000…………..

    http://www.wnd.com/index.php?fa=PAGE.view&pageId=56177

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