Media to McCain: How Long Has This Been Going On?

The mainstream media appears to be in mourning for John McCain, writes Eric Alterman, but was he ever the politician they all thought they knew and loved?

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John McCain waves to supporters at an election victory party on August 24, 2010. (AP/Ross D. Franklin)
John McCain waves to supporters at an election victory party on August 24, 2010. (AP/Ross D. Franklin)

So Arizona, apparently Sen. John McCain is going to retain his Senate seat in your state after beating ultraconservative primary challenger J.D. Hayworth. True, it cost him over $20 million mostly on negative advertising, and he was running against a nobody with nothing but nutty views about almost everything. Even so, many in the mainstream media appear to be in mourning.

Carol Felsenthal, writing on The Hill’s “Pundit’s Blog,” says, “It seems clear now that no one lost more in the 2008 campaign than John McCain. He lost not only the election; he also lost the distinctive qualities—including his sense of humor—that made him, well, made him John McCain.” And according to “The Onion,” the embrace of Hayworth’s campaign by the likes of Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter were based on, among other reasons, the fact that “McCain is soft on hate,” and “fears McCain will take away America’s God-given right to torture a Muslim.”

Those statements may have appeared on the humor website, "The Onion," but they were still not as funny as some of the things real pundits have written about McCain in the past. I collected some of these during the 2008 election for The Nation. They included pundits calling McCain “a cool dude” (Jake Tapper, Salon); “a man of unshakable character, willing to stand up for his convictions” (the late R.W. Apple Jr., New York Times); “kind of like a Martin Luther” (Chris Matthews, MSNBC’s “Hardball”); “the bravest candidate in the presidential race” (Dana Milbank, Washington Post); “an affable man of zealous, unbending beliefs” and “the hero [who] still does things his own way” (Richard Cohen, Washington Post); and a man who, in “an age of deep cynicism about politicians of both parties…is the rare exception who is not assumed to be willing to sacrifice personal credibility to prevail in any contest” (David Broder, Washington Post).

Tucker Carlson explained the source of all this affection in his book Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites: My Adventures in Cable News. “McCain ran an entire presidential campaign aimed primarily at journalists…. To a greater degree than any candidate in thirty years, McCain offered reporters the three things they want most: total access all the time, an endless stream of amusing quotes, and vast quantities of free booze.”

The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza added that, “McCain not only packs his bus with reporters (whom he often greets with an affectionate ‘Hello, jerks!’), but also talks until the room is filled with the awkward silence of journalists with no more questions.” Lizza also noted that the “chumminess” between the campaign and the reporters has almost no boundaries. Questions of strategy—even media manipulation—are discussed openly with reporters present, and “McCain’s senior advisers dine almost nightly with the people covering the candidate.”

Yet pundit after pundit during the 2008 election went through a process of expressing their disappointment with the route McCain had taken. Steve Benen, writing in The Washington Monthly, collected a few of these from former fans such as Time’s Joe Klein, Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, The New York Times’s Thomas Friedman, and The Washington Post’s Sebastian Mallaby, who complained that the “man of principle has become a panderer.”

Slate’s Jake Weisberg, perhaps the leader of the McCain cheerleading section, went so far as to deny as late as 2006 that McCain could even be considered a “conservative.” And he is again late to the party of reality. Weisberg, upset that McCain has now “flipped his position on dropping the military’s antigay “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, soft-pedaled his support for climate-change legislation, and dropped his support for humane immigration reform… came out against Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court nomination on the lamest of grounds, and defended Arizona’s ugly anti-immigrant law against challenges by the Justice Department,” has admitted, “I’ve stopped reading news about John McCain.”

And yet hope persists among many in the media. The New York Times’s Marc Lacey observes in a recent article that McCain “endorsed Arizona’s immigration crackdown… changed his mind on the necessity of the border fence… [and] also backpedaled fiercely on whether there ought to be a path to citizenship for those who entered the country against the rules, which in the past he has endorsed.” Yet he nevertheless returns to the old formula in that very same article, saying, “the question now is whether Mr. McCain’s sharp shift to the right during the campaign—the onetime maverick declared at one point that he no longer wanted anything to do with that label—will ultimately come back to haunt him and perhaps tarnish his legacy as a pragmatist willing to reach across the aisle.”

I have to admit I am a little tired of this. McCain has voted with conservatives in Congress about three quarters of the time since entering the Senate. He showed he was willing to jettison unpopular positions if he thought it would win him votes even back in 2000 when he was the pundits’ hero. He admitted as much after the election when he said that he did not really believe that the Confederate flag should fly over the South Carolina state capitol, but he lacked the courage to take this position in the primary, admitting, that when “it could come down to lying or losing. I chose lying.”

And yet reporters continued to run interference for McCain until it became almost undeniable in 2008, insisting over and over that he was really a good guy underneath, no matter what he felt he had to say to get elected. Here’s just one example:

McCain falsely insisted during a March 18 press conference with reporters in Amman, Jordan that Iranian operatives were “taking Al Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back.” The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder termed the quote a “momentary confusion.” Jake Tapper postulated “jet lag.” But the folks at Think Progress noted that McCain had made the same misstatement to nationally syndicated radio host Hugh Hewitt in a March 17 interview, saying, “As you know, there are Al Qaeda operatives that are taken back into Iran, given training as leaders, and they’re moving back into Iraq.” Media scholar Jay Rosen points out that McCain made this false claim four times, although Gen. David Petraeus had refuted it. (One Weekly Standard blogger insisted that McCain was correct, apparently overruling Petraeus, along with pretty much the rest of the world.)

My point is not to complain about John McCain. It is rather to point out how easy it is to snow the smart guys who determine the tone and tenor of our national politics. They created the John McCain of their dreams. And when he turned out to be the same expedient conservative politician he had always been, they reacted in horror at what he had become. A better strategy would be to look at themselves in the mirror. On what would be the 10-year anniversary of when they first fell in love, now would be as good a time as any…

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals. His "Altercation" blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

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Eric Alterman

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