After the honeymoon
The national media have given John McCain their unconditional love. As he tests
the presidential waters, that's about to change.
Don't Quote Me by Dan Kennedy
In the summer of 1994, Senator John McCain found himself in a familiar place:
deep trouble. The Arizona Republican's wife, Cindy, had been caught
stealing from the international children's relief agency she ran in order to
feed her addiction to painkillers. Already humiliated, she faced prosecution,
maybe even prison. And John McCain -- who had nearly been driven from office
several years earlier over his involvement in the Keating Five savings-and-loan
scandal -- again faced the prospect of his political career's coming to an
What happened next may surprise anyone whose knowledge of McCain is based
solely on his most recent incarnation as the media's favorite
campaign-finance-reformin', tobacco-fightin' war hero.
He stopped talking to the Arizona Republic. And he kept his mouth
shut for many months.
McCain's vow of silence was prompted by an editorial cartoon by the
Republic's newly minted Pulitzer Prize winner, Steve Benson. A
spaced-out Cindy McCain was standing in the midst of a group of what appeared
to be starving African children. Holding one up by the ankle, she was depicted
as saying, "Quit your crying and give me the drugs." In the background was a
van labeled CINDY McCAIN'S VOLUNTARY MEDICAL TEAM.
By any measure, Benson's cartoon was remarkably vicious. But, given the facts
of the case and Cindy McCain's very public role in running the agency, it could
hardly be called unfair. "Cindy McCain had violated her public duty. She did it
knowingly and she did it repeatedly," observes Benson. Yet McCain chose to
respond by cutting off the state's largest media outlet.
In the end, things worked out for both the McCains and the Republic.
Cindy McCain reached an agreement with prosecutors that allowed her to avoid
prison. And by 1996, John McCain was once again talking to his adopted home
state's newspaper of record; the cartoon, he admitted, was "incredibly painful"
But now, with McCain on the verge of launching his first presidential campaign
-- a destiny many have predicted since his celebrated return from a North
Vietnamese POW camp in 1973 -- the incident is emblematic of a side that few
outside of Arizona have seen.
Yes, McCain is courageous, tough, and independent, pathologically
accommodating to the national media (he reportedly once got up at 3 a.m.
to do a TV appearance while he and Cindy were celebrating their wedding
anniversary in Hawaii), and a genuine leader in the battles to clean up our
corrupt campaign-finance system and to keep cigarettes out of kids' hands.
But he can also be petty and vindictive. He has a volcanic temper -- one that
will surely be tested on the presidential campaign trail when reporters badger
him with questions about the Keating Five scandal, his messy divorce from his
first wife, and his current wife's misuse of charitable funds. "He's got a
great media gift, but I think he's also incredibly thin-skinned when he's
challenged," says Slate's David Plotz, who wrote a piece last year
arguing that McCain is better suited to Senate bomb-throwing than he is to
presidential leadership. Adds Harry Jaffe, a national editor for
Washingtonian magazine: "He's a pugnacious guy. He's easily pissed off.
And he doesn't suffer assholes, or reporters who he thinks are assholes."
When it comes to tastelessness, McCain makes Steve Benson look like a deacon.
In his first Senate campaign, he referred to a retirement community called
Leisure World as "Seizure World." Last year he got caught joking (if such a
vile outburst can be categorized as humor), "Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly?
Because Janet Reno is her father and Hillary Clinton is her mother." In both
instances he issued public apologies.
Despite his moderate persona and his progressive stands on campaign-finance
reform and tobacco, McCain is, on many issues, a garden-variety right-winger --
a virulent opponent of abortion rights, an ally of Jesse Helms on gay and
lesbian issues, an anti-environmentalist, and a poster boy for the National
Rifle Association. In 1996, McCain had his choice of Republican candidates to
support for president. He cast his lot not with fellow war hero Bob Dole, but
with the loathsome, ultraconservative Phil Gramm.
Yet the liberal media slobber all over McCain. The notably cynical Michael
Lewis melted in his 1996 presidential-campaign coverage for the New
Republic and in a 1997 profile for the New York Times Magazine. The
Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt has fallen at McCain's feet. CBS legend
Mike Wallace has even said he'd quit 60 Minutes to take a job as
McCain's press secretary.
James Carroll, in a 1996 New Yorker piece on McCain's and Senator
John Kerry's efforts to investigate -- and then debunk -- the myth that
American POWs were still being kept in Vietnam, swooned over being flattered by
McCain (like McCain, Carroll is the son of a prominent military officer), even
as he acknowledged the possibility that such flattery was more calculated than
sincere. ("The bald statement cried out to be taken as a savvy politician's
shameless appeal to a writer's narcissism, but my every instinct told me
Esquire actually titled a 1998 cover piece "John McCain Walks on
Water." (The article, by Phoenix alumnus Charles Pierce, was somewhat
more nuanced than that.)
Locally, Boston Globe editor Matt Storin was expressing his admiration
for McCain as far back as the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego.
Globe political columnist David Nyhan, an inveterate liberal, is smitten
with McCain the way he was with Lamar Alexander four years ago, calling McCain
"the brightest light in the shadowy Senate cave."
McCain's popularity with the media is a function of many things: his
accessibility (most of the time, anyway -- his office politely declined an
interview request for this article, citing his recent bout with the flu and the
ongoing impeachment trial); his maverick stands against the Republican
establishment in standing up to Big Money and Big Tobacco; and his unscripted,
apolitical manner of speaking.
More than anything, though, it is McCain's history as a bona fide war hero
that makes journalists weak in the knees. His is a horrifying, inspirational
story of suffering, courage, and defiance.
The story is told best in Robert Timberg's 1995 book, The Nightingale's
Song, about five Naval Academy classmates: McCain, former Navy secretary
James Webb, and Iran-contra figures John Poindexter, Oliver North, and Robert
McFarlane. McCain -- the son and grandson of high-ranking naval officers -- was
a rather unpromising specimen as a youth: a "mean little fucker," in the words
of a friend, who unenthusiastically enrolled in the academy out of a sense of
family obligation and graduated fifth from the bottom of his class.
In 1967 McCain was nearly killed in a jet-fuel fire aboard the USS
Forrestal, a devastating accident that took 134 lives. Within weeks, he was
back in the air -- and was shot down during a bombing run over Hanoi. Both arms
broken, his knee badly injured, McCain was dragged to the notorious POW camp
known as the Hanoi Hilton, where he was subjected to five and a half years of
unimaginable torture. His "crime": refusing to let the North Vietnamese release
him early. McCain's captors knew they had the scion of a prominent naval family
on their hands, and they wanted to set him free amid pomp and ceremony in order
to undermine the morale of ordinary American soldiers.
Courageous as that act of defiance was, McCain did hand his tormentors a small
victory. Broken after days of intense torture, he agreed to sign a confession
in which he admitted to being a "black criminal" and an "air pirate." So
despondent was he over his failure to hold firm that he tried to hang himself.
To this day, when he's asked about his years in Hanoi, he invariably brings up
the confession as evidence not of his heroism but, rather, of his weakness. "I
still believe that I failed," he told Timberg.
This self-criticism is no doubt sincere, but it also serves two purposes that
are useful in dealing with reporters. First, it establishes him as someone
whose sense of duty is so ingrained that he's unable to acknowledge his larger
heroism. Second, it fills his interlocutors with such bug-eyed admiration --
and guilt -- that they just can't bring themselves to subject him to the normal
degree of journalistic grilling. Both Timberg and Lewis, for example, give
McCain a virtual pass on the Keating Five scandal, arguing that McCain refused
Keating's demand that he intervene with regulators. That may be true. But it's
also true that Keating, whose sleazy operations cost taxpayers some
$2.6 billion, had a hand in $112,000 worth of contributions to McCain's
House and Senate campaigns. And of the five senators Keating corruptly tried to
influence, McCain was the only one who ever went on vacation with him.
Actually, make that three vacations.
Timberg, a Naval Academy graduate and Marine veteran of Vietnam, is presumably
more clear-eyed about McCain's exploits than most journalists. Far more typical
is Lewis. The closest he ever came to the battlefield was Wall Street, the
setting of his 1989 bestseller, Liar's Poker. For most journalists,
McCain's heroism is both incomprehensible and intimidating. And for a
journalist of McCain's generation, who more likely than not avoided military
service while his less-educated, less-privileged peers were sent to Vietnam to
fight and die, McCain stands as a living, breathing reproach. "I think you've
got this whole inchoate guilt among reporters," says Charlie Pierce, who --
like many baby boomers -- was a staunch opponent of the war.
Now the media, having fallen in love with McCain, are pushing him toward a
presidential campaign. "The plain truth is that a growing number of journalists
want John McCain to run for president," wrote Washington Post media
reporter Howard Kurtz last June. But winning over the Republican electorate
won't be nearly as easy as winning over the national media.
For one thing, McCain's breezy, against-the-grain style hasn't been terribly
effective. Campaign-finance reform and anti-tobacco legislation lost, after
all, and a lot of Republicans are less than thrilled with McCain's efforts to
choke off the money spigot on which they depend. For another, early polls give
Texas governor George W. Bush and former cabinet official Elizabeth Dole
the early lead on the Republican side. McCain's numbers are down there with
those of right-wing freak-show specimens such as Steve Forbes, Dan Quayle, and
Weekly Standard senior editor Andrew Ferguson, who last year wrote a
half-admiring, half-snide piece titled "The Media's Favorite Republican,"
thinks McCain would have a real chance if he could mobilize Ross Perot's
followers, who worship military veterans and who share McCain's conservatism
and passion for getting special-interest money out of politics. Perhaps they'll
even forgive him for calling Perot "nutty" -- and for repeating it when Perot
Still, McCain clearly faces an uphill slog, and he'll be dependent on a media
establishment that can't be expected to be as respectful as it's been for the
past few years. "There's an inevitable cycle in which journalists heap praise
upon maverick politicians, and then try to knock them off the pedestals that
the journalists themselves have constructed," says Howard Kurtz. "No one has
benefited from a more sympathetic press than John McCain, and now that he's
edging into the presidential race, he's going to face more than his share of
Boston Globe Washington-bureau chief David Shribman puts it this way:
"McCain has one attribute that reporters not only like but worship: he calls
them back at the speed of sound. That's not necessarily an attribute of
presidential leadership, but it's invaluable to a desperate, ink-stained wretch
on deadline. But I've never known anyone to vote with their Rolodex, so the
value of that may be overestimated."
Amy Silverman is a reporter for the Phoenix New Times -- an alternative
weekly in Arizona that has been unsparing in its criticism of McCain.
(Silverman once wrote that McCain -- who, she says, hasn't returned her calls
for years -- "is a mean-spirited, hot-tempered, opportunistic, philandering,
hypocritical political climber who married a comely beer heiress and used her
daddy's money to get elected to Congress in a state he can hardly call home.")
She wonders whether McCain's 15 minutes in the national media came too early to
do him any good. The puff pieces of 1996, '97, and '98, in other words, are
likely to give way to more-probing pieces in 1999 and 2000.
In fact, there are signs that the media's honeymoon with John McCain is already
coming to its inevitable end. Newsweek's Jonathan Alter and the New
York Times' Maureen Dowd have written about McCain's less-than-exemplary
personal life, not to criticize McCain, but, rather, to point out that McCain
can look forward to the same sort of reportorial proctology as every other
They have been proven right. In a candidates' forum on February 2,
cohosted by CNN and WMUR-TV (Channel 9), of Manchester, New Hampshire,
CNN's Bernard Shaw asked McCain about the breakup of his first marriage -- a
particularly nasty piece of business, given that his wife had been seriously
injured in a car accident while McCain was in Hanoi. "Let me say that I am
responsible for the breakup of my first marriage. If someone wants to criticize
me for that, that's fine," McCain replied. Straightforward and dignified,
certainly when compared to the circumlocutions of the weasel who currently
occupies the White House. But it remains to be seen whether that response will
be sufficient once the campaign really heats up.
And if voters say they want to talk about issues rather than personal conduct,
there's plenty on the McCain record for reporters to ponder. The truth is that
McCain is no moderate; he is a conservative, as far to the right as all but the
most troglodytic members of Congress. He is virulently anti-choice. He would
eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts. He would cut welfare funding and
increase military spending, including missile defense. He supports a
balanced-budget amendment and a flat tax, and would do away with the Internal
Revenue Service. He would expand the federal death penalty and build more
prisons. His record on gay rights stands in stark contrast to his soothingly
noncommittal rhetoric on the subject. He voted for the 1996 Defense of Marriage
Act, of course; even Bill Clinton supported that odious law. But the same year,
McCain also voted against a bill to prohibit job discrimination based on sexual
orientation (it lost, 49-50). In 1992, he even voted for a Jesse
Helms-sponsored measure that would have made it more difficult for federal
employees to donate to charities that had taken a stand against the Boy Scouts
of America's anti-gay, anti-atheist positions (it also lost, on a tie, 49-49).
The Christian Coalition generally gives him a perfect 100 percent; its
lowest rating was 73 percent. He gets 100 percent from the National
Rifle Association; 0 percent from Handgun Control. His ratings from the
League of Conservation Voters have varied between 11 percent and
29 percent. And on and on it goes.
John McCain will quickly learn that winning votes in New Hampshire is a lot
different from winning the accolades of Michael Lewis and company. "It's a
classic Beltway frenzy," sniffs WLVI-TV (Channel 56) political reporter
Jon Keller, a veteran of primaries past. Boston Herald Washington-bureau
chief Andrew Miga, who'll be coming north for the campaign, expects he and his
fellow reporters will be more interested in McCain's relationship with Charles
Keating than in his years in the Hanoi Hilton. Yes, McCain begins the campaign
with significant assets; Boston University communications professor Tobe
Berkovitz, who's worked as a political consultant in New Hampshire, says the
national press and the Globe are the media keys to winning the primary,
and McCain obviously has a head start with each. But ultimately the New
Hampshire primary is, as WMUR news director Karen Brown says, "a place where we
get to know you."
And that, ultimately, will be McCain's biggest challenge. After all, the
Arizona press, which presumably knows McCain best, has been notably unsmitten
by his charms. McCain is regularly depicted as an arrogant bully who's lost
touch with the folks back home. ("All the Arizona press people were really
helpful when I talked to them," quips Slate's David Plotz. "They hate
his guts.") If that side of McCain is on display in New Hampshire, he can
forget about his presidential ambitions.
There's no doubt that McCain has a compelling story to tell. There's also no
doubt that, right-wing tendencies aside, his work on campaign-finance reform
and anti-tobacco legislation shows he has a genuine capacity to learn and grow.
He's had a good relationship with national reporters for one simple reason:
they have given him their complete, unconditional love. That's going to change,
and it will be interesting to see whether he can adjust -- or if instead his
dealings with the press will devolve into the oft-poisonous standoff he has
with Arizona journalists.
"I think he's a very complicated guy," says Jeff Barker, the Arizona
Republic's Washington reporter and a prime victim of McCain's
cartoon-inspired freeze-out. "He's willing to take principled stands that are
above politics, but he's also very political. I'm not sure that either the
Arizona press or the national press really has a handle on him."
Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here