The Boston Phoenix
February 11 - 18, 1999

[Don't Quote Me]

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

John McCain 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 unwanted end.

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" for him.

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 something else.")

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 Gary Bauer.

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 complained.

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 tough questions."

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 presidential candidate.

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."

Dan Kennedy's work can be accessed from his Web site:

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]

Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here

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