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Excerpt from Free Ride: John McCain and the Media

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The following is an excerpt from FREE RIDE: John McCain and the Media. Co-authors David Brock and Paul Waldman document how the media have abandoned their post as honest arbiters in coverage of the presumptive Republican nominee for president. They show how the media aided McCain's rebirth following the Keating Five savings-and-loan scandal, casting him as the "maverick," "straight-talking" hero of the 2000 primaries, then boosting his roller-coaster run for the 2008 Republican nomination. FREE RIDE will be required reading for anyone interested in the political process, as well as for those frustrated or fascinated by the role the media play in politics. For more information, visit McCainsFreeRide.com.

Over the course of a career, most nationally prominent politicians, particularly those who choose to seek the White House, can expect ups and downs in their treatment by the press. While some are looked on more favorably than others, most of the key figures in national politics will see times when they are hailed as victors and praised for their strengths, and times when they are derided as losers and pilloried for their weaknesses. But in recent years, there has been one exception to this rule: John McCain. While other politicians are examined with a cynical eye, McCain and his admirers in the media have cooperated to construct a shimmering image of the senator from Arizona, one that has propelled him to the heights of American politics. McCain, as he has been presented to the public, is a straight-talking maverick, a war hero standing astride the parties and untroubled by political calculations.

As our new book, Free Ride: John McCain and the Media shows, no other modern politician has received as much favorable press as John McCain has in the past decade, a period that has seen him go from a relative unknown to the man that The Almanac of American Politics calls "the closest thing our politics has to a national hero." While some politicians might get nearly as much attention, and a few others (such as Chuck Hagel or Richard Lugar) are privileged with steadily laudatory press, McCain stands alone in the combination of his high profile in the media and the overwhelmingly positive tone of the coverage that the press gives him.

But calling McCain's coverage positive does not begin to convey the complexity of his singular status in the media. In a hundred ways, the rules are simply different for McCain. Indeed, when writing about McCain, journalists offer a unique brand of praise. Here are a few of the things hard-bitten reporters said about McCain during his 2000 run for the presidency:
  • "A man of unshakable character, willing to stand up for his convictions." (R.W. Apple, New York Times)
  • "An original, imaginative, and at times inspiring candidate." ( Jacob Weisberg, Slate)
  • "Mr. McCain is running as the blunt anti-politician who won't lie, who won't spin." (Alison Mitchell, New York Times)
  • "While most candidates talk up their chances, McCain engages in anti-spin." (Howard Kurtz, Washington Post)
  • "He rises above the pack in admitting it's not all the other party's fault. He's eloquent, as only a prisoner of war can be." (David Nyhan, Boston Globe)
  • "McCain conveys a great sense of vigor, a sense that anything can happen on his campaign." ( Roger Simon, U.S. News & World Report)
  • "There's something authentic about this man." (Mike Wallace, 60 Minutes)
  • "Basically just a cool dude." ( Jake Tapper, Salon)

This sampling -- all from the campaign season, when reporters tend to be more cynical -- only skims the surface. In story after story, the media portrayed -- and continue to portray -- John McCain as a larger-than-life anti-politician, unbeholden to special interests and driven not by ambition but by a sense of duty. Such was the rapport that developed between McCain and the media in 2000 that McCain staffers began to call the media their "base." As Michael Lewis, a frequent magazine contributor and bestselling author, wrote about McCain in 1997, "I became used to opening the morning paper and finding McCain's quotes on the front page and his opinions echoed on the editorial page. It was a testament to the growing distrust between the press and the more ordinary politicians. Here was a Republican Senator -- a red meat, pro-life, strong-army kind of guy -- and yet somehow he had become the preferred source of the putatively liberal media."

Lewis may have been one of the first reporters to turn his wordsmithing talents to the elevation of John McCain the politician (R.W. Apple also wrote some of the first tributes to McCain, in the New York Times), but he was hardly the last. David Broder and David Ignatius of the Washington Post, Howard Fineman of Newsweek, Joe Klein of Time (who described McCain's 2000 campaign as containing "hints of what politics might become . . . if we're lucky"), and Chris Matthews of MSNBC would have to be counted among McCain's most enthusiastic current boosters in the major media. Although these men may be more demonstrative in their admiration for McCain, that admiration is evident in nearly all the coverage McCain has received, particularly since his campaign for the 2000 Republican nomination for president. The result has been a virtually indestructible media creation: the Myth of McCain. We call it a "myth" not to assert that all the themes that run through the coverage of McCain are plainly false. Rather, we use the term according to its dictionary definition, meaning the foundational set of precepts on which a belief system is based. Even as his 2008 campaign experienced some early stumbles and he did things that seemed to call into question the foundations of his image, the Myth of McCain remained intact. The myth consists of the following ideas:
  • John McCain is a maverick.
  • John McCain is a moderate.
  • John McCain is a straight talker.
  • John McCain is a reformer.
  • John McCain doesn't do things just because they're politically expedient.
  • Just about all you need to know about John McCain's character is that he showed courage as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
  • John McCain has too much integrity to use his war record to his political advantage.

Some of these ideas have a basis in reality but have been wildly exaggerated; others are simply false. What is incontrovertible is that the press has continually foregrounded them at the expense of a more rounded and accurate portrait of McCain. Even when early problems on the 2008 campaign trail (such as lackluster fund-raising in the first quarter of 2007) resulted in some uncharacteristically critical coverage for McCain, the elements of the myth remained intact. What that period of more critical press showed was that even McCain's negative coverage is more positive than that which other candidates receive. Unlike other candidates, McCain finds that momentary controversies (as when he responded to a question about Iran by singing "Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran" to the tune of "Barbara Ann") are presented in isolation, unconnected to any alleged character flaws.

The contrast with other candidates is striking. When Mitt Romney makes a seemingly exaggerated claim about his history as a hunter, reporters connect the statement to doubts about whether Romney is genuine and sincere. When John Edwards gets an expensive haircut, reporters question whether he is a true populist and sufficiently substantive. The allegedly revealing incidents are contextualized by other similar incidents from the candidate's past and then brought up again and again in the future. In other words, the negative press of the moment is linked to what we are told are the candidates' significant flaws, the deficiencies in their character that "raise questions" about whether they are fit to be president.

Not so for John McCain. The very idea that McCain might have deficiencies of character that relate to his fitness to be president is never contemplated. The consequence is that a spate of bad coverage, whether over a temporarily struggling campaign or an intemperate remark, does nothing to undermine his prospects for a future comeback. Others find their worst moments replayed over and over, used to indict their character and highlight their flaws. But the John McCain portrayed in the media has no character flaws. He may say something dumb or be down in the polls, but his fundamental virtue is never questioned. If he is down, he is therefore always poised for a revival. If he panders, he will resume his admirable candor any day -- as an April 2007 column by David Broder of the Washington Post was titled, he'll be "Straight Talking Again." In an editorial two days later, Broder's newspaper wrote, "Whatever your position on the war, then or now, Mr. McCain deserves credit for foresight and consistency about how the war should have been waged . . . the 2008 race is better for having Mr. McCain in it." Even a flagging campaign can be presented as evidence of McCain's fundamental goodness; noting that McCain seemed "dispirited" in early 2007, Newsweek offered, "It may be because he is not, at heart, a politician. He is a warrior." When a reporter says someone is "not a politician," it is the highest compliment (and exceedingly odd if the man in question has been a politician for a quarter of a century).

Over his career, McCain has compiled a record that is far more complex than his media image. The fact of the matter is that John McCain is neither a moderate nor a maverick. McCain's voting record, his ideas, his values, and his rhetoric mark him as a stout conservative -- a description that he himself adheres to. And despite occasional acts of seeming apostasy, McCain has actually been a dependably loyal member of the Republican Party. A close examination of the occasions on which he does break with the GOP -- as on campaign finance reform, for instance -- reveals them to be not just carefully calculated, but both less substantively meaningful and less risky than the way they are portrayed in the media.

By reading heroic qualities in every facet of the Arizona senator, the media have failed to give the public an accurate portrait of McCain the politician. For here is a man who, in the end, is not much different from his colleagues in Congress in ambition, calculation, and attraction to power. John McCain has been in politics for twenty-five years now. He is currently in his fourth Senate term. He has been a major contender for the presidency and is one of the most visible legislators in recent history. An antipolitician he is not.

Yet McCain is distinct from his colleagues in some critical ways. More so than any other contemporary political figure, he has cracked the media code. His careful courting of the press has resulted in the very picture of him that most serves his ends, where every statement uttered, every position taken, even every external event seems to be characterized only in the way most complimentary to John McCain. He has obtained what every politician yearns for: a press corps that acts almost as a partner in his political ambitions.

The fawning coverage has barely abated even as McCain has made a very public hard tack to the right in preparing for his second run at the presidency. In an effort to win support among the Republican Party's conservative base, without which it will be nearly impossible for him to win the party's nomination for president, McCain has sought to be more vocal and demonstrative about his genuine conservatism -- a conservatism that, running in 2000 against the establishment candidate, George W. Bush, he was happy to see obscured as he made an effort to attract moderates. Despite such a shift, the media have continued to champion McCain as a moderate among ideologues and the straightest of straight talkers.

And though in late 2006 and early 2007 McCain did receive some unfavorable coverage as his campaign seemed to have trouble getting off the ground, the old affection was evident in a press corps seemingly eager for McCain to reignite the spirit of his 2000 run. "John McCain is back on the bus," proclaimed ABC's Nightline in March 2007. "And everywhere he goes, McCain takes on all comers, all questions. A rolling no-holds-barred political free-for-all, unlike most other American campaigns these days." When McCain said he had no choice but to do what's right, correspondent Terry Moran commented, "No other choice. That's pure John McCain. Blunt, unyielding, deploying his principles... What he does do is what he's always done, play it as straight as possible...The maverick candidate still. John McCain."

If tributes like that one were rarer on the 2008 campaign trail than they had been in the past, their continued presence highlighted the unique relationship between McCain and the media, a phenomenon that simply finds no comparison in modern politics. It is important to understand the phenomenon simply because of who McCain is. As the Republican nominee for president in 2008, John McCain stands as one of the most important figures on the American political landscape. Is the McCain that the media are giving us the McCain we're actually getting? Are the media covering McCain comprehensively, accurately, and thoughtfully -- qualities that we seek in all reportage on our leaders?

But the question of how the media cover McCain has larger implications that go beyond 2008. For the last three or four decades, the media have stood as the single most important institution in American electoral politics. It is the media, more than the parties (or, arguably, even the candidates themselves), that define the pictures that voters carry in their heads as they walk into the voting booth. The media's canonization of John McCain is an object lesson in their failure to serve the American public.