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Where Did McCain Get What He's Got "in the Bank" with the Press?

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First came John McCain's strange assertion that Al Qaeda in Iraq was being trained and supported by the Iranians.

Next he backed off the claim after Joe Lieberman whispered something in his ear. "I'm sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not Al Qaeda," he said.

Then on Meet the Press, NBC's political director, Chuck Todd, explained why this slip wouldn't hurt him with the press corps : "Even if he gets dinged on the experience stuff, 'Oh, he says he's Mr. Experience. Doesn't he know the difference between this stuff?' He's got enough of that in the bank, at least with the media, that he can get away with it." (Video here.)

Chuck Todd's phrase, he's got enough of that in the bank, got people wondering what kind of depositary institution this was.

* Kevin Drum at Washington Monthly: "Remind me again: where does all this cred come from?"

* Glenn Greenwald at Salon: "Whether McCain's foreign policy views are entitled to respect is something that the voters ought to be deciding in the election."

* Steve Benen's Carpetbagger Report: "Reporters have already made up their minds -- McCain knows his stuff, even when he doesn't, and all reporting on the senator's campaign will be refracted through that agreed upon prism."

* One of Greenwald's readers, ramoncreager: "Really, what kind of bank is Mr. Todd talking about?"

That is what I will explain to you.

To understand Chuck Todd's strange phrase, "in the bank," we have to start at the source of McCain's presumptive credibility with journalists. It's not in any demonstrated mastery of subject matter -- on the Middle East, foreign policy, military doctrine, or terrorism -- but rather his ease and sense of command during question time with the press, especially as an underdog candidate aboard his bus, the Straight Talk Express.

It was never that he was such a straight talker, although he was more willing to criticize his own party than other Republicans. Mostly, he was an open talker, unafraid of the risks, permitting hours and hours of Q & A with reporters, all of it on-the-record, something that just didn't happen with other candidates and their tightly controlled scripts.

It's similar to what Lieutenant Colonel Bob Bateman and reporter Spencer Ackerman said last week about General David Patraeus and his standing with the press. "So why has most of the media apparently gone head-over-heels for Petraeus?" Bateman asked himself. Simple: "General Petraeus is not afraid of the media."

Imagine yourself a reporter in Iraq:

The battalion commander is leery of you, the brigade commander is distant and borderline hostile, the division commander might not even deign to talk to you at all, and there is a Public Affairs Officer who you feel is constantly trying to "spin" everything you see. (That would be your perception anyway.) So there you are, lonely and alone. A journalist peer of yours sends you an e-mail saying, "Hey, write to General P, he'll answer." You doubt this could be true, but you give it a shot. About 30 minutes later you get an e-mail from Petraeus himself, with his aide on the cc line, setting up an interview. Petraeus, steeped in the counterinsurgency doctrine he helped create, understands that... to communicate with the public one must go through the media, and he is not afraid of the media. In the Army, that is pretty unique.

And it earns you points with reporters. More testimony from Ackerman, a young journalist now working for the Washington Independent who has been to Iraq twice:

Petraeus relishes the back-and-forth with the press, in my experience. Now, that has strategic value: winning over reporters is not something Petraeus does to be nice. But, unlike many, many generals -- mid-career officers aren't, I find, like this -- Petraeus is willing to entertain points of view that don't correspond to his own, even if it's to offer pushback. In short, you can talk to Petraeus like a human being. For a lot of reporters used to getting canned answers, evasions or outright silence, that's irresistible.

Extreme spin and stonewalling are de-humanizing for the journalist on the note-taking end. They say, "I'm not going to recognize you as a thinking person." Petraeus, with his more confident approach, actually humanizes reporters. Why wouldn't they reward him with good coverage?

The same pattern has held with John McCain. Because the corps felt they could talk to him like a human being, he humanized them and their work. McCain grasped that gotcha goes away when a reporter has asked everything he can think of asking-- and they're still talking! The harmony between the press and the candidate is not ideological. It is existential, involving a special quality of their experience in traveling with McCain. Howard Kurtz reported on this in January:

As the Straight Talk Express rolled from Greenville to Spartanburg, McCain, sipping a Coke, was upbeat with a half-dozen reporters, even though he had lost Michigan the night before. After he fielded questions on strategy, the economy, abortion, Iraq, Romney and Huckabee, the assembled journalists seemed to run out of ammunition and the conversation grew more relaxed.

I'm not saying McCain doesn't spin, shade, cheat or obfuscate. I'm saying reporters have been in situations with him where they ran out of ammunition and the conversation grew more relaxed. The residue of those experiences is in the bank account Chuck Todd talked about. A good text for this is Michael Scherer's dispatch for Salon. (March 18, 2007, on the road with McCain in Iowa.)

By all appearances, the national press had somehow become one with the McCain campaign. We had been with him all day, nearly a dozen scribblers from the major papers, news Web sites, networks and wire services. We reclined on the motor coach's two couches, set our papers on its tables and swiveled in its leather chairs... We all sank into our seats, guests of honor mingling with senior staff, munching potato chips and Butterfingers with the candidate, peppering him with questions, and waiting for him to stumble. It went on for hours, with the subjects breaking in waves: Iraq, his age, military contracting, Jack Abramoff, the Bush administration, immigration, gays in the military. Everything was on the record, and nothing was off limits. It was a reporter's dream....McCain was playing a game he had mastered once before, with the original Straight Talk Express. Back in 2000 he had stunned the American people, and seduced its political press, by offering endless on-the-record access, as if he had nothing to hide.

When you're "waiting for him to stumble," and he doesn't after hours of questioning, then it's easier to forgive and forget when he does err. Whereas a gaffe from a candidate who is always on message, and rarely available to reporters, is a chance for the press to pounce. As the Daily Howler noted in a post from 2000: "It's become a standard part of the tale: reporters get so much access to McCain, they simply run out of questions... Why shouldn't McCain get good coverage, scribes say, if he's willing to take all our queries?"

Richard Cohen of the Washington Post explained how McCain's apparent candor disarms, charms and co-opts reporters at the same time:

Unlike most other candidates, he does not ration his time with the press. Reporters sit with him in the back of his campaign bus and ask him anything they want. We talked about the Vietnam War and Kosovo, Chechnya and gun control, abortion, homosexuality, campaign finance, Marlon Brando movies, great books, flying off a carrier, reciting movie plots to his fellow POWs, going over the wall at the Naval Academy lo those many years ago, and that dish from Rio, the fashion model he had such a crush on. For a while he wanted to find her but then someone told him, no -- it's best to remember her as she was.

What a guy! William Greider, writing about McCain and the press for Rolling Stone thought so in 1999:

Will somebody tell this guy to shut up before he self-destructs? No. "This is his campaign," an aide mumbles as the candidate disembarks at Plymouth. "It's not like we sit here and try to control him. Do you think he would listen if we did?"... If you're a reporter, accustomed to getting manipulated and boxed out by campaign handlers, you're bound to fall in love -- and even feel a little protective toward this decent guy who is so incautious.

"Protective toward this decent guy who is so incautious." Every time a reporter feels that way it goes into the bank. On the Op-ed page of the New York Times yesterday, the critic Neil Gabler identified another source of those deposits: a shared sense of winking detachment at the absurdities of control-the-image politics.

Though Mr. McCain can be the most self-deprecating of candidates (yet another reason the news media love him), his vision of the process also betrays an obvious superiority -- one the mainstream political news media, a group of liberal cosmologists, have long shared. If in the past he flattered the press by posing as its friend, he is now flattering it by posing as its conspirator, a secret sharer of its cynicism. He is the guy who "gets it." He sees what the press sees.

Gabler is definitely onto something: For the press, McCain love is an aspect of self love.

That Al Qaeda is being trained by the Iranians is not something McCain blurted out once by accident. He's said it several times. And as the Washington Post report noted, it was the sort of mistake that "threatened to undermine McCain's argument that his decades of foreign policy experience make him the natural choice to lead a country at war with terrorists." Howard Kurtz buys that experience argument, but was even more emphatic, once he learned that McCain had made the "mistake" several times. "That's serious business. It means either that McCain really believes the link exists and wants to spread it around -- until he got called on it -- or he is so forgetful that he keeps saying so even though he knows it is untrue." The Weekly Standard blog had a different take: "McCain was right the first time. He shouldn't have taken his statement back."

But there's another way to look at it, which no one in the press seems to have considered. Maybe Iran is training Al Qaeda is more of a "last throes" type statement, McCain's way of signaling that he intends to pick up where Bush and Cheney left off in discarding the whole reality-based approach to policy-making. When you plant dubious associations in the public mind, you don't care if you get called out on them because an image is left on the retina, so to speak. By demonstrating to the press that you can say false things, refuse to correct them, and pay no real price for it, you dishearten reporters and make their efforts appear futile to themselves. Reporters should be on the lookout for this from McCain. (There's an incident with Mitt Romney to remind them what "straight talk" sometimes means.)

One unanswered question about Barack Obama is whether he will have the confidence to take the General Petraeus approach and try to bank the results. He recently did that with the Chicago Tribune and Tony Rezko. "Obama offered a lengthy and, to us, plausible explanation for the presence of now-indicted businessman Tony Rezko in his personal and political lives," the Tribune said. "The most remarkable facet of Obama's 92-minute discussion was that, at the outset, he pledged to answer every question the three dozen Tribune journalists crammed into the room would put to him. And he did."

Obama ought to consider doing this more often. McCain, in my view, is likely to move in an opposite direction.

Final thought: People who read Huff Post are accustomed to complaining about the treatment their candidate gets from the press. (Rather too accustomed, I think.) But each candidate interacts with the press in a different way. Each of these relationships has a bias, if you will. I wouldn't say "good press" follows from "good treatment." However, the premises of the coverage are greatly affected by what it's like to cover a given candidate, and of course to ask questions. The currency in which reporters trade is questions actually answered, QAA. McCain simply realized that the QAA system allowed him to print money, as in: ask all the questions you want!

And where does that currency go? Straight into Chuck Todd's Presumptive Credibility Bank.