08/05/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sunday Watch: In Which McCain Is Not Greeted as a Liberator

[originally published on, the Web site of the Columbia Journalism Review]

Several of McCain’s utterances in his first interview with George Stephanopoulos since April deserve, as they say, to “make news”—to be emblazoned all week on front pages and reprised in TV clips—though, being substantial utterances, almost surely they will not.

Stephanopoulos led by noting that, on Friday, McCain said that Obama’s sixteen-month timetable for leaving Iraq was “a pretty good timetable.” McCain responded that by “timetable” he didn’t mean “timetable,” but rather something “dictated by conditions on the ground,” whatever exactly that might be. At this point in his campaign, he is trying to smudge differences with Obama on Iraq on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, in order to blur his earlier resemblance to a hundred-year-warmaker. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, he accuses Obama of surrender lust. On Sundays, he plays both sides.

An on-message McCain tried to characterize the surge decision as the decisive question of our time:

Senator Obama…says that the surge has not worked. He said it couldn't work. There's a fundamental difference between myself and Senator Obama….When the decision had to be made whether to adopt the strategy of the surge, he said it wouldn't work, it would increase sectarian violence. He said all those things that made it acceptable to the left of his party.

Three weeks ago in this space, I wondered when interviewers were going to remind the country of McCain’s early statements on the wisdom of the war. This week, it was a delight to see Stephanopoulos nudge McCain over into this subject, getting at what is arguably the most fundamental difference between the two candidates—the grown-up test of judgment, experience, and intellectual readiness, and of independence from the Bush worldview (one of whose architects, Randy Scheunemann, is McCain’s chief foreign policy maven). Stephanopoulos brought up

a fundamental difference about the original decision to go to war. [Obama] said it would inflame the Muslim world, it would become a recruitment tool for Al Qaida. You said, and you wrote, that it would lessen antipathy in the Muslim world and that we'd be greeted as liberators. Wasn't Senator Obama right about that?


I don't believe so. We were greeted as liberators.

Possibly realizing he might be digging himself into a black hole, McCain quickly pivoted to reestablish himself as the far-sighted maverick:

We mishandled the war for nearly four years. We mishandled it in a way that was so harmful that I stood up against it. I said it wouldn't work. I said we had to have a new strategy, and I was criticized for being disloyal, disloyal to Republicans.

Stephanopoulos came back, accurately: “You also said many times that the strategy was the right strategy.”

“Many times” is quite right. Thanks to Greg Sargent, for example, for the following little item from March 18, 2003. Who’ll be the first to quote this on-air?

Bill O'Reilly: "All right, Senator, if you were president, what would you have done differently in the run-up to this war?"

McCain: "Nothing."

O'Reilly: "Nothing?"

McCain: "The president has handled this, in my view, skillfully."

But back to “This Week.” The original question of whether to go to war was, McCain said, “a job for the historians.” The “crucial”—the only “crucial”—question in his eyes was and is the surge. Despite interruptions, Stephanopoulos asked: “And you don't...accept that he was right and you were wrong...on the original decision?

McCain: “Of course not. Of course not. Of course not.” The historians had completed their job in record time.

A bracing precedent here—Stephanopoulous’s refusal to take for granted that, because McCain fancies himself the wise man, the ready man, the man who knows, the man we know, therefore this man who will say anything to be President knows enough about the limits of American power, and rectitude, and in other respects, understands the essentials of how the world works.

“This Week’s” round table was something else again. With the more blinded-than-blinding perception he has put on display for years, Sam Donaldson found the day’s McCain “appealing,” then rehashed some conventionally untrue wisdom about the senator from Arizona and the environment, declaring (as if it was the most obvious thing in the world) that McCain “is an environmentalist. That’s one thing you’ve got to credit John McCain for, if you agree with that, which I do.” Teflon ahoy!

In truth, McCain voted against the toughest CAFE mileage standards in 2002, 2003, and 2005, before he went to Detroit last fall and called for…higher standards (whereupon he could pat himself on the back for bucking the tide). Unnoted by Donaldson (or anyone else): McCain, unique in all the Senate and House, missed all fifteen votes last year that the League of Conservation Voters, no bunch of ravers, thought crucial—including votes where a “yes” vote from him would have passed the bills. His lifetime score, by the League’s criterion, is twenty-four.

George Will, no slouch with metaphorical references, labeled Obama’s Berlin speech “no metaphor left behind.” This was a widespread opinion among pundits last week, who seemed disappointed—some cynically, some not—that Obama had not raised Lazarus from his grave before two hundred thousand German onlookers. Will neglected Obama’s quite nonmetaphorical call for reducing nuclear arsenals and his urging Germany to provide more troops in Afghanistan. But who cares?

Donaldson later tasked Obama with overreaching because Nicolas Sarkozy shared the spotlight with him, a mere senator, in Paris. Imagine! Obama isn’t even president yet! Did anyone raise such a complaint when McCain was zooming through Latin America? Isn’t it plain that the “presumption” trope directed at Obama is perilously close to “uppity”?

The rest of the roundtable scuttlebutt about the reception of Obama’s speech in Europe was a quarter-inch thickness of froth. Can the roundtable do some homework for a change?