[originally published on CJR.org, the Web site of the Columbia Journalism Review]
Last week, I tasked George Stephanopoulos to ask McCain a serious question about his acumen in the matter of Iraq, and, if I may abuse the privilege of this space (and my readers’ toleration), this week I would like to task Tom Brokaw with the same.
This week, Brokaw welcomed candidate surrogates Carly Fiorina and Claire McCaskill -- and it is worth noting, as Brokaw did, that this is the first time ever that both campaigns sent women to speak on their behalves. Hurray for all.
That said, there remains the question of McCain and surrogates of all sexes getting off EASY on Iraq. Not the economy, this week. McCain took care of that himself, by suggesting that, after Phil Gramm’s memorable outburst at American “whiners,” he might have thought of inflicting Gramm on Belarus as his ambassador were it not for the anticipated resentment of the citizens of Minsk. Nice move by McCain, one that sidestepped the question of why McCain swore by Phil Gramm for years until this week. It’s not as if Jeremiah Wright—you can be sure Fiorina brought him up—was a trusted policy adviser or a prime candidate for Obama’s cabinet.
Brokaw did bring a welcome increment of gravitas to his interrogation of Carly Fiorina, and raised some good points:
"Here's a man who called Phil Gramm a trusted economic adviser, had him on the bus and in pictures with him. Now he disowns him. Here's a man who said he really wasn't up to speed on the issue of whether birth control should be covered by insurance policies; in fact, he voted against it."
Fiorina never got around to the latter issue. On Meet the Press, as elsewhere, the Gramm scandal dwindled into a flip-flop revelation when the real revelation was what McCain’s long-time trusted economic buddy believes.
Brokaw played the higher gotcha with a McCain quote from January, in which the candidate said this to Tim Russert:
"I believe that most Republicans' first priority is the threat of radical Islamic extremism. More than the economy at the end of the day. We'll get through this, the economy. We're going to restore our economy in many of the measures we're taking right now, although it's very difficult now. This transcendent challenge of radical Islamic extremism will be with us for the twenty-first century."
But when it came to Iraq, Brokaw was too quick to let Fiorina off the hook. Fiorina played the maverick card, and Brokaw didn’t trump it, easy as that card is to trump. Fiorina: “John McCain stood up against George Bush and Don Rumsfeld in the prosecution of the Iraq war for many years and took a lot of heat from his own party for it.” Brokaw let that pass. Granted, he asked the necessary but easy follow-up about McCain’s cavalier declaration that a hundred-year stay in Iraq would be fine with him. Fiorina declared: “We've had a military presence in Japan for sixty-plus years. No one objects to it. It is part of our ability to protect our interests and to provide stability.” Brokaw didn’t point out that the U. S. won an unequivocal victory over Japan in 1945. There were no suicide bombers at work in Japan. There was no Shi’a-Sunni civil war in Japan. There were no hostile neighbors.
But McCain’s maverick Teflon remained intact. Who will be the first mainstream journalist to point out his sidestep? I am impelled to repeat a challenge that I brought forward last week vis-à-vis George Stephanopoulos: In a New York Times op-ed just before the start of the war, on March 12, 2003, you wrote:
"[N]o one can plausibly argue that ridding the world of Saddam Hussein will not significantly improve the stability of the region and the security of American interests and values .Isn’t it more likely that antipathy toward the United States in the Islamic world might diminish amid the demonstrations of jubilant Iraqis celebrating the end of a regime that has few equals in its ruthlessness?"
Er, no. Then, an interlocutor might ask: “Didn’t those who argued that the war ‘would not significantly improve the stability of the region and the security of American interests and values,’ and that ‘antipathy toward the U. S. in the Islamic world’ would skyrocket, have a point? Didn’t you underestimate the dangers of what you called ‘rogue-state rollback?’” And why is Randy Scheunemann, who coined that memorable phrase, still one of McCain’s major foreign-policy advisors?
Gentlemen who preside over Sunday morning television, we await your earnest investigation of the analysis, the insight, the understanding that all John McCain’s putatively magisterial foreign-policy experience has brought him.