Essay: The Media Finally Get Their Man

On the verge of foisting McCain on the Republican Party -- and then turning viciously upon him

NewsBusters.org - Media Research Center
Straight Talk
The media’s long love affair with the maverick, Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, may be finally about to bear presidential primary fruit.

The Straight Talk Express has taken a circuitous route to the precipice of the Republican nomination and -- throughout the journey -- its co-pilot has been the national media, who rarely have loved a Republican more.

The press’ affinity for McCain might seem strange, if you look only at the numbers. The Senator has an American Conservative Union rating of 82, not uniformly right-wing but certainly a solid figure. On abortion he has been consistently pro-life, perhaps the media’s most egregious political transgression.

For as much as they love McCain, the media most certainly are not IN love with him.

But upon closer inspection, it becomes readily apparent why they love McCain so.

William F. Buckley, the Founding Father of the modern ideology, once said “You are either conservative, or you are A Conservative”. Meaning either you may occasionally take a conservative position, or you are firmly grounded in conservative principles.

McCain, though generally conservative, has made a Congressional career out of mocking the movement. This ongoing shtick has made him the Media Darling of the GOP. When his presidential aspirations went public, the media helped him along, broadcasting his “Straight Talk” claims.

Here was a Republican who “gets it”, who spoke truth to the Cro-Magnon - Neanderthal power of the Party hellions who delivered Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich. McCain was John Rhodes -- former Republican House minority leader, also an Arizonan -- but on steroids and with a sense of humor. And the media ate it up.

ABC political reporter Linda Douglass expressed the thoughts of many in her field in a December 8, 1999, Washington Post piece. Worried about her reaction to Sen. John McCain's frank interview style, she wrote "I have never seen a candidate allow himself to be videotaped at length like that, with no aides watching, listening, taking notes or telling you to cut. He's clearly winning us all over, and we have to be careful about that."

By the time of the 2000 Republican primary, they had all clambered aboard the Straight Talk Express. It often seemed that McCain’s entire constituency was the press corps.

Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, on November 8, 1999, revealed quite a bit about the Senator’s base and their stake in the game:

“For weeks now, we’ve had a projected winner in the press primary. The same profane maverick who drives Republican Party regulars to distraction is beloved by the ever-expanding throng of vaguely liberal, if increasingly unideological, reporters and talking heads. It’s swoon season on John McCain’s bus, the ‘Straight Talk Express.’ One famous network correspondent was heard telling colleagues recently that he might even quit his million-dollar-plus job and volunteer in a McCain White House.”

The un-Republicanness of McCain’s appeal was apparent throughout, and was certainly pushed as a positive by the press. Nearly all the states he won (New Hampshire, Michigan) were those in which you need not be a Republican to vote as a Republican. Crossovers, primary pranksters and undecideds pushed him over the finish line just about everywhere he finished first.

The Washington Post’s Carl Bernstein, appearing on CNBC’s Rivera Live the night of the February 1, 2000, New Hampshire primary, effused:

“Something is going on. I mean I wrote about McCain, as you know, in the December issue of Vanity Fair and he has this remarkable appeal. He’s a down the line conservative. He’s voted for every item in the Contract for America and yet he has this appeal to centrists and even some liberal Democrats despite a rather reactionary record in many ways. He is evolving.”

The media, always looking for ways to help the GOP, cheered each McCain win as an indication that perhaps the Party was finally “growing” away from the Rightist nuttery that was sure to cost them the general election.

You could feel the heaving disappointment of the press as George W. Bush pulled out in front of and away from their man. They scolded, bitterly, the GOP knuckle-draggers for not seeing what they saw in their Maverick.

Since then, it appears that McCain too has affixed the blame for his loss to Conservatives, and has gone out of his way to repeatedly enact his revenge legislatively. And the media has been right there with him throughout, shaking their pom poms as the maverick ensconced his vengeance in Congressional code.

He was one of only two Republican Senators to vote against the 2002 Bush tax cuts. He claims now to have done so because they came unattended by reductions in spending, which is fodder for the Conservatives he now seeks to win over.

But at the time he said he did so because they were “too skewed to the rich”, which is exactly what the media, his natural base, wanted to hear. The press, aiding their Maverick, have failed to report the inconsistency.

Then there were the Big Two -- McCain-Feingold and McCain-Kennedy. The two signature pieces of legislation in the McCain record share billing with Democrats and ideological moorings with the press.

They loved McCain-Feingold -- campaign finance “reform” -- because it restricted the political free speech of everyone but them. And they fretted and fussed over every step in the Congressional process on its way to ultimate passage.

Typical was Lisa Myers, who on March 29, 2001’s NBC Nightly News offered up this bit of relief-filled reporting:

“Tom (Brokaw), this is a very big deal. The Senate is taking a giant step toward cleaning up a campaign money system that many Americans think is corrupt. After clearing a final hurdle this afternoon, reformers, at long last, could claim victory.”

There was also his formation of the Senate Gang of Fourteen, the gaggle of seven Rs and seven Ds that ensured that no true Conservatives could be confirmed as judges. The media could not have been more appreciative.

ABC’s Charles Gibson, introducing an interview with McCain for the May 24, 2005 Good Morning America, described it thusly:

“This morning, the deal gets made. We’ll talk to Senator John McCain, the man that brought the Senate back from the nuclear brink in the showdown over judges....The man of the hour, Senator John McCain.”

The litany of Maverick pokes in Conservative eyes is longer still, but we shall stop there. They all certainly further solidified his media bona fides.

Gearing up for 2008, McCain was left for Presidential dead after his push for McCain-Kennedy -- comprehensive immigration reform -- garnered bi-partisan support on Capitol Hill and nearly universal condemnation everywhere else in the country, most vociferously amongst the Right.

But as Jesse Jackson would say, keep hope alive. The media certainly did, again stridently pushing their “moderates and independents love McCain” line as the primary season began.

With no clear Conservative favorite, they sensed the opportunity to deliver their man was finally at hand. And now, on the eve of Super Tuesday, it appears that the media and McCain have finally succeeded.

Now comes the funny part.

The moment McCain secures the nomination, his affair with the press -- so long and so enthusiastic in the making -- will come to a crashing, collapsing end. For as much as they love McCain, the media most certainly are not IN love with him.

That sort of devotion is reserved solely for true Liberals and Democrats. Does anyone on this planet or any other expect the media to side with McCain over either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama when it comes time for the general election?

The answer is yes -- one person, the soon to be jilted Maverick.

The media’s overlooking his Conservative contraventions will suddenly end. He will become just another anti-choice Republican who wants to cut programs aimed at helping the poor and downtrodden, and who is actually far too old to be President (he will be 72 on Election Day).

This last tack has, in fact, already begun to be taken. In a February 4, 2008, Newsweek article entitled “How Old Is Too Old?” Anna Quindlen writes:

“Which may help explain why 71-year-old John McCain, who actually has been beaten in captivity, may think that the fact that he would be the oldest person ever to enter the job is immaterial. In this, alas, he is mistaken. … He takes stairs slowly and cannot lift his arms to comb his hair.”

Questions from his past, long ignored by the press, will suddenly become front page – top of the hour headlines. He was, remember, the only Republican member of the Keating Five. The media had no problem passing on this story at the time -- assisting one R was a small price to pay to cover for four Ds -- and continuing to do so since the R in question was so entertaining, and accommodating of them.

But the four Democrats involved are all long gone, so no need to keep up press appearances there. And the one lone Republican would be left standing in the way of a Democrat President, indeed the first woman or black President ever. Does McCain really think his snappy patter will be enough to keep the media from doing their best to deliver us THAT story?

It appears he does.