Mac Attack

“And it’s not about John McCain versus Barack Obama anymore,” Bill O’Reilly told viewers of Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor.” “It’s about Barack Obama versus Barack Obama. That’s what this election’s about.”

On a recent segment on Fox News’ The Beltway Boys, host Fred Barnes argued that Mr. McCain was gaining politically despite “the media’s unabashed love affair with Obama,” while his co-host, Morton Kondracke, countered a little later with this:

“McCain did not have a great week. His visual was riding around in a golf cart with old George Bush the First.”

Mr. Kondracke waved his hands in the air, comically mimicking Mr. McCain at the wheel of a golf car. Mr. Barnes crossed his arms and chuckled.

The idea that this sort of mockery could have taken the McCain campaign by surprise is made somewhat incredible by the widely held (if not universal) contention by conservatives that, in fact, his rough treatment is the most normal thing in the world.

“When John McCain was the rebel maverick outsider, he was a flavor that the media loves the most—Republicans who hate Republicans,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican consultant and operative. “They love anyone who’s inside the temple screaming that we’re all hypocrites.

“I think it surprised McCain that once he had the nomination, the relationships didn’t persist in the same degree,” he said.

And here’s Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform and architect of the famous “Wednesday meeting” of conservative activists and opinion makers, on the press: “McCain is now the guy running against the guy they really want. So he’s going to get treated differently. I’ve always known this was going to happen. The question was always, how would McCain respond to the person who used to whisper sweet nothings in his ear after he got slapped upside the head?”

Even putting aside notions of a hopelessly biased liberal media, it was unavoidable that Mr. McCain should find himself unable to reprise the otherworldly run of coverage he got during his memorable primary challenge to George W. Bush in 2000, or even the praise he came in for, eventually, as he outlasted this year’s primary field.

Obvious, but worth restating: He is running against the first black major-party candidate for president of the United States, a candidate who drew record crowds and helped prompt record turnout in the course of vanquishing Hillary Clinton, and who has become, by simple virtue of who he is, a global cultural phenomenon.

And then there’s the simplest explanation of the very real tendency recently to portray Mr. McCain’s every move as an indication that he is out of touch and directionless, which is that in attempting to explain who’s up and who’s down, facts are harnessed to suit the already arrived-at narrative.

“My view of the press is that it is largely driven by the strategic assumptions it makes,” Ms. Jamieson said. “When it thinks a person is losing, it increases the likelihood that the person will lose, by portraying everything as inept. That accounts for the golf cart in Kennebunkport, and for the cheese aisle, and him in a supermarket aisle having nice conversations with a lady and then someone knocks over the applesauce jars. Because he’s behind in the polls, it translates to symbolic statement.”

In some cases, though, even conservatives who think he has a legitimate gripe about the coverage want him to move on, quickly.

“If I were McCain, I would be not really complaining,” Mr. King said. “I would be fighting back. Some sarcasm, maybe, and just go on. You can’t come across, to quote Phil Gramm, like a whiner. He’s not. He’s kind of a John Wayne character. ‘Screw the media—I don’t need them anyway. I’m talking to the American people.’”

Mr. King added, “If you can’t stand the media, how are you going to stand up against bin Laden or Putin or Chávez or whatever else? McCain’s not a complainer. That’s ’60s generation stuff. It’s narcissism.”

“It’s not fatal to a Republican running,” Mr. Norquist said. “It’s not pleasant, and not what he’s used to. But I don’t know, other than to say this is ridiculous.”

“Its like a girl doesn’t like you anymore,” he added. “What do you do about it?”

A McCain campaign spokesman declined to comment for this article, referring instead to a July 25 for-public-consumption memo written by the campaign’s director of regional media documenting a “coverage gap” between negative national media attention and positive, more straightforward local media coverage.

“While it may not be portrayed nationally,” the memo says, “John McCain’s message continues to resonate with voters in the states.”

Mr. Scarborough, for his part, is having none of it.

“The last thing you want as a politician is to be pitied by voters or the press,” he said. “It’s unbecoming for John McCain or any politician to be seen whining. Whining has never won votes. Ever.”

“The great irony of it coming from the McCain camp is that no
candidate in modern American politics got more favorable treatment from the press than John McCain in 2000,” he continued. “I would suggest he received more positive press in 2000 than his nearest competitor, Barack Obama, in 2008. For McCain to now cry foul because the media is intrigued by a new exciting candidate is humorous.

“You make your own breaks in politics. They knew ahead of time that Barack Obama was going to Europe. His staff were the ones who got caught flat-footed despite the fact that they knew this trip was coming, and they get him in Kennebunkport, Maine, with a respected but aging president in a mock turtleneck, tweed jacket and golf cart? Good God. Why don’t we just get Bing Crosby on the 18th hole of Pebble Beach, and smoke a pipe?”