One thing you would never have called John McCain before this summer, if you’re in the business of commenting on politics, was a weakling.
He’s the war hero who refused to break under enemy torture, an avowed sports fan, a tough truth talker and a political risk taker. In the past decade or so that the Arizona senator has spent as a fixture on the national political scene, he’s come across as exceptionally blunt, and even enjoyed a rather prolonged affair with the press for his fidelity to his own opinion. There have been criticisms, sure. But most could be reinterpreted as compliments: for headstrong, read resilient; for loose cannon, read maverick.
So what to make of the sight, last week, of former Republican Representative Joe Scarborough, now host of Morning Joe on MSNBC, guffawing with his panelists at the sight of the Republican stalwart?
“You know what that looks like?” Mr. Scarborough asked his panel as b-roll took over the screen showing Senator McCain in the dairy aisle of a supermarket in Bethlehem, Pa. “‘No, Granddad—no, no, not down here. Talk to the grandkids. Show ’em the penny trick!’”
“O.K., [liberal MSNBC host Keith] Olbermann, O.K.,” said Republican strategist and McCain 2000 mastermind Mike Murphy, a guest panelist charged with defending the Republican nominee. “Beat up the poor …”
This is not where John McCain, who used to refer jokingly to the media as his “base,” belongs. And it shows.
“I do think McCain is probably surprised by this,” said Representative Peter King, a tough-talking Long Island Republican who was one of the few New York officials to support Mr. McCain against the Bush campaign in 2000. “People say he’s been around, but he’s really only been on the national scene since late ’99, and the whole time he’s been around, the media’s loved him. He’s really got to get it in his head that the media is not always going to love him.”
The McCain campaign’s response to the quantifiable imbalance in volume-of-coverage—a function, depending on whom you ask, of the fact that the press loves the Barack Obama story or that John McCain is the Republican nominee for president—has been a petulant cry of foul for the kind of infraction gentlemen are supposed to ignore.
The campaign released a widely reported-on video attacking the media for Obamaphilia (in which Hardball host Chris Matthews says listening to an Obama speech causes him to feel “a thrill going up my leg”).
And, as Mr. Obama was delivering a speech to 200,000 flag-waving Germans in Berlin, Mr. McCain’s handlers signaled their displeasure by engaging in an aggressively snide feat of scheduling, placing the candidate in Berlin, N.H.; Berlin, Pa.; and Berlin, Wis.
“In a scene that Lance would recognize, a throng of adoring fans awaits Senator Obama in Paris,” Senator McCain said at the Livestrong Summit with Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong held during the European leg of the Obama world tour. “And that’s just the American press.”
McCain: Britney to Obama’s Miley?
A bitter, flat rejoinder like that might seem like bully-bait.
David Gergen, an adviser to Republican and Democratic presidents who is currently an analyst for CNN, pointed to the example of back-to-back interviews on July 22—the day the campaign put out its “Obama Love” video—with the two candidates on the CBS Evening News in which Katie Couric pressed Mr. Obama particularly hard about his apparent inconsistencies regarding the effectiveness of the troop-level surge in Iraq, which Mr. McCain supported.
“There are those in news organizations who are quite sensitive to this issue right now because they realize and are struggling with the fact that the Obama campaign is more exciting to cover,” he said. “They’re trying to figure out how do we make the McCain campaign as interesting. It leaves them vulnerable to the charge of being unfair. I think that’s exactly why Katie Couric did two things: one, interview McCain on the same day. And, two, the questioning of Obama was more aggressive. You could see that. That was a direct response to McCain raising the question.”
Annenberg Public Policy Center director Kathleen Hall Jamieson said she saw some evidence of a “scramble” to pick up McCain-interview footage to counterbalance the wall-to-wall Obama coverage of the previous week.
But the decision to make an issue of the campaign coverage in a press cycle defined by endlessly replayed images of Mr. McCain riding in a golf cart with George H. W. Bush at Kennebunkport and browsing a supermarket aisle as a member of his entourage topples a pyramid of applesauce jars offered too much temptation for some.
“It’s difficult not to see McCain’s point that Obama has generally been getting not only more positive press but quantitatively more press, period,” said Jake Tapper, the senior national correspondent for ABC News who, as a reporter for Salon in 2000, was famously instrumental in cementing the image of Mr. McCain as a straight-talking renegade and an improbable hero of the left. “That just seems empirically true. But it is a bit like Britney Spears complaining that Miley Cyrus gets more publicity than her talent warrants. True, but haven’t you been there yourself?”
On the night of Monday, July 28, former Democratic operative Susan Estrich, sitting in on the liberal chair on Fox News’ Hannity & Colmes, asked former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee what was ailing the McCain campaign.
Mr. McCain should start having more fun with the media circus surrounding Senator Obama, he advised, and responding “with tongue-in-cheek” humor. (Groans from McCain headquarters: now!)
“Frankly, I thought he looked more like Bob Dole in the last days of the ’96 campaign, saying, ‘Look at the record, look at the record,’ and there was some anger and sense of frustration there,” he said. “He shouldn’t show that. He needs to show that nothing is getting to him—it’s rolling off his back.”
Of course he’s right. In a phone interview afterward, Ms. Estrich, who supported Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, said that she saw the McCain campaign’s public grievances as a less believable, less effective version of Mrs. Clinton’s systematic complaints about the locker-room atmosphere of the 24-hour cable news cycle.
“Hillary got some traction because she tied it to a larger claim of sexism, which a lot of women could relate to,” said Ms. Estrich. “It wasn’t simply that the media didn’t like her.”
“There’s only so far that John McCain, who has gone through his own period of being the media darling, can go in claiming that he is a victim,” she said. “Whining doesn’t go with his stoic image. Complaining about the media, particularly when it’s coming from him, when it’s coming from his campaign—it’s not attractive to see a United States senator who has enjoyed a very good run with the press complaining that ‘you guys are being bullies to me.’”
Even more sympathetic voices among the professional pundits—ones, at least, who are in little danger of being swept away by Obamamania—have fed into the McCain-as-marginalized-victim idea.
“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?”