THE REAL MCCAIN: WHY CONSERVATIVES DON’T TRUST HIM AND WHY INDEPENDENTS SHOULDN’T
By Cliff Schecter
PoliPoint Press, 187 pages, $14.95
FREE RIDE: JOHN MCCAIN AND THE MEDIA
By David Brock and Paul Waldman
Anchor, 240 pages, $14.95
The photograph on the cover of The Real McCain shows John McCain locked in an awkward embrace with George W. Bush at a campaign rally in 2004. It became, at one point, an icon for left- and very-left-of-center media outlets and blogs, a visual reminder of Mr. McCain’s literal embrace of a more neoconservative stance.
It has become since then a symbol of simplistic criticism leveled against the Republican presidential candidate.
The same kind of criticism—from the same source—can be found in both The Real McCain and Free Ride: John McCain and the Media, two books that offer detailed guidance to the left in the coming general-election battle against Mr. McCain. Both books reprise Mr. McCain’s connection with corrupt figures—primarily his association with the Keating Five scandal —subsequent reformer posture, romance with the media during the 2000 Republican presidential campaign and his pivot to more conservatives positions in the months before the 2008 campaign.
Cliff Schecter’s The Real McCain is structured as a story of betrayal—Mr. McCain’s betrayal of Mr. Schecter and the other journalists who fell in love with him on the 2000 Straight Talk Express. “I bought it once,” Mr. Schecter writes. “I gave the man a campaign contribution of twenty dollars back in 2000, when I thought he held informed, principled positions.” We were duped, Mr. Schecter says. “This book is a cautionary tale,” he writes at the end of the introduction. “It’s enough to make you vote for someone else. I want my twenty dollars back.”
But neither his book nor the eerily similar Free Ride will convert someone who believes in Mr. McCain. These are tools for the already converted.
Mr. Schecter’s book reads like a letter to a jilted lover. It’s full of passion and unconcealed bias. The authors of Free Ride give personal narrative a miss and opt instead for condemnation of “the media” as a whole.
IN MESSRS. BROCK and Waldman’s book, Mr. McCain’s approach to the media is described as a calculated strategy to be open, gain the trust of journalists and earn good press. It’s difficult to prove that the strategy is cynical, so the authors mainly recount stories that illustrate Mr. McCain’s unfavorable disposition and tick off times when he’s changed his position for politically expedient reasons.
Messrs. Brock and Waldman are essentially debunking a caricature. It’s not a terrible story, but neither is it a revelation. Making caricatures of politicians is how journalists, and readers, organize loyalties. George W. Bush is no more stupid, no more a cowboy, than John McCain is a non-politician. Caricatures, unfair or otherwise, are the result of accumulated profiles written on deadline; they’re an inevitable by-product of a career in politics.
At times the authors acknowledge this: “No one would argue that Mr. McCain is nothing more than a lockstep G.O.P. loyalist,” they write, “or that he has never reached across the aisle. He certainly has—but so have innumerable other senators.”
The argument comes up a little thin, then. The profusion of anecdotes about the “real” McCain give the impression of a vendetta, as though the authors harbor the bitter suspicion that Mr. McCain is getting away with something. Like Cliff Schecter, David Brock and Paul Waldman are unreliable narrators.