Appearances Are Everything

The NYT notes McCain's "aura of commander in chief"

Once the crisis in Georgia broke out late last week, it was inevitable that the campaign press would soon try to assess each candidate’s “handling” of the issue, and which one appeared to profit politically from it. We don’t have a problem with that. The events in the Caucusus could have a real impact on the race, and there’s nothing wrong with the press trying to describe that impact.

Still, we were hoping for something a little less shallow than what The New York Times offers today. In a story headlined “McCain Displays Credentials as Obama Relaxes,” Michael Falcone reports that, in contrast to Senator Obama, who has been on vacation and has publicly addressed the fighting in Georgia only once this week, “Mr. McCain and his surrogates … have discussed the situation nearly every day on the campaign trail.”

Falcone adds: “The fluency with which Mr. McCain, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, discusses Georgia, citing the history of the region and the number of times he has visited, lends an aura of commander in chief.”

Wow, it’s really not hard to impress The New York Times. Sure, some voters, knowing little about the Georgia crisis, might be swayed toward McCain by his aggressive approach to the issue. But it’s the press’s job to go further—to try to assess not just how things might appear to people who might not be paying much attention, but how things actually are.

That would involve raising some, genuine, substantive questions about McCain’s “performance.” For instance: Did encouragement from U.S. hawks—including McCain himself and Randy Scheunemann, his top foreign policy advisor, whose firm lobbies for Georgia—lead Georgia to believe, wrongly, that it could count on American military support if it tried to retake its breakaway provinces? What are the benefits and the risks of McCain’s confrontational tone toward Russia? If Georgia had been a NATO member would that have deterred Russia, as McCain’s camp argues, or would it have committed us to a military intervention that’s not in our national interest?

It’s not that straight news stories have to offer any opinions about who’s right (God forbid!) on these complicated issues. But any assessment of the political impact of the events in Georgia should at least make an attempt to grapple with those questions, rather than settling for a raw count of who’s talked about the crisis more times, and surface observations—“an aura of commander in chief”—that would feel superficial even from a theater critic.

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.