Huntsman as McCain Redux

And why the similarities create perils for the press

Jon Huntsman may be stuck at the bottom of early polls for the Republican nomination for president, but, as CNN’s Peter Hamby noted on Twitter this morning, Huntsman has already won another category — “the magazine profile primary.”

Hamby’s Tweet was likely prompted by Matt Bai’s 6,000-word New York Times Magazine profile of the Utah governor-turned ambassador to China-turned Republican presidential candidate, which went live online this morning. Bai’s piece follows a lengthy Time profile in May, which in turn followed a widely-read Newsweek story from January that jump-started the buzz about his candidacy. Meanwhile, Esquire has already begun publishing tidbits of what it says will be “a long profile in its August issue.”

What’s prompted all this attention? The Huntsman campaign may appeal to journalists because it comes with an obvious hook: Can this looks-great-on-paper candidate (a handsome, wealthy, successful ex-governor, he shares many of Mitt Romney’s political assets, except people seem to like him), who reportedly so scared the Obama political team that they dispatched him to the Orient, survive the GOP primary? Or will his relative moderation doom him to insignificance in a party that, as a Politico story notes today, is busy disowning George W. Bush as insufficiently conservative?

Bai, in a blog post published in advance of his profile, addressed this question directly and argued that Huntsman is a serious contender for the nomination; I’m more persuaded by Nate Silver, Jonathan Bernstein, and Jonathan Chait that he’s not. (And, as Chait notes, in still another magazine profile — this one from 2009 — Huntsman himself apparently agreed.) Even if he’s destined to lose, though, the Huntsman campaign is a useful vehicle through which to write about the Republican Party, and Bai’s article contains some interesting material about how a faction of anti-Tea Party operatives within the GOP essentially drafted Huntsman into the race.

I want to focus here, though, on another aspect of Huntsman’s political persona that may help account for the media’s interest: his penchant for wry self-reflection and apparent candor about the act of running for president, qualities that helpfully echo journalists’ own preoccupations. Bai’s profile opens with Huntsman reflecting on his debut in New Hampshire:

When he thought back to his experience on that first night, Huntsman, an avid motorcyclist and a lover of perilous sports, compared it to bungee jumping. “You put on the bungee-jumping cord, and you’re standing on the bridge and you leap,” he told me. “Well, that leap moment for me was when I stepped out of the car in front of Jesse’s. And you’re there, figuratively naked, in front of the press gaggle. And you begin to sail. You begin to fall. And whether or not that string is going to catch you before you hit bottom, whether or not you’re going to get through the night or get creamed, is an unknown.”


“You know it’s not about you,” Huntsman told me at one point, referring to all the attention his arrival created. “It’s about the process. It’s about the drama. It’s about the entertainment.”

And, in a passage that produced the online hed for the story:

“Listen, if we got no one answering our phone calls and no doors opened at any of these places among people who are high-profile and respected players, then I think the answer would be far different,” Huntsman told me. “You’ve got to respond to the marketplace. But in this case, nature abhors a vacuum, and there happens to be a vacuum that’s in the process of being filled.

“By whom,” he added, “I don’t know.”

Huntsman’s tone is a bit different, but something about these comments — the ironic detachment from events, the understanding of a reporter’s need to write about the campaign as spectacle, the willingness to join the interviewer in knowing inside-baseball talk — recalls another Republican candidate who seemed sometimes to treat the press as a core constituency. That would be the 2000-vintage John McCain, who also figured out how to command a striking amount of media attention.

And that similarity should be no surprise. As Bai reports, the Huntsman campaign is to a considerable degree the brainchild of John Weaver, the Republican strategist who was a key part of the Straight Talk Express. Comparisons between Huntsman and McCain — or at least, of the McCain who ran for president — tend to focus on their moderate views, their embrace of what Weaver calls a “bigness” agenda, and their strategic focus on New Hampshire. But in a GOP field whose other players are more likely to shun or attack the “lamestream” media, Huntsman’s canny engagement may be the characteristic that is most reminiscent of McCain.

And that engagement carries risks for the press, though the danger is not really that too-kind coverage will give Huntsman an unfair advantage. While he’ll surely look presidential in the photos that accompany that forthcoming Esquire profile, it’s unclear how many primary votes that will win him; McCain, after all, didn’t claim the GOP nomination until he abandoned the approach that endeared him to much of the elite media in the first place.

Rather, the risk is one that confronts a reporter on any beat — that by gravitating to subjects that are accessible and knowing, that mirror back to us the frame with which we first came to a story, we will miss something unexpected and altogether more interesting. So there’s cause, perhaps, for a bit of self-reflection from journalists, who might ask, before the next wave of Huntsman profiles: Are we covering this candidate because something about his campaign is important, illuminating, or otherwise compelling to our readers? Or are we doing it because he speaks our language, and he makes it easier to write the story we wanted to write all along?

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx. Tags: , , , ,