John McCain: Man of Mystery

Two columnists. One question. Who is John McCain?

One day John McCain is a Maverick. The next day he’s an Enigma. (Day Three: He’s a Shapeshifter). In the last week, the senator from Arizona has thoroughly perplexed two columnists at our nation’s best-known newspapers.

Last Saturday, Frank Rich seemed surprised that Obama wasn’t leading McCain in the polls, and offered a rather odd explanation for their statistical tie.

So why isn’t Obama romping? The obvious answer—and both the excessively genteel Obama campaign and a too-compliant press bear responsibility for it — is that the public doesn’t know who on earth John McCain is.

And, today The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson mused about McCain in this way:

There’s a candidate in this presidential race who remains a mystery—hazy, undefined, so full of contradictions that voters may see electing him as an enormous risk. I’m referring to the cipher known as John McCain.

Psst… the man has been in the media spotlight since he returned from Vietnam in 1973, he’s been a public servant since 1982, and he’s been a presidential candidate twice. And we still don’t know enough about McCain? Seriously?

Rich and Robinson reach for shaky evidence to prove our ignorance. 1. We don’t know the real McCain because he has reversed his positions—therefore we don’t know what he really believes. 2. We don’t know McCain because he confuses Shiites and Sunnis and sometimes seems confused and forgetful. 3. And, we don’t know McCain because the press has promoted McCain’s maverick image.

There’s no point in speculating how both columnists came to the same conclusion about McCain (DNC talking points, perhaps?), but clearly the argument doesn’t hold water. McCain’s reversals and confusions aren’t mysteries; they’re facts of his personality. And as for his maverick image, well, there’s one group that ought to take some responsibility for that—the media.

The current hubbub about McCain’s many houses, which according to the Wall Street Journal can be traced back to Obama strategist David Axelrod, still doesn’t really speak to whether or not McCain would competently handle the economy. (Maybe he didn’t want to answer because there are lots of ways to parse the question: structures or properties, owned or leased?)

Ironically, the charge that the candidate is an unknown was previously leveled at Obama earlier on in the campaign. And last month, WaPo’s Richard Cohen said that Obama is still an unknown, too: “I know that Barack Obama is a near-perfect political package. I’m still not sure, though, what’s in it.”

Alright, if we really accept the assumption that all the candidates are total unknowns, can we… um… find out? Rich and Robinson work at two pretty substantial news organizations. Can they get someone to find out? It seems like pretty lazy journalism to just issue these grave statements—Obama and McCain, who are they?—without acknowledging the amount of information that’s already been amassed about the two candidates.

Or is it possible that, after all these articles, the two senators are, perhaps, unknowable? What is it that the countless profiles and perspectives crave? Journalists are trying to predict what sort of president a candidate might be, but that’s just not an entirely attainable goal. If Rich and Robinson are hoping that more information might help them make a more solid prediction, well, tough. No one gets a real Magic 8 Ball in this life.

And Frank Rich earns an extra raspberry for his description of the public perception of McCain:

What is widely known is the skin-deep, out-of-date McCain image. As this fairy tale has it, the hero who survived the Hanoi Hilton has stood up as rebelliously in Washington as he did to his Vietnamese captors. He strenuously opposed the execution of the Iraq war; he slammed the president’s response to Katrina; he fought the “agents of intolerance” of the religious right; he crusaded against the G.O.P. House leader Tom DeLay, the criminal lobbyist Jack Abramoff and their coterie of influence-peddlers.

Whoa, there…. I think Mr. Rich has mixed up his literary genres. McCain is not Prince Charming; he is a tragic hero undone not only by the forces of evil, but also by his own shortcomings. And his happy-ever-after seems far from certain.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.