“McCain Lies His Ass Off”?

Florida, Simi Valley, and The Real World

This is the true story
of four candidates
picked to stay in the race
and have their lives taped.

Find out what happens
when candidates stop being polite—
and start getting real.


We’ve been finding out, all right. As the five still-standing GOP candidates made their way through the diners, retirement homes, and gas stations of the Sunshine State in the crucial days before Tuesday’s primary vote, the view of the campaign trail that was edited, produced, and packaged for viewers often seemed less “real”… and more “reality.” A marathon showing, in other words, of the docudrama that was The Real World: Florida. (The schticks! The cliques! The slights! The fights!) And MTV’s central casting could hardly have picked a more Drama-Inducing mix. Having voted the Frat Guy (Duncan Hunter), the Slacker (Fred Thompson), and the Activist (Tom Tancredo) out of the house, we were left with the Player (Giuliani), the Joker (Huckabee), the Nerd (sorry, Ron Paul)…and, of course, the made-for-insta-rivalry pairing of the Rebel (McCain) and the Suit (Romney).

The McCain/Romney combat boots-versus-corporate suits enmity has been building for a while, but it reached a new level this week, with the GOP house’s chief rivals taking dig after dig at each other as they traipsed around Florida. And—“to have their lives taped,” and all—the media were there to record it.

But this is Sweeps Week for the news networks; minor insults won’t do. Ratings depend on Drama. And the clash between McMentum and Mittmentum came to a head last night as the intensity—and, yes, reality—of the candidates’ rivalry was put on display during RW:F’s reunion special, The Real World: Simi Valley. In the Air Force One Pavilion of the Reagan Library, against the meant-to-be-inspiring-but-ultimately-cartoonish backdrop of the plane that had lofted Reagan only partially as high as his wannabe-successors did last night, the four still-keeping-it-real candidates met to relive old times, rehash old tensions, and argue about who among them was most ready to become Reagan Redux. The two main rivals from RW:F, in particular, came ready for a fight—Romney, with a head full of facts and figures; McCain, as Anderson Cooper noted, “with a head full of steam.” And Drama, to be sure, ensued.

According to the LA Times,

The tension between McCain and Romney, the two leading Republican candidates, was heightened because the two sat next to each other, uncomfortable and occasionally glaring, as the insults burst forth. Former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the two other participants, were often left out.

Much of today’s Simi Valley coverage has focused either on that “tension” or on McCain’s debate “victory”—a bittersweet one earned, the consensus suggests, mainly by the fact that Romney fell short of trajectory-reversal. (“Boy, was that not the momentum-changer Mitt Romney needed,” wrote The New Republic’s Michael Crowley, expressing the majority opinion.) But the tone of the coverage has been remarkable, given that, as they brushed over the debate’s significance (“I saw a mostly predictable news-free affair,” Crowley wrote), many also acknowledged that the accusations McCain leveled against Romney last night—that the governor was in favor of setting a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq—stretched/distorted/ignored the truth. This from The New York Times:

In a caustic encounter that saw the candidates often talking over each other, Mr. Romney called the accusation “offensive” and “absolutely wrong.” … Mr. McCain stood by his assertion, which has been labeled misleading by many news organizations, and continued to accuse Mr. Romney of wavering in his support of the troop build-up in Iraq. He noted that Mr. Romney had been the first in the campaign to use negative attacks, through millions of dollars of advertisements.

And here’s Andrew Sullivan:

This struck me as McCain’s worst performance of the campaign. He seemed—understandably—exhausted. He kept pushing some untruths about Romney’s position on Iraq. He seemed vague and unfocused on the economy. He was also more aggressive in swiping at Romney who was more civil and more engaging than I have seen so far.

And Huffington Post’s RJ Eskow:

McCain misrepresented Romney’s record, which triggered a “did so! did not!” argument that resulted in both of them becoming visibly smaller as we watched. They were paramecium-sized and still shrinking when it ended. Meanwhile Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee sat at the sidelines like squirrels at a tennis match.

And The Fix’s Chris Cillizza:

The most heated rhetoric of the debate came in a discussion over the correct course of action in Iraq. McCain insisted that Romney had supported a timetable for withdrawal, while Romney bitterly disagreed and accused McCain of “the sort of dirty tricks Ronald Reagan would have found reprehensible.” That was the hottest flash point of the night, but it was far from the only time the two men butted heads.

In other words, the Real World coverage of the show last night seems to have drowned out the real-world coverage: summaries were much more interested in the debate’s “stop being polite” angle than its “start getting real” counterpart. Which amounted, it seems, to a free pass on accountability for the GOP’s current “straight-talking,” “straight-shooting” front-runner. And last night’s debate was an instance in which all that was required of reporters to check McCain’s claims was simple stenography. At the height of the fighting, when McCain and Romney were arguing over each other about what Romney had actually said, Anderson Cooper interrupted with the quote in question, from an interview Romney gave last year to ABC News:

There’s no question that the president and [Iraqi] Prime Minister al-Maliki have to have a series of timetables and milestones that they speak about. But those shouldn’t be for public pronouncement. You don’t want the enemy to understand how long they have to wait in the weeds until you’re going to be gone.

Which is light years away from McCain’s assertion that Romney “suggested secret timetables” and was thus one of the people who “were hedging their bets on Iraq, positioning themselves politically by being deliberately vague on their support for General Petraeus’ new strategy.”

At the very least, McCain was muddling the record. Which has been clear for some time: when the whole Iraq-timetable back-and-forth began last week (on Saturday, as far as I can tell, when the Senator trotted out the accusation against his chief rival at a campaign stop in Orlando), several media organizations went out of their way to clarify the untruth of the claim. “A Misleading Low Blow,” TIME’s Michael Scherer called it. “McCain Stretches Romney’s Words,” The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder wrote. The National Review’s Mark Levin researched Romney’s initial statement and other statements he’d made about timetables, concluding that they “do not support McCain’s accusation.” Even the quotes McCain’s own campaign circulated, the AP noted, “didn’t show Romney making that exact comment—nor did aides back up McCain’s earlier comment that suggested that Romney ‘wanted to set a date for withdrawal.’”

No wonder Romney seemed testy last night. From the looks of things, McCain has been playing him—not to mention much of the political press.

And that latter fact, at least, seems to be a trend. As The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait reported last week, The New York Times let Mac off the hook when it re-printed a prior assertion of his—“Don’t listen to this siren song about cutting taxes. Every time in history we have raised taxes it has cut revenues”—without refuting it. “The amazing thing,” Chait wrote, is that the Times “made no effort whatsoever to ascertain the truth of his point. Just the typical, ‘McCain says earth is flat, and meanwhile in other news…’ stuff.” As Matt Yglesias put it this morning:

Mac was not only Back last night, but appears to have made his patently false accusation that Mitt Romney favored a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq the centerpiece of his argument at last night’s debate. Shocking stuff. McCain’s made this claim before, everyone who’s looked at it concluded that it wasn’t true, and so McCain … just did it again in a higher-profile forum.

Naturally, Jonathan Martin’s Politico article on the subject was given the headline “Romney falls into McCain trap on Iraq” rather than, say, “McCain Lies His Ass Off.”

The line between spinning and lying, it seems, is one that we in the media haven’t marked clearly enough for ourselves; some discussion and clarification may be in order. Because whatever McCain did—whether he spun or he lied—he seems to have been spared from accountability. And he seems to know it. Real World politics strikes again.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.