McRubber, McGlue

For McCain, another week of Teflon

Last week—the first following the McCain campaign’s big shakeup—was supposed to have marked a New Beginning for the Arizona senator. It was supposed to have been a week of surging, of streamlining, of charm-offense-ing, a week in which the candidate would reveal himself anew to the American electorate.

But the best laid plans, and all that. The past seven days, instead, have amounted to one of the worst weeks John McCain has faced since he claimed the presumptive GOP top spot—and possibly since, for that matter, those dark days last summer when reporters and pundits alike were playing the McCain campaign death watch game with nearly no sense of irony. It’s been a week filled with a series of unforced errors—a sequence of faults that cannot be dismissed as simple ‘missteps’ or ‘blunders’ or ‘slips’ or ‘gaffes.’ They can fairly be called only lapses—in fact, in judgment, in rhetoric—and they have been, for the most part, committed by the candidate himself:

• On Monday, McCain, asked about social security in a town hall, called the fact “that we are paying present-day retirees with the taxes paid by young workers in America today” a “disgrace.” But as Zachary Roth noted, the very funding mechanism McCain mentioned as disgraceful “constitutes the basic principle of the Social Security program since its inception.”

• On Wednesday, McCain was in Pittsburgh. Asked what he thinks of when he thinks about Pittsburgh, he replied, “When I was first interrogated and really had to give some information because of the pressures, physical pressures on me, I named the starting lineup, defensive line of the Pittsburgh Steelers as my squadron mates.” Except, as Jake Tapper notes, “the Steelers aren’t the team whose defensive line McCain named for his Vietnamese tormentors. The Green Bay Packers are. At least according to every previous time McCain has told this story.” And McCain has mentioned the anecdote several times, not only in his memoir, Faith of My Fathers, but also in publicity slots for the A&E movie based on it.

• Also on Wednesday, The Washington Times published McCain economic adviser Phil Gramm’s comments about the country being in merely a “mental recession” and America being “a nation of whiners.”

• Also on Wednesday, a reporter asked McCain about the comment his surrogate (and potential running mate) Carly Fiorina had made earlier that day: “There are many health insurance plans that will cover Viagra but won’t cover birth-control medication. Those women would like a choice.” Asked to respond to Fiorina’s comment, McCain—who in 2003 voted against a bill that would require health insurance companies to cover prescription birth control—fidgeted, then admitted, “I don’t know what I voted.”

• Also on Wednesday, reacting to Iran’s missile launches and criticizing Obama’s positions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (which claims credit for those launchings), McCain said, “This is the same organization that I voted to condemn as a terrorist organization when an amendment was on the floor of the United States Senate. Senator Obama refused to vote.” Except: McCain also missed that vote (on 2007’s Kyl-Lieberman amendment). And Obama co-sponsored a different bill that designated the group a terrorist organization.

I mention these not by way of calling out the McCain campaign—mistakes happen; that’s part of life on the trail—but, rather, by way of calling out the media that report on it. Where’s the mass coverage of these errors? While we got bits and pieces of reporting on the lapses, especially in the blogosphere, little of that permeated into the overall campaign narrative that most voters rely on for their political news. On yesterday’s Reliable Sources on CNN, Howard Kurtz listed the six topics his week-in-review-like show would cover—including the Obama girls’ Access Hollywood interview and Lara Logan’s juicy tabloid fodder—and mentioned nothing about McCain’s mistakes. Indeed, we heard almost nothing in the mainstream press about McCain’s Steelers/Packers confusion. Same with the voting record flaps.

You have to wonder: would another candidate, even (erstwhile?) media darling Obama, receive such kid-glove treatment?

Indeed, instead of criticism for McCain, there was appreciation. Yesterday’s New York Times fronted a long article headlined, “McCain’s Conservative Model? Roosevelt (Theodore, That Is).” The piece, based on a long interview with the candidate (forty-five Maverick minutes!) was all-McCain, all-the-time; it glossed over his mistakes as “missteps,” without further explanation, moving on to explain how McCain is TR-esque in his conservatism. As the cherry on top of McCain’s Sunday, Mark Halperin, wizard of conventional wisdom, declared yesterday that McCain had “won the week.” (All of the above…and still won the week!)

The exceptions to the McCain free-passery seem to prove the rule. Take Phil Gramm’s “mental recession” comment, the only one of the week’s errors to become, as Zachary Roth pointed out, a dominant media narrative. But much of the coverage the story received, especially at first, framed Gramm’s “whiners” comment as a silly “is the recession in our minds or not” story that suggested, overall, a tacit endorsement of that absurd question itself. (Breaking: Austan Goolsbee says the sky is red, not blue! In our next segment, we’ll discuss: Might the sky, in fact, be red? Stay tuned.) McCain, of course, distanced himself from Gramm’s comments (“Phil Gramm does not speak for me. I speak for me.”)—and the matter, though it will likely live on in the annals of political inanity, is fading. McCain emerged from the storm virtually unscathed.

Compare that to Obama’s Bitter-gate. Or to Wright-gate. And consider that Gramm isn’t a mere McCain supporter, nor a simple surrogate; he is (well, was) McCain’s chief economic adviser. He’s responsible for crafting much of the economic policies McCain is campaigning on, and his let-them-eat-cake-ery could easily work its way into the economic policies of a President McCain.

The other errors McCain made this week, from the distortions (Steelers/Packers, social security) to the faulty memory (Kyl-Lieberman, birth control vote), are similarly fair game for extrapolation: as a reader and a viewer and a voter, I’d like to know what accounts for McCain’s errors, whether they’re revelatory or simply matters of coincidence in concentrate. But while we get a few notes of McCain’s gaffes—most notably, in the LA Times, which referred to the campaign’s “fumbles” and the “dissonance” they created, and the Wall Street Journal, which called them “distractions”—what we don’t get are elaborations on what those “distractions” are.

And, anyway, they’re more than distractions. They’re distortions. Not to be redundant, but compare the glossing-over of McCain’s mistakes to the feeding frenzy that surrounded Obama’s mention that he might “refine” his Iraq position last week. Or to the comments of Jeremiah Wright. Or of Louis Farrakhan. Or of Samantha Power. These aren’t directly analogous situations, of course; but it’s telling that in each instance, though the objectionable comments came from supporters and surrogates, the accountability was largely laid on Obama himself; the damage was done to Obama. Yet in Gramm-gate and this week’s other gaffes, McCain’s Teflon coating remains.

It is perhaps lucky for McCain and the journalists with him on the Straight Talk Express that Saturday Night Live is currently on its summer hiatus. It took sketch-comedy mockery to make the media change their fawning ways when it came to Obama. What’s it going to take for McCain?

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