Sunday Watch 8-17-08

On air kisses and free passes

Once again, ABC This Week’s roundtable tilted off-center, even without semi-regulars Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts to do the honors. (Perhaps Ms. Roberts, having sneered last week that Obama was making a big mistake in taking his vacation in “exotic” Hawaii, was on vacation someplace tidily normal, like Hilton Head, Rehoboth Beach, Kennebunkport, or even that fabulously apple-pie, heartland-homeland-Main Street town of her birth, New Orleans.)

It was left to old reliable George Will and former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson to continue the wearisome work of insulating McCain from close scrutiny. Gerson, a right-wing evangelical whose expertise, I suppose, extends primarily to the question of evil, was presumably there to comment upon the Saddleback Church’s double interview of McCain and Barack Obama Saturday night. Will and Gerson did share one (probably inadvertent) nice moment: While Gerson rattled off an extended nonanswer to a George Stephanopoulos question about Russia, the camera caught Will looking away—unimpressed, I’d like to think, with all the smoke being blown by the man who wrapped George Bush’s lips around some of the emptiest phrases in human history.

What predominated were unanswerable questions about the effects of the Rev. Rick Warren’s interlocutorial exercise. E. J. Dionne of Brookings noted that, to prevail, Obama needed only to peel off a small percentage of the fundamentalist audience—a valid tactical point, but Dionne lacked the opportunity to make any argument against McCain as such. The fourth, ostensibly uncommitted seat was taken by network reporter Jan Crawford Greenburg, who proceeded to repeat the conventional blather about McCain the rodeo-riding, tall-in-the-saddle, staunchly stand-up independent maverick: “McCain again and again reaches across party lines.” No one intruded to disabuse her with the inconvenient facts.

If pundits want to note McCain’s maverick moments, fine. He’s had some. But it never ceases to amaze me (call me na├»ve) how this flattering label circulates uncorrected. (This same morning on Meet the Press, David Gregory let motormouth Bobby Jindal designate McCain a—surprise!—maverick and then roar on unimpeded.) Talk about Teflon. If I had a nickel for every time an anchor, moderator, or roundtable chief reminded listeners of the growing percentage of times McCain has voted with George Bush in the Senate—most recently 95 percent of the time in 2007 and 100 percent in 2008—I’d have…a nickel, or maybe a dime.

Speaking of vacant chairs, a visiting Martian on an inspection tour of the news media’s treatment of the world’s most important political event might wonder whether ABC’s round table, or anyone else’s, could find room once in a while for the authors of two recent McCain-deflating books: Matt Welch of McCain: The Myth of a Maverick and Cliff Schecter of The Real McCain. Welch, the editor-in-chief of Reason, is even a libertarian—bonus attraction!

The visiting extraterrestrial might also wonder why we have heard so little from the Arizona reporters who have been covering McCain for years. One of them, Amy Silverman, recently published a not awfully flattering profile in Phoenix’s alt-weekly New Times last week, featuring examples of McCain’s general nastiness and specific misogyny. True, Silverman’s examples are old ones, from the days when McCain was reinventing himself after being tarnished by a close association with the crooked banker Charles Keating. Still, given all McCain’s years in public life, it ought to be possible to bring forth observers of his career who can look beyond his often-noted and not exactly newsworthy years in Hanoi. Anyone interested in his years as a Navy lobbyist? His years of favor-granting for well-connected Arizonans?

To bring this column full circle, the following anecdote from Amy Silverman is apropos:

“I learned the [Washington journalists’] love lesson firsthand during the 2000 election, when — cajoled into doing an interview about McCain for a piece by TV newsmagazine 20/20 — I flew back and forth to Washington in a single day to be interviewed by Sam Donaldson, only to learn later from his producers that, whoops, Donaldson had decided he really liked McCain and didn’t want to include anything negative in his profile.”

Tossing euphemism overboard, Time’s Joe Klein reached the acme of his nonfictional career this week when he wrote that “there is no excuse for what the McCain campaign is doing on the ‘putting America first’ front. There is no way to balance it, or explain it other than as evidence of a severe character defect on the part of the candidate who allows it to be used….[McCain] has made a fateful decision: he has personally impugned Obama’s patriotism and allows his surrogates to continue to do that. By doing so, he has allied himself with those who smeared him, his wife, his daughter Bridget, in 2000.” Who will dare carry such Straight Talk onto the Round Table Express?

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Todd Gitlin , who chairs the interdisciplinary Ph.D program in Communication based at the Columbia Journalism School, is the author of 17 books, of which the next is a novel, The Opposition.