McCain, Reconsidered

The press is shifting the way it portrays John McCain. Is it McCain himself who is changing, or just the media's attitude toward him?

In an online Q & A that accompanied her May 2005 New Yorker profile of John McCain, Connie Bruck was asked why the Arizona senator claimed Teddy Roosevelt as his hero and role model. Among other things, Bruck said McCain identified with the way “Roosevelt cultivated the press, and denounced his enemies in such extravagant terms that reporters loved him because he made great copy.”

Love him they do — or, rather, did. Over the last few weeks, we’ve noticed a shift in the way McCain has been portrayed in the media, signaling perhaps that with 2008 on the horizon this love affair may be over. Or, as Jon Stewart, an avowed fan of the senator, so eloquently put it Tuesday night before interviewing him: “Has the Straight Talk Express been rerouted through Bullshit Town?”

McCain’s reputation comes not only from his extravagant denunciations of his enemies, but from a sense that he is different than other politicians, that he acts out of conviction and not political calculation, and that he tells it like it is. Take, for example, what has become one of his most often quoted statements, from 2000: “Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right.”

The press has endowed the former POW with a wonderful glow. But the maintenance of this consistently positive perception rests on a paradox. As Bruck explained in her article, “McCain faces an extraordinarily difficult test. The problem with his public image — as someone who says what he thinks to those in power; who is more at home in the heartland than in Washington, despite his tenure there of more than twenty years; who is essentially an anti-politician — is that he must live up to it. At the most basic level, he can’t appear to be doing the kinds of things that he has attacked others for doing.”

Something has to give. With his recent announcement that he is going to be giving the commencement address at Falwell’s Liberty University (yes, the home of one of those “agents of intolerance”), his decision to support part of Bush’s tax cut (after vigorously opposing them), his endorsement of South Dakota’s stringent new abortion laws, and his vocal support for the president beginning with the 2004 campaign, the maverick is seeming less like the Lone Ranger and more like a hired gun.

There are obvious political reasons for the change. McCain needs to swing right if he hopes to win the Republican nomination for president (which he clearly does), just as other hopefuls from his party are doing.

But because McCain’s popularity stems from avoiding the appearance of cold political maneuvering, those shifts are beginning to change the press’ perception of him. There are many examples from this past week; to take just two, look at Ron Fournier’s Associated Press dispatch, “McCain’s straight-talking image called into question,” or the Christian Science Monitor’s story, “Political risk of John McCain’s rightward pitch.”

McCain also took quite a hit from Tim Russert on Meet the Press last weekend when Russert asked the senator if he was “concerned that people are going to say, ‘I see. John McCain tried ‘Straight Talk Express,’ ‘maverick,’ it didn’t work in 2000, so now in 2008 he’s going to become a conventional, typical politician, reaching out to people that he called agents of intolerance, voting for tax cuts he opposed, to make himself more appealing to the hard-core Republican base.’” McCain’s answers sounded suspiciously like the spin he often decries in other politicians: “I speak at a lot of colleges and universities. I’m pleased to have the opportunity to do so, to talk to young Americans and talk to them about the obligations and the privileges of freedom.”

Lefty pundits aren’t giving him any slack. Paul Krugman, in a March 14 column (behind the paywall) titled “The Right’s Man,” implored people to remove their blinders: “When the cameras are rolling, Mr. McCain can sometimes be seen striking a brave pose of opposition to the White House. But when it matters, when the Bush administration’s ability to do whatever it wants is at stake, Mr. McCain always toes the party line.” And E.J. Dionne, in a column last week, also shook his head, writing, “In light of his current strategy, McCain seems to have decided that our even more quarrelsome and unforgiving political climate requires him to be less interesting and more conventional than he used to be. Call me naive, but I think that’s a shame, too.”

But we wonder what has actually changed: McCain himself, or the press’s attitude toward him? Are members of the media simply girding themselves for a 2008 McCain presidential campaign by establishing their skeptical bona fides? Or do McCain’s recent decisions actually indicate a fundamental (and possibly politically fatal) shift in his positions?

Not to be too much the politician about it, but we have to say that it’s a little bit of both.

McCain has always been a conservative — consistently pro-life, even more hawkish than the administration by some accounts, and, by one reckoning, he has the third most conservative voting record in the Senate. So it’s a little disingenuous to say that McCain has been transformed overnight, the point Dionne seems to be making. Moments like campaign finance reform and McCain’s sponsorship earlier this year of an amendment to the defense appropriations bill banning torture might have elevated him above the partisan tug-of-war, but it’s also true that, when push has come to shove, McCain has always been a member of the Republican Party (and, we might add, in our political system, it would have been impossible for him to survive otherwise).

The senator’s success with the press has been due, on balance, more to form than to substance. His straight-shooting reputation has been built largely on his accessibility, his relatively blunt manner and his obvious personal conviction.

What has changed, however, is that push really is coming to shove if he wants that Republican nomination (and he does seem to). That is almost certainly what is behind his increasing appeals to the dedicated Republicans who tend to vote in their party’s primaries, even to the point of associating himself with kingmakers like Falwell. It is in defense of these moves that we see him twisting and turning himself into a pretzel.

The question of whether McCain will flourish or perish for letting his conservative strain trump the more independent elements of his political makeup is now the most intriguing story in the embryonic stages of the 2008 elections (next to, of course, who might be able to beat Hillary).

McCain’s relationship with the press is changing not only because McCain himself is changing the emphasis of his politics, but because of the necessity of covering it as a story. And this is all for the good. Too often, easy political storylines come to define candidates early on, and shape press coverage of them throughout the campaign season (or, in some cases, throughout their careers).

The sooner the media take a hard look at the storylines they have created around the presidential hopefuls, the better the press coverage is likely to be in 2008.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.