The McCain “Maverick Watch” ‘08

While some reporters cast a wistful eye to yesteryear, when John McCain was a "maverick," others can't seem to let go.

At this point in election cycles past — when the campaign would have barely begun — the American reading public would still be largely shielded from those monotonous “on the trail with the candidate” pieces that reporters bang out while hopped up on stale coffee at a Motel 6, after having watched a politician give the same stump speech at an ice cream social that he gave at a VFW post the day before.

But thanks to the early jump we’ve gotten on the 2008 presidential race, these exercises in stenography and spot-analysis are going to start coming fast and furious. John McCain got an early jump on the early jumpers this week, firing up his “Straight Talk Express” tour bus and hitting the roads of New Hampshire to try to recapture — you guessed it — the “maverick” label he so carefully cultivated during his failed 2000 bid to occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

And while reporters don’t seem to be swallowing his shtick the same way they did seven years ago, they also clearly can’t let go of those halcyon days of so long ago.

Wait, did I say that reporters have finally seen though the “maverick” act? Let’s change that to most reporters. In assessing the front runners on the Republican side, the Black Hills Pioneer wrote on Monday that “McCain is a bad-tempered maverick.” Similarly, Monday’s edition of New Hampshire’s Foster’s Daily Democrat called McCain “a known political maverick.”

On Saturday, the Politico’s Jonathan Martin wrote on his blog that during a campaign stop, “quickly materializing were two of McCain’s staffers with hand-held mics, who tried to hold them for the questioners. That, though, was a bit much for maverick, who implored his aggressive young staffers to ‘let them have it.’”

What a…um, maverick!

Sunday’s Arizona Republic wrote that “some political observers said that McCain’s maverick campaign style of 2000, which failed that year, probably better suits the country’s current mood,” but now that the Senator has pulled his famous bus out of mothballs, “the move prompted scrutiny of whether McCain, now consistently trailing Giuliani in national polls, could rehabilitate his maverick image.”

Arizona’s Daily Star this weekend wrote that in 2000, McCain “was anointed a ‘maverick.’ Asked about the status of his maverick reputation, McCain said, ‘I’m still the same candidate I was.’”

Still a maverick!

In criticizing McCain’s shifting positions on why the Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006, the New York Sun’s Ryan Sager took a more tongue-in-cheek approach to McCain’s moniker, asking, “how exactly does the Maverick senator square his two takes on 2006?”

Even when reporters don’t insist on referring to McCain as a maverick, or are making fun of the construct, they still can’t seem to let go of the word, or cast a wistful glance back.

In describing McCain’s 2000 campaign in Sunday’s Concord Monitor, we’re reminded that “New Hampshire voters embrac[ed] McCain as a maverick and candid critic of Washington.” Sunday’s Washington Post stuck to the script, describing McCain in 2000 as “the maverick Republican taking on the establishment,” the Los Angeles Times wrote about a new Hampshire man who “was one of the thousands of independents who were attracted to the Arizona senator’s maverick presidential campaign in 2000,” and Newsweek writes this week that McCain is trying to “invoke the scrappy maverick magic that fueled his 2000 bid for the White House”

Enough! McCain ran a surprisingly strong campaign (at least at the beginning of the primaries) back in 2000, and his PR flacks did a remarkable job in getting reporters to buy in to the whole “maverick” thing. But that was two presidential elections ago, and whatever rebel cred McCain had back then has long since been destroyed. It’s time for the press corps to move on and find a new story line or — inshallah — a new term, to describe the man.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.