campaign desk

What’s Good for the Goose…

When candidates "misspeak': McCain vs. Clinton
March 25, 2008

When should the campaign press cut a candidate some slack when he or she says something (more than once) that is not true? Never is probably a good rule of thumb.

But when will the campaign press give a candidate said slack?

When the candidate is Sen. John McCain and the “something said” involves foreign policy, as MSNBC’s Chuck Todd explained in this much blogged-about exchange with Tim Russert on Sunday’s Meet the Press (emphasis ours):

Russert: Chuck Todd, John McCain has been traveling in Europe and the Mid-East, had some problems in Jordan. He talked about Al Qaeda being trained by the Iranians. Lindsey Graham who he was with and Joe Lieberman tried to say to him Al Qaeda is Sunni, not trained by the Shiite Iranian government. Any citizen (or soldier) trying to figure out the complexity of Iraq needs to learn the diffference.

Does that kind of stumble hurt a McCain candidacy?

Todd: What’s odd about the stumble, is it a stumble or was it a talking point that he had been using for actually a couple of weeks, over a week, where he was talking about sort of almost blurring [Al Qaeda and Iran]…as one enemy? The question is, he truncated it to the point he ended up misspeaking. The problem, of course, McCain has, he can’t — he doesn’t want to make it so he forgot it for a minute. Because of the age issue, he can’t look like he’s having a senior moment. Instead he’s better off going ahead and saying he misspoke. Even if he’s dinged on the experience stuff– he’s Mr. Experience, doesn’t he know the difference? — he’s got enough of that in the bank at least with the media he can get away with it. The irony, had either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama misspoke like that it would have been on a running loop and it would’ve become a big problem for a couple of days for them.

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A “running loop” like Sen. Clinton’s TuzlaGate is receiving today? Clinton, too, “misspoke” (more than once describing her trip to Tuzla, Bosnia twelve years ago as more dramatic and dangerous–Sniper fire! Corkscrew landing!–than it actually was). There is no escaping the ongoing dissection of TuzlaGate on TV today, complete with footage of Clinton-with-blonde-bob walking smilingly–and, by the looks of it rather safely–down the tarmac in Tuzla.

Let’s take a look at how The New York Times treated the two instances of candidates “misspeaking,” a repeated exaggeration by one and either a repeated serious error or a repeated deceptive elision by the other.

The headline on the McCain story last week, reported by Michael Cooper, set a he-said, she-said tone for the piece–“McCain Missteps on Iraq; Democrats Pounce”–which distinctly signals to the reader that, facts aside, this is mostly a partisan dustup, one side saying one thing, the other side “pouncing,” nothing too serious to see here. Indeed, someone from the Democratic National Committee is quoted in the piece calling McCain “wrong on Iraq once again,” followed by a rebuttal from a McCain campaign spokesperson questioning Democrats’ “readiness on matters of national security.” And that “McCain had made similar comments about Iran training Al Qaeda in an interview with ‘The Hugh Hewitt Show'” is reported as something that “the Democrats noted,” painting a straightforward fact with the patina of partisanship.

In the Timestreatment today of TuzlaGate, there is no “Clinton Missteps on Tuzla; Republicans Pounce.” The “pouncing” here is done not by the “other side” –neither the RNC nor the McCain or Obama camps have voices in the story –but by the Times reporters themselves (four of them who contributed to the article, studying Clinton’s public schedule from March 1996, interviewing other persons present on that Tuzla trip, pressing the campaign for clarifications and triggering “backpedaling.”)

This is as it should be in cases like this. When a candidate says something that is not accurate–particularly something that speaks to his or her main argument for running–the candidate should be called on it and called to account for it. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

McCain is running on his foreign policy credentials. Clinton is running on her readiness on day one/commander-in-chief credentials. McCain’s questionable grasp of the fundamentals in the Middle East (or, if you consider Todd’s even more disturbing “truncated talking point” theory, his effort to purposely blur these fundamentals–Shiite, Sunni, Al Qaeda, Iranians, all the same–in the minds of the American electorate) is at least as urgent or “pounce”-worthy (dare I suggest more so, particularly in light of recent developments?) as Clinton exaggerating an account of a trip she took a dozen years ago. And by the way, which is it? Did McCain have a senior moment(s) or is he deliberately “blurring” two groups? Shouldn’t reporters push for a clarification of that?

Of the reporters who have copped to Todd’s the media will let McCain get away with it mentality, perhaps most disturbing was Susan Page of USA Today who on MSNBC went so far as to offer a (feeble) excuse for McCain: “Most Americans can’t tell you the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, either.”

And it’s definitely going to stay that way –which may be precisely what McCain wants– if the people charged with informing “most Americans” continue to do their job selectively.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.