Charmless Offensive

Fred Barnes, the prominent conservative pundit and executive editor of The Weekly Standard, seems predisposed to support John McCain's presidential campaign, but believes the senator's operation has gone astray. In a recent column, Barnes recommended a series of steps McCain could take to get back on track. At the top of the list: abandon the cozy relationship with the national media.

"In 2000, his aides joked that McCain's base was the media," Barnes wrote. "In truth, it was. And that's why he lost. Press support and the backing of voters are two different things."

The advice seems counterintuitive. Whether they like the national media or not, presidential candidates realize the pitfalls of antagonizing those who buy ink by the barrel (or run programming by the Nielsen-monitored second). One of the biggest hurdles between a candidate and the electorate are the reporters who shape the narrative of the campaign. The goal for most candidates, therefore, is to keep the hostility between themselves and the fourth estate to a minimum.

Indeed, in McCain's case, he already has what most presidential candidates would commit felonies for -- a charmed relationship with the national media. As MSNBC's Chris Matthews recently explained, "The press loves McCain." And Barnes believes McCain would benefit from undercutting his own carefully cultivated relationships with reporters?

Yes, and as it turns out, there's some evidence McCain might agree.

Last week, for example, McCain spoke with CNN's Wolf Blitzer about conditions in Iraq. McCain, a day prior, had told far-right radio host Bill Bennett that Baghdad had areas where Americans could walk about, freely and safely. Blitzer suggested that this assessment contradicts everything Americans know about the violence in Iraq's capital city. McCain practically called Blitzer a moron.

"General Petraeus goes out there almost every day in an unarmed humvee," McCain said with a smug smile. "I think you oughta catch up. You are giving the old line of three months ago. I understand it. We certainly don't get it through the filter of some of the media."

On the substance, McCain's credibility-killing comments were absurd and illusory (as he demonstrated over the weekend with his instantly-infamous "stroll" down a Baghdad street protected by 100 soldiers, three helicopters, and two gunships). CNN's Michael Ware asked U.S. military officials about McCain's assessment and they quite literally laughed at the senator's foolishness.

But more to the point, McCain's belligerent attitude with Blitzer appeared to be out of character. The CNN host was, after all, correct. But that didn't stop McCain from picking a fight, blasting him on the air, and falsely blaming the media for failing to report truths that exist only in the senator's imagination. For a presidential hopeful more accustomed to charming reporters than alienating them, the exchange was jarring.

What's more, it wasn't an isolated incident. Twenty-four hours later, McCain was on Fox News, chatting with morning host Brian Kilmeade about the status of his campaign. The senator expressed optimism, but lamented the fact that he has to let the "jerks from the media" onto his Straight Talk Express bus. (McCain assured Kilmeade, however, "You are welcome on.")

Three days later, McCain was at it again. Appearing at a Baghdad press conference in the heavily-guarded Green Zone following his farcical neighborhood promenade, the senator was combative with reporters once more. He criticized war reporting that highlights the country's bloody civil war, and insisted that Americans are not aware of the "signs of progress" because Western journalists covering the conflict are preoccupied with Iraq's daily violence.

The difference between the provoke-the-media candidate in 2007 and the embrace-the-media candidate in 1999 could not be starker. In his first campaign, McCain was an outsider insurgent candidate taking on a party establishment that had rallied behind George W. Bush. Sensing an opportunity, McCain (who had always been relatively chummy with journalists) decided a charm offensive towards political reporters would be key to competing effectively. It worked; reporters were enthralled with the access, openness, and no-nonsense interviews.

As Jake Tapper, then with Salon.com, wrote in May 1999, "It's difficult to write about McCain without dealing with the gushing from the fourth estate. Media is as important to John McCain as is he to us ... As he explains it to me, his easy access to media will help him make up for the bigger bankroll of [Bush]."

The efficacy of the strategy was startling. Media profiles of McCain quickly became hagiographic. Reporters burbled when the presidential candidate asked their advice, which is usually unheard of in a presidential race. CBS's Mike Wallace not only lobbed softballs at McCain for a "60 Minutes" interview -- the veteran journalist acknowledged at the time that he'd consider quitting his job to work for the senator's campaign. U.S. News's Roger Simon eventually labeled McCain a "folk hero."

The problem, of course, was that even as reporters converted to the Church of the McCain, they couldn't carry their man to victory. Republican primary voters in South Carolina and Michigan weren't nearly as impressed with the candidate as the media's political establishment was.

This brings us to McCain's surprising new willingness to lash out at the institution he used to nurture. Part and parcel of the once-maverick senator's lurch to the right is a newfound affinity for classic right-wing MSM-bashing.

Whether this approach will work remains to be seen, but certainly no Republican candidate has ever lost points with the GOP base for picking fights with the national media. Former Senator Rick Santorum recently complained that McCain "follows The New York Times, not conservatives." If McCain goes out of his way to be confrontational with the political press, it may address the concerns some far-right activists have about the senator being the "media's favorite Republican."

Just as importantly, it bears watching how the media responds to a more quarrelsome McCain campaign. In the first go-around, an enamored press corps was willing to cut their candidate a lot of slack. In October 1999, for example, aboard the campaign bus, McCain referred to the Vietnamese as "gooks." Not only did reporters not call the candidate on the use of the slur, almost none of them reported on McCain's ugly word choice. According to one insider, there was a "gentleman's agreement" in place -- in exchange for access and freewheeling interviews, most campaign correspondents would knowingly look the other way from some of McCain's more "candid" blunders.

Fast forward eight years, and McCain is lambasting Wolf Blitzer for being correct, calling campaign reporters "jerks," and castigating U.S. news outlets for telling Americans about violence in Iraq. It's far less likely that this press corps will be forgiving of McCain's frequent foibles.

Indeed, fissures between the two camps are already starting to appear. A day after McCain's derogatory comments about reporters on Fox News, Chris Matthews, traditionally one of the media's more enthusiastic McCain cheerleaders, started to stray. McCain already "ran once," Matthews said. "How many chances do you get?"

Steve Benen's blog is The Carpetbagger Report.

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