"Sure, reporters have a soft spot for John McCain. But they've been pretty kind to Barack Obama, too. So what's going to happen now that two politicians they like are running against each other?" As I've been out promoting the book I co-wrote about McCain and the media, I've been asked some version of this question dozens of times. The premise is partly true, in that Obama has enjoyed some periods of positive coverage over the course of this campaign, but there was never any comparison between Washington reporters' feelings for the two presidential contenders. What happened last week with Gen. Wesley Clark made that all too clear, as do some emerging narratives that are moving right from the McCain campaign's mouth to reporters' pens.
When Clark made the obvious point last Sunday that the fact that McCain was a prisoner of war in Vietnam does not necessarily qualify him to be president, the reaction of the elite media was swift and sure. Watch this amazing video compilation and see all the shocked shaking of heads and flabbergasted faces, starting with that of CBS' Bob Schieffer, who conducted the original interview with Clark. They simply could not understand how anyone would even suggest that McCain's POW experience is not particularly relevant. After all, for so long they have been saying that what happened in Hanoi 40 years ago makes McCain the moral yardstick against which all politicians must be measured, the walking definition of integrity and character, no matter what he may have done in the decades since.
To justify their outrage, many in the media found it necessary to charge that Clark had actually attacked McCain for what he endured in Vietnam, though he did nothing of the sort. The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz said, "Clark used an appearance on 'Face the Nation' Sunday to strafe John McCain over his Vietnam War record." ABC's David Wright waxed poetic, in a tone with which we've become familiar: "John McCain campaigned in Pipersville, Pennsylvania, where, to this day, he can't raise his arms above his shoulders because of injuries he suffered in Vietnam. Shot down in combat and tortured relentlessly for five and a half years as a POW, the experience shaped the core of his character. And that makes this comment by Obama supporter Wesley Clark especially provocative."
Perhaps we can forgive Wright's strange assertion that McCain can't raise his arms in Pipersville (but presumably can in other places), because two days later, Wright mustered up the courage to ask McCain just how his Vietnam experience prepared him for the presidency. You might think it was a fair query, but McCain, as Wright described it, "recoiled back in his seat at the very question." He never actually gave an answer, and Wright didn't ask again.
But McCain need not answer that question, as far as most of the press is concerned. Like so much when it comes to McCain, it is merely to be accepted, not questioned. McCain's integrity dwarfs that of ordinary mortals, McCain understands foreign policy, McCain is a maverick, McCain is the one politician who never does anything for political reasons. These ideas are simply to be memorized and repeated; the allegedly wise and jaded reporters subject them to about as much scrutiny as the most ardent fundamentalist gives to the Ten Commandments.
Meanwhile, the McCain campaign has been trying out some new lines of attack, which the press has welcomed like a 10-year-old receiving a new Xbox. The first is that the real standard of political virtue is whether you've angered members of your own party. McCain has taken to saying that he has a "long record of putting my country first, of putting my country not only before my party but before myself. Senator Obama does not have that record."
What is this supposed to mean? That when you vote with members of your party you're ignoring the interests of your country, but when you oppose your party then you're putting the interests of your country first? In that case, McCain ignored the interests of his country more than any other member of the Senate last year, because he voted with George W. Bush 95 percent of the time, showing more loyalty to the president than any other senator.
Nonetheless, the media have picked up McCain's line (which he seems to have started using around the last week in June). Consider this fluff job from the Associated Press, in which the news service is plainly convinced that Obama's bipartisanship just isn't the right kind. When asked, Obama's campaign offered a list of times Obama has worked with Republican colleagues. "Even so," said the AP, "none of the examples cited by Obama's aides, beginning with a bill to secure nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union, placed the Illinois lawmaker at odds with the leaders of his own party or gave significant offense to outside interest groups aligned with Democrats."
So bipartisanship is redefined, not as working with members of the opposing party on things on which you both agree, but instead as joining members of the other party to work for their goals, particularly in a way that would make your allies mad. But neither the press nor the McCain campaign has explained why, in the abstract, this is a good thing. It's good if your party is actually wrong on the issue at hand. But bucking your party for no reason other than to show that you're the kind of guy who's willing to buck his party is just pointless self-aggrandizing.
What makes the press' acceptance of this standard all the more absurd is that McCain himself fails the test. While he has angered members of his own party in the past, his current presidential campaign has been one long series of reversals made in order to placate his party's base. They didn't like his position on immigration, so he heaved it aside (he used to advocate comprehensive immigration reform, but now he says it can wait until we achieve an airtight seal on the borders, which means some time between now and never). They didn't like his prior opposition to the Bush tax cuts, particularly his argument that they were too tilted toward the wealthy, so today he not only embraces those cuts but has a plan even more tilted toward the wealthy. They didn't like what he had said about the religious right, so he genuflected before radical clerics like John Hagee and Rod Parsley. (See here for a lengthy list of McCain's flip-flops.)
But all that doesn't seem to register with a press corps that seems unable to see the campaign except through John McCain's eyes. Late last week Obama said exactly the same thing about Iraq that he has been saying for months: that he is committed to ending the war, that he plans to do it within 16 months, and that the manner in which the withdrawal of troops occurs will be guided by the conditions on the ground. It isn't difficult to understand. But all it took was a new set of talking points from the McCain campaign to initiate a wave of stories and pundit discussions on the alleged "change" in Obama's position.
That same Associated Press, thought by many to be America's most objective news organization, delivered this unspeakable insult to the profession of journalism -- an article infused so completely with McCain's disingenuous spin as to make the typical campaign press release seem even-handed by comparison. This is just one example of the media's new narrative, which goes something like this: "Is Barack Obama a flip-flopper? Well, if you look at the facts, not really ...but more importantly, how much will the flip-flopper charge hurt him? The McCain campaign calls him a flip-flopper! This flip-flopping issue could be a real problem for Obama!"
More than a few Democrats probably thought that this election was going to be different. Sure, Al Gore and John Kerry, two honorable men with long records of service to their country, were subjected to an unending stream of lies and slander aided and abetted by a press corps that held them in barely concealed contempt. But those reporters learned something over the last eight years, didn't they? They realized that just because a Republican National Committee press release claimed that Al Gore said he invented the Internet, that didn't make it true, and they shouldn't have repeated it.
They know that the Swift Boat Veterans were a despicable band of con artists -- heck, we all now use "swift boating" to refer to false and malicious campaigns of character assassination. The reporters know how they got used, how they were so easily manipulated -- don't they? They understand now that it was George W. Bush who had a problem with the truth, and Kerry was hardly a flip-flopper, don't they? Surely they realize that if a campaign is being absurdly dishonest, they're under no obligation to take its steaming turd of an argument and toss it directly into the laps of the public. They wouldn't let it all happen again -- would they?
If there were ever any doubt about the answers to these questions, there isn't anymore. It's going to be a long four months until Election Day.