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March 26, 2008

Just How Did John McCain Obtain What He Has in the Bank with the Press?

"Maybe Iran is training Al Qaeda is McCain's way of signaling that he intends to pick up where Bush and Cheney left off in discarding the whole reality-based approach to policy-making and public communication."

NBC’s political director, Chuck Todd, said it this week: “Even if he gets dinged on the experience stuff, ‘Oh, he says he’s Mr. Experience. Doesn’t he know the difference between this stuff?’ He’s got enough of that in the bank, at least with the media, that he can get away with it.”

He’s got enough of that in the bank. This phrase made people wonder what kind of depositary institution we were talking about. (The immediate occasion was McCain’s strange assertion on March 18 that Al Qaeda in Iraq was being trained by the Iranians.)

To understand Chuck Todd’s strange phrase, “in the bank,” we have to start at the source of McCain’s presumptive credibility with journalists. It’s not in any demonstrated mastery of subject matter—on the Middle East, foreign policy, military doctrine, or terrorism—but rather his ease and sense of command during question time with the press, especially as an underdog candidate aboard his bus, the Straight Talk Express.

It was never that he was such a straight talker, although he was more willing to criticize his own party than other Republicans. Mostly, he was an open talker, unafraid of the risks, permitting reporters hours and hours of on-the-record Q & A, something that just didn’t happen with other candidates and their tightly controlled scripts.

This is similar to what Lieutenant Colonel Bob Bateman and reporter Spencer Ackerman said last week (at TPM Cafe’s book club) about General David Patraeus and his own reputational capital with the press. “So why has most of the media apparently gone head-over-heels for Petraeus?” Bateman asked himself. His answer is simple: “General Petraeus is not afraid of the media.”

Imagine yourself a reporter in Iraq, he said…

The battalion commander is leery of you, the brigade commander is distant and borderline hostile, the division commander might not even deign to talk to you at all, and there is a Public Affairs Officer who you feel is constantly trying to “spin” everything you see. (That would be your perception anyway.) So there you are, lonely and alone. A journalist peer of yours sends you an e-mail saying, “Hey, write to General P, he’ll answer.” You doubt this could be true, but you give it a shot. About 30 minutes later you get an e-mail from Petraeus himself, with his aide on the cc line, setting up an interview. Petraeus, steeped in the counterinsurgency doctrine he helped create, understands that… to communicate with the public one must go through the media, and he is not afraid of the media. In the Army, that is pretty unique.

And it earns you points with reporters. Here’s more testimony from Ackerman, a young journalist now working for the Washington Independent who has been to Iraq twice:

Petraeus relishes the back-and-forth with the press, in my experience. Now, that has strategic value: winning over reporters is not something Petraeus does to be nice. But, unlike many, many generals — mid-career officers aren’t, I find, like this — Petraeus is willing to entertain points of view that don’t correspond to his own, even if it’s to offer pushback. In short, you can talk to Petraeus like a human being. For a lot of reporters used to getting canned answers, evasions or outright silence, that’s irresistible.

Extreme spin and stonewalling are de-humanizing for the journalist on the note-taking end. They say, “I’m not going to recognize you as a thinking person.” Patraeus, with his more confident approach, actually humanizes reporters. Why wouldn’t they reward him with good coverage?

The same pattern has held with John McCain. Because reporters felt they could talk to him like a human being, he humanized them and their work. McCain grasped that gotcha goes away when a reporter has asked everything he can think of asking— and they’re still talking! The harmony between the press corps and the candidate is not ideological. It is existential, involving a special quality of their experience in traveling with McCain. Howard Kurtz reported on this in January:

As the Straight Talk Express rolled from Greenville to Spartanburg, McCain, sipping a Coke, was upbeat with a half-dozen reporters, even though he had lost Michigan the night before. After he fielded questions on strategy, the economy, abortion, Iraq, Romney and Huckabee, the assembled journalists seemed to run out of ammunition and the conversation grew more relaxed.

I’m not saying McCain doesn’t spin, shade, cheat or obfuscate. I’m saying reporters have been in situations with him where they ran out of ammunition and the conversation grew more relaxed. The residue of those experiences is in the bank account Chuck Todd talked about. A good text for this is Michael Scherer’s dispatch for Salon. (March 18, 2007, on the road with McCain in Iowa.)

By all appearances, the national press had somehow become one with the McCain campaign. We had been with him all day, nearly a dozen scribblers from the major papers, news Web sites, networks and wire services. We reclined on the motor coach’s two couches, set our papers on its tables and swiveled in its leather chairs… We all sank into our seats, guests of honor mingling with senior staff, munching potato chips and Butterfingers with the candidate, peppering him with questions, and waiting for him to stumble. It went on for hours, with the subjects breaking in waves: Iraq, his age, military contracting, Jack Abramoff, the Bush administration, immigration, gays in the military. Everything was on the record, and nothing was off limits. It was a reporter’s dream….McCain was playing a game he had mastered once before, with the original Straight Talk Express. Back in 2000 he had stunned the American people, and seduced its political press, by offering endless on-the-record access, as if he had nothing to hide.

When you’re “waiting for him to stumble,” and he doesn’t after hours of questioning, then it’s easier to forgive it when he does. Whereas a gaffe from a candidate who is always on message, and rarely available to reporters, is a chance for the press to pounce. As the Daily Howler noted in a post from 2000: “It’s become a standard part of the tale: reporters get so much access to McCain, they simply run out of questions… Why shouldn’t McCain get good coverage, scribes say, if he’s willing to take all our queries?”

Richard Cohen of the Washington Post explained how McCain’s apparent candor disarms, charms and co-opts reporters at the same time:

Unlike most other candidates, he does not ration his time with the press. Reporters sit with him in the back of his campaign bus and ask him anything they want. We talked about the Vietnam War and Kosovo, Chechnya and gun control, abortion, homosexuality, campaign finance, Marlon Brando movies, great books, flying off a carrier, reciting movie plots to his fellow POWs, going over the wall at the Naval Academy lo those many years ago, and that dish from Rio, the fashion model he had such a crush on. For a while he wanted to find her but then someone told him, no—it’s best to remember her as she was.

What a guy! This is William Greider, writing about McCain and the press for Rolling Stone back in 1999:

Will somebody tell this guy to shut up before he self-destructs? No. “This is his campaign,” an aide mumbles as the candidate disembarks at Plymouth. “It’s not like we sit here and try to control him. Do you think he would listen if we did?”… If you’re a reporter, accustomed to getting manipulated and boxed out by campaign handlers, you’re bound to fall in love — and even feel a little protective toward this decent guy who is so incautious..

“A little protective toward this decent guy who is so incautious.” Every time a reporter feels that way it goes straight into the bank. On the Op-ed page of the New York Times today, the critic Neil Gabler identifies another source of those deposits: a shared sense of winking detachment at the absurdities of control-the-message politics.

Though Mr. McCain can be the most self-deprecating of candidates (yet another reason the news media love him), his vision of the process also betrays an obvious superiority — one the mainstream political news media, a group of liberal cosmologists, have long shared. If in the past he flattered the press by posing as its friend, he is now flattering it by posing as its conspirator, a secret sharer of its cynicism. He is the guy who “gets it.” He sees what the press sees.

Gabler is definitely onto something: McCain love is an aspect of self love.

That Al Qaeda is being trained by the Iranians is not something McCain blurted out just once, either. He’s said it several times. As the Washington Post report noted there was friction here with McCain’s argument “that his decades of foreign policy experience make him the natural choice to lead a country at war with terrorists.” Howard Kurtz buys that experience argument, but was more emphatic, once he learned that McCain had made the “mistake” several times. “That’s serious business. It means either that McCain really believes the link exists and wants to spread it around — until he got called on it — or he is so forgetful that he keeps saying so even though he knows it is untrue.” The Weekly Standard blog had a different take: “McCain was right the first time. He shouldn’t have taken his statement back.”

But there’s another way to look at it, which no one in the press seems to have considered. Maybe Iran is training Al Qaeda is a “last throes”-type statement, McCain’s way of signaling that he intends to pick up where Bush and Cheney left off in discarding the whole reality-based approach to policy-making. You plant dubious associations in the public mind, and then don’t care if you get called out on them because an image is left on the retina, so to speak. By demonstrating to the press that you can say false things, refuse to correct them, and pay no big price for it, you dishearten reporters and make their efforts appear futile to themselves. The press should be on the lookout for this from McCain. (And there’s this incident with Mitt Romney to remind us what “straight talk” sometimes means.)

Finally, a major unanswered question about Barack Obama is whether he will have the confidence to take the Patraeus approach and try to bank the results. He recently did just that with the Chicago Tribune and Tony Rezko. “Obama offered a lengthy and, to us, plausible explanation for the presence of now-indicted businessman Tony Rezko in his personal and political lives,” the Tribune said. “The most remarkable facet of Obama’s 92-minute discussion was that, at the outset, he pledged to answer every question the three dozen Tribune journalists crammed into the room would put to him. And he did.”

Obama ought to consider doing this more often. McCain, I think, is likely to move in the opposite direction.

* * * *

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

This is a slightly revised and updated version from the one published 12:57 am, March 26.

New post, related! The Love Affair Between McCain and the Press Sprains the Brain of the Liberal Blogosphere (March 31).

Matt Bai, who follows political argument at the New York Times blog, The Caucus, asks himself, “Why do some political missteps haunt their candidates forever, while others are easily put to rest?”

Here’s a political postulate for you: whether or not a bad moment sticks to the candidate depends on how closely related it is to the core rationale of that candidate or his opponent. In other words, if your gaffe goes directly to the main argument you are trying to make about yourself with the electorate, or if it substantiates the most relevant thing that your rival would have us believe about you, then it has the potential to become a serious problem.

Therefore McCain’s odd and withdrawn statement on Al Qeada and Iran is a serious problem, right? Right. McCain managed to, as Bai put it, “undermine his own narrative as the one candidate who gets the world.”

But isn’t the question: undermine it with whom and for how long?

Jules Crittenden comments on this post: “He’s unpolished, doesn’t follow a script, and isn’t over-packaged or over-controlled. He takes the time to talk. So when he stumbles, people tend to be more forgiving. It’s not like a wannabe Olivier just flubbed Hamlet. The old guy isn’t acting. He’s not only been around the block, he’s been downtown and up some dark alleys, and it shows. The level of handling will go up in the general, and the level of forgiveness will go way down, but the sense of familiarity will go a long way with press and voters.”

Michael Scherer at Time’s Swampland: “Irony, as used by both McCain and Mike Huckabee, is a powerful force, especially in a country where very few actually believe what any politician (or reporter) is telling them. By being ironic, the candidate says, “Hey, wink wink, I know this is all a hoax, you can trust me.”

Exactly the kind of signal Mitt Romney never managed to send.

Ryan Lizza in a lengthy New Yorker profile (Feb. 25, 2008), titled On The Bus: “It is bracing to drop in on the McCain campaign after covering the overly managed productions of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.”

Right, and something like that goes right into the bank. On March 26, Lizza discussed McCain and the press on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews; they also talked about Neil Gabler’s article on irony and journalists. See the Daily Howler’s review: “It’s always amusing when Big Major Scribes pretend to discuss the press corps’ own conduct.” See also my comment on the Savvy Observer’s Exception.

Hey, if you’re in New York City this Friday evening March 28, be sure to check out a panel I’m on called, “How New Media is Changing American Politics” at NYU. It’s featuring TechPresident’s Micah Sifry, Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post, NewAssignment.Net’s and NYU’s Jay Rosen, and’s Lisa Tozzi, moderated by Jeff Jarvis of Buzzmachine. Details here. The intensely entrepreneurial Rachel Sterne of Ground Report got this event together, and I think it’s going to be good.

From the Huffington Post (improved, syndicated, front-paged) version of this piece

People who read Huff Post are accustomed to complaining about the treatment their candidate gets from the press. (Rather too accustomed, I think.) But each candidate interacts with the press in a different way. Each of these relationships has a bias, if you will. I wouldn’t say “good press” follows from “good treatment.” However, the premises of the coverage are greatly affected by what it’s like to cover a given candidate, and of course to ask questions. The currency in which reporters trade is questions actually answered, QAA. McCain simply realized that the QAA system allowed him to print money, as in: ask all the questions you want!

And where does that currency go? Straight into Chuck Todd’s Presumptive Credibility Bank.

Do we have Matt Welch Links! He’s the recent biographer of McCain, also editor in chief at Reason magazine, also PressThink pal. Wise on this subject.

Matt Welch in a New York Times op ed today: “Mr. McCain’s exaltation of sacrifice over the private pursuit of happiness — ‘I did it out of patriotism, not for profit,’ he snarled to Mitt Romney during the final Republican presidential debate — reflects a worryingly militaristic view of citizenship.” It’s about McCain’s national enterprise psychology.

Matt Welch reviews at Reason a new book about McCain and the press. Love story from a Media Matters point of view.

Matt Welch in the comments:

[McCain] is much more of the culture of Beltway journalists than he is of Arizona conservatives. He was breakfasting with senators and journalists and military officers at his Capitol Hill residence before reaching puberty. He was pals with Johnny Apple before getting shot down over Vietnam. He loves reading history books, jabbering with the smart set, and living in the D.C. area (where he’s spent the vast majority of his life).”

Matt Welch recommends it. From New Times, the alt weekly in Phoenix. The Pampered Politician. (May 15, 1997: “Arizona Senator John McCain is ready for a presidential run—if the national press corps has anything to say about it.”)

In general, you can learn a lot about the national press from the vantage point of the local press when their beats overlap and the locals can observe the big national brands in operation. It can be press think gold!

Posted by Jay Rosen at March 26, 2008 12:57 AM