The Maverick and the Media
By NEAL GABLER
IT is certainly no secret that Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, is a darling of the news media. Reporters routinely attach “maverick,” “straight talker” and “patriot” to him like Homeric epithets. Chris Matthews of MSNBC has even called the press “McCain’s base” — a comment that Mr. McCain himself has jokingly reiterated. The mainstream news media by and large don’t cover Mr. McCain; they canonize him. Hence the moniker on liberal blogs: St. McCain.
What is less obvious, however, is exactly why the press swoons for him. The answer, which says a great deal about both the political press and Mr. McCain, may be that he is something political reporters really haven’t seen in quite a while, perhaps since John F. Kennedy.
Seeming to view himself and the whole political process with a mix of amusement and bemusement, Mr. McCain is an ironist wooing a group of individuals who regard ironic detachment more highly than sincerity or seriousness. He may be the first real postmodernist candidate for the presidency — the first to turn his press relations into the basis of his candidacy.
Of course this is not how the press typically talks about Mr. McCain. The conventional analysis of his press popularity begins with his military service. If campaigns are primarily about narratives, he has a good and distinguished one, and it would take a very curmudgeonly press corps to dismiss it, even though that is exactly what a good portion of it did to Senator John Kerry’s service record in 2004. Reporters also often cite Mr. McCain’s bonhomie as the reason for their affection. As Ryan Lizza described it last month in The New Yorker, a typical campaign day has Mr. McCain rumbling from one stop to another on his bus, the Straight Talk Express, sitting in the rear on a horseshoe-shaped leather couch surrounded by reporters and talking “until the room is filled with the awkward silence of journalists with no more questions.”
The Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, citing the conviviality during the 2000 campaign, wrote that “a trip on his bus is, well, a trip.” And as the party master, Mr. McCain is no longer the reporters’ subject. He is their pal.
While other candidates have tried to schmooze reporters this way without success, what has made Mr. McCain’s fraternization so effective is that it comes with candor — or at least the illusion of it. Over the years, reporter after reporter has remarked upon his seemingly unguarded frankness. In 1999, William Greider wrote in Rolling Stone that, “While McCain continues examining his flaws, the reporters on the bus are getting a bit edgy. Will somebody tell this guy to shut up before he self-destructs?”
Imagine, reporters protecting a candidate from himself! But, then again, since the reporters on the bus liked Mr. McCain too much to report on his gaffes, he really didn’t need protection. His candor was without consequence. It was another blandishment to the press.
Yet however much his accessibility, amiability and candor may have defined the news media’s love affair with him in 2000, and however much they continue to operate that way in 2008, there is also something different and more complicated at work now. Joan Didion once described a presidential campaign as a closed system staged by the candidates for the news media — one in which the media judged a candidate essentially by how well he or she manipulated them, and one in which the electorate were bystanders.
By this standard, Mr. McCain’s joviality and seeming honesty with the press in 2000 constituted a very effective scheme indeed, until it came time to woo actual Republican voters. As Time’s Jay Carney once put it, “You get the sense you’re being manipulated by candor, rather than manipulated by subterfuge and deception, but it is a strategy.”
What makes 2008 different — and why I think Mr. McCain can be called the first postmodernist presidential candidate — is his acknowledgment of the symbiosis between himself and the press and, more important, his willingness, even eagerness, to let the press in on his own machinations of them. On the bus, Mr. McCain openly talks about his press gambits. According to Mr. Lizza, Mr. McCain proudly brandished an index card with a “gotcha” quote from Mitt Romney that the senator had given Tim Russert of “Meet the Press,” a journalist few would expect to need help in finding candidates’ gaffes. In exposing his two-way relationship with the press this way, he reveals the absurdity of the political process as a big game. He also reveals his own gleeful cynicism about it.
This sort of disdain might be called a liberal view, if not politically then culturally. The notion that our system (in fact, life itself) is faintly imbecilic is a staple of “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report,” “Real Time With Bill Maher” and other liberal exemplars, though they, of course, implicate the press in the idiocy. Mr. McCain’s sense of irony makes him their spiritual kin — a cosmological liberal — which may be why conservatives distrust him and liberals like Jon Stewart seem to revere him. They are reacting to something deeper than politics. They are reacting to his vision of how the world operates and to his attitude about it, something it is easy to suspect he acquired while a prisoner of war.
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. Michael Scherer, a blogger for Time, called him the “coolest kid in school.”
The candidates who are dead serious about politics, even wonkish, get abused by the press for it. Mr. McCain the ironist gets heaps of affection. In this race, though, it has forced some press contortions. While John McCain 2000 was praised for being the same straight talker off the bus as he was on it, John McCain 2008 is praised precisely because he isn’t the same man. Off the bus he plays to the rubes (us) by reciting the conservative catechism; on the bus he plays to the press by giving the impression that his talk is all just a ploy to capture the Republican nomination.
Yet the reporters, so quick in general to jump on hypocrisy, seem to find his insincerity a virtue. When an old sobersides like Mitt Romney flip-flops, he is called a panderer. When Mr. McCain suddenly supports the tax cuts he once excoriated, or embraces the religious right, or emphasizes border security over a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, we are told by his press acolytes that he doesn’t really mean it, that his liberal cosmology will ultimately best his conservative rhetoric. “Discount his repositioning a bit,” Jacob Weisberg, the editor of Slate, wrote two years ago, “and McCain looks like the same unconventional character who emerged during the Clinton years.” The article was subtitled “Psst ... He’s Not Really a Conservative.”
This suggests that love is blind. It also suggests that seducing the press with ironic detachment, the press’s soft spot, may be the best political strategy of all — one that Mr. McCain may walk on water right into the White House.
Neal Gabler is the author, most recently, of “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.”