The Editor’s Desk

No one I know really likes being criticized. At our best we acknowledge the utility of differing views, but hearing about our shortcomings is still emotionally taxing. To be reviewed and second-guessed is part of life, and a test of maturity is how well we manage the inevitable feelings of frustration and annoyance that creep in when the criticism starts.

John McCain is being tested mightily—and not by the Democrats. The most passionate criticism of McCain is coming from conservative celebrities (and semi-celebrities) who believe he is a sleeper liberal. The ferocity of the remarks from Rush Limbaugh, James Dobson, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity and others, Holly Bailey reports, has McCain watching his own words with care.

"He's still the straight talker, the guy who seems to take some enjoyment in mixing it up with voters at town halls over, for example, immigration reform," says Holly, a coauthor of our cover this week. "But you can also tell he's trying to be very careful about choosing his words when it comes to his critics, especially his fellow Republicans. His aides have been telling him to think and act presidential, and he has been, to some extent. When you ask him about Rush Limbaugh and critics who have been hammering him on talk radio, he often responds by saying that he'll work to unite the party. But you can tell it irritates him. He sometimes pauses before answering, as if he's trying not to pop off. It doesn't always work. Last week he made it pretty clear to reporters on his plane that he doesn't care for Limbaugh's show. 'I don't even listen,' he said. 'I'm not a masochist.' It was about that time that one of his aides tried to push him back toward his seat at the front of the plane."

With Eve Conant and Michael Hirsh, Holly traces the roots of the right's anger over McCain. The conservative discontent with the Arizona senator is a well-established storyline in political circles, but the question our cover explores is whether it matters that some evangelical leaders and talk-radio titans hate the idea of a McCain presidency.

The tentative answer—answers to such questions are necessarily tentative in politics—is the opposition on the right is likely to be a factor in a narrow race. A NEWSWEEK Poll shows less enthusiasm among Republicans for McCain than there is for Obama and Clinton among Democrats, which suggests McCain will need all the Republicans he can get, as well as independents, to win in November.

The idea that core conservative voters would stay home or vote for Clinton or Obama instead of choosing McCain still seems farfetched (or at least medium-fetched), but purists of both the right and the left are quite capable of self-defeating behavior. Conservatives may well be in the mood for what they would view as a principled loss. That the defeat would take down a pro-life senator who supported the Iraq War in its worst hours could become one of the great ironies of contemporary political history. (For another perspective on the history-making nature of this race, Andrew Romano, the author of the blog Stumper, offers an essay on how his generation—he is 25, a "millennial" in the vernacular of demographers—views the Democratic contest.)

McCain and his aides are reaching out to their critics. Jack Kemp, a frequent guest on Limbaugh's show, told us that he had "just finished a first draft of an open letter to Sean and Rush and Laura and the other conservative talk-show hosts." Sen. Lindsey Graham, a McCain ally, has also appealed to Hannity. Two McCain advisers confirm that there has been tentative outreach to Limbaugh.

After reporting on the talk-radio world, Eve Conant came away certain of at least one thing: "This seems like it will boost ratings." It will surely do that—and it will no doubt provide McCain plenty of opportunities to test his tolerance for criticism.

Join the Discussion