McCain’s ‘Free Ride’

This week the New York Times made news with a front-page story on John McCain's relationship with a telecommunications lobbyist. The story hinted at a possible romantic entanglement and raised questions about the propriety of McCain's dealings with the lobbyist and her clients at a time when the Arizona lawmaker was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. The story, which McCain's campaign has vigorously disputed, marked a rare incidence of bad press for a politician who has enjoyed a remarkably amicable relationship with the establishment media over the course of his 25-year career. Other than a flurry of critical stories surrounding his involvement in a savings-and-loan scandal in the late 1980s, McCain has enjoyed such positive coverage he sometimes jokingly refers to the press as his base.

It's hardly a coincidence, says Paul Waldman, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America, a left-leaning nonprofit research center that analyzes conservative "misinformation" in the media. Along with founder David Brock, Waldman has spent the last three years studying the relationship between the press and politicians. Waldman and Brock were so struck by McCain's cozy relationship with the press corps that they decided to write a book about it. "Free Ride: John McCain and the Media" (due out next month) holds that McCain has managed to ingratiate himself with the national media to an extent almost unheard of in modern politics. As a result, says Waldman, McCain has been able to create a glossy image untarnished by what he sees as some damning facts. In the aftermath of the Times piece, Waldman spoke with NEWSWEEK's Matthew Philips. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Do you see this Times piece as the first shot across McCain's bow?
Paul Waldman
: Yes, but it's just one. We won't know how much traction it'll get for a while, since, barring some catastrophe, he'll be the [GOP] nominee. Then, hopefully, he'll be subject to more coverage that goes beyond the boilerplate, but I'm not counting on it. I'd like to think this story will open the door to really dig into this disconnect between his record and image. But that's not been the case over the last 15 years.

Were you surprised by the inclusion of allegations of him having an affair without much evidence to substantiate it?
Considering there's been so little negative press for McCain, it's not surprising that they led with the salacious stuff. But the real story is that he had these kinds of relationships with these lobbyists while he was chair of the Commerce Committee. He got millions of dollars from corporations he was regulating. So here, in this case, he was meeting with lobbyists, in particular this woman [Vicki] Iseman, flying around on corporate jets and urging the commission to take action on the sale of a TV station in Pittsburgh they had an interest in. The chair of the FCC said it was inappropriate. That's the kind of thing reporters report on all the time, but the cynical eye gets closed when it comes to McCain.

Why is that? Is it just that he's a likable 'straight talker'? Or are we all suckers?
It's both. You have to understand that the way McCain deals with the national media is a strategy. He realized that reporters want to be treated differently than the way most politicians treat them, which is very carefully and being measured with what they say, going off the record a lot. And that's frustrating for reporters. What McCain figured out was not to be careful, not to go off the record, to return their calls and talk about anything for as long as they wanted. And the results have paid off very handsomely for him, because he gets the benefit of the doubt all the time.

From a reporter's standpoint, shouldn't access and candor be rewarded?
It's an interesting point, but only to a certain degree. It doesn't mean that the fact that he had a discussion on, say, Iraq, with you while throwing back a couple of beers in the back of his bus and you now think he's a great guy … that the next day there should be a halo over the whole thing, over the story you write. But that's what happens, time and again. And it doesn't have anything to do with people's personal politics. It's the personal feelings, especially in that small circle of D.C. reporters, the personal relationships that trump the substantive policy issues. Which is why he's been given a pass on his campaign lacking in substance. There's no question he's run the least substantive campaign; most people are hard pressed to say what he wants to do.

Other than arguing that we should stay in Iraq.
Right, other than to stay in Iraq. But that's it. That's really all we know. The Democrats have complex policy issues laid out on their Web sites, but no one's seriously arguing that McCain's been tremendously substantive.

Most would say that Sen. Hillary Clinton has been far more substantive than her Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama. Yet Obama is now the front runner, so doesn't this emphasis on personality over substance speak to a certain political savvy on McCain's part?
Sure, you could say that all those policy papers don't really matter much. But you could make a case that McCain doesn't seem to have a nuanced grasp of policy, domestic or foreign. And you don't see the same serious investigations about what he wants to do on health care or taxes that you get with other candidates, the kind of coverage that Americans deserve. Instead, with McCain you get the constant regurgitation of the same tropes, that he's a war hero, a maverick.

Why has that maverick label stuck?
Well, for one because we've been told the story so often. Everyone in Congress goes against [his or her] party at some point. But when McCain does, something different happens. If moderates defect from the Republican cause on an issue, it's still presented as a conflict between the Democrats and the Republicans. But when McCain does, the story becomes McCain against the Republicans. He becomes the central actor on those rare occasions, and it gets much more press. But when you look at it, almost every one of those times he does go against the Republicans, it's when their position is unpopular with voters. He puts himself on the popular side. If his ambition was to be majority or minority leader in the Senate, that would be a bad idea. But he wants to be president, so it becomes very good politics to find those places where your party is out of step with the public and break with them. You get the double benefit.

In your book you chart the number of appearances he's made over the years on Sunday talk shows and how many times the terms "straight talk" and "maverick" have been mentioned within 10 words of McCain. In 2000 that number was 2,114. That's a lot.
It is, and that's usually all we get. And in terms of talk show appearances, he's by far the leader over the last several years. People see him as a great guest, a politician who's not being political.

In your book you compare it to a line in the movie "Singles," when a girl tells a guy, "I think not having an act is your act." Is that McCain's secret?
Totally, and it's something you would think more politicians would have figured out by now. That being on the record all the time and talking about anything might entail some risk, but over time it builds up so much good will that when you do say something embarrassing, it doesn't stick.

What's an example?
There are tons. Like in 2000 he referred to Vietnamese as gooks. For a presidential candidate to use a racist term like that is usually incredibly damaging, but the press just ignored it. And when they finally did address it, after some Asian-American groups started to complain, they were very careful to put it into context and explain it away.

Back in the late '80s he was involved in this Keating Five scandal, which essentially ended the careers of most of the politicians involved. But not John McCain. How was he able to avoid that?
By convincing the reporters to chalk it up to his wayward youth and that it turned him into the great reformer. It became a story of redemption, and they ate it up. What's interesting to note is that before Keating, McCain didn't have a great relationship with the press. He still doesn't with the Arizona press; it's very contentious. It's interesting to contrast the coverage he gets in the Arizona media with that of the national media. The Arizona coverage is much more complicated. With them McCain is warts and all.

This summer did you think he was finished when he'd run out of money and his staff was defecting?
Sure. But what was so interesting was the way it was covered. Usually when a candidate goes into a death spiral, there's this piling on. It's all about this pathetic loser reaching his end and how he deserves it. But when McCain was at a low point, it was nostalgic. You saw this great hope and as soon as he began to bump up again you could sense the excitement of the press wanting to rev up the Straight Talk Express. McCain was a big story heading into Iowa; even as Huckabee surged and won, McCain's 13 percent was a big storyline. The press gave him the wind at his back he needed heading into New Hampshire. NBC's Chuck Todd even said he thought the press was trying to pull McCain across the finish line. What a thing to say! So all the while he was down, that desire for him to succeed was lurking in the press.

So how much do you credit the media for where he is today: on the verge of securing the Republican nomination?
As I said, Iowa was a critical moment when the media gave him a big hand. The importance of momentum can never be discounted. No one wants to throw their vote away, and when people got the impression that he was viable again, that made a huge difference. The axiom that the media don't tell you what to think but what to think about is clearly at play. In this case the corollary is not to tell you who to vote for but who to choose between. So yes, the media certainly had a hand in throwing McCain back into the ring.

Do you think he's a conservative?
Absolutely. Liberals attracted to him would like to believe that he's not, but that's a mistake, and that's why so many in the national media love him. But this idea that once he's president he'll become more liberal, it's wishful thinking. If you look at his record, he's a conservative. But that gets skewed by this obsession with character. In 2000 we were assured that Al Gore was the dishonest one, that George Bush might not be bright, but he's honest. Clearly, Bush has told some pretty heinous lies. So often the press gets it wrong.

Are there any members of the national media who are particular offenders when it comes to doling out love for McCain?
Chris Matthews [host of MSNBC's "Hard Ball"] I think is his biggest fan. It's his tone more than frequency. There's an embarrassing amount of adulation for McCain with him.

How does NEWSWEEK stack up?
I'll politely abstain from making that judgment, thanks.