15 December 1999
Our current howler (part II): Theyve just met the greatest guy...
Synopsis: Can the press corps determine what McCain is really like? Forgive us if we lack total confidence.
Commentary by Mara Liasson, Brit Hume, Fred Barnes
Special Report, Fox News Channel, 12/8/99
The power and the story
Nancy Gibbs and John Dickerson, Time, 12/13/99
Senate Inquiry in Keating Five Tested McCain
Jill Abramson, The New York Times, 11/21/99
Nothing succeeds like access
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 12/8/99
Honest John, on the loose
Roger Simon, U.S. News, 9/27/99
John McCain, happy warrior
William Greider, Rolling Stone, 10/28/99
On December 8, Howard Kurtz wrote an excellent piece about
the press corps' love affair with McCain. According to Kurtz,
reporters often choose not to report certain unconventional
things McCain says (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/9/99). On Special
Report, the gang talked it over. Mara Liasson didn't see any
LIASSON: I think what Fred is talking about, this whole notion
that reporters aren't mentioning certain things [McCain] says,
I think there's a good reason for that. They're not considered
"gaffes" because reporters have a context. They talk
to him for hours and they realize, when he says "gooks"
FRED BARNES: Oohhh
BRIT HUME: Oohhh, Mara
LIASSON: Wait a minute, wait a minute. Let me explain this...
And Liasson did give an explanation, with which we partially
agree. We think her statement is so on-point that we're going
to reprint it in full:
LIASSON (continuing directly): I think the whole notion of
gaffes comes from this incredibly super-structured, weird relationship
where you can't get close to the candidate, he says something
and we all pounce on it. If you have two hours to talk to John
McCain and he calls the Vietnamese "gooks" but you know
that this isn't a bigot talking, he's saying it in a joking way,
you have a context to put it in. I think the access that John
McCain has afforded the press is great. And I bet that if reporters
did talk about the fact that he dissed the French or called the
Vietnamese "gooks," they'd have a whole context to put
it in. It wouldn't just be "Candidate uses slur against
We agree that McCain isn't likely a "bigot," and
that the press corps doesn't have to run and tattle every time he
says the word "gooks." (Or even when he jokes about
Chelsea Clinton.) Our problem is with Liasson's alternate
suggestionher suggestion that journalists will punish hopefuls who
don't give them this kind of access. When a politician
doesn't give access, Liasson says, "[the politician] says
something and we all pounce on it." And that surely describes
the press corps' tendency in their coverage of Vice President
Gore. In late November, two reporters were so eager to "pounce
on things" that they somehow invented a Love Canal quoteand
the Washington Times, which first quoted Gore right, soon
joined the fun and used the wrong quote instead.
Should the press corps censor what it reports because it knows
what McCain is really like? Sorrywe know of no reason to
believe that the press corps has that capability. Liasson's account
implies that they do; so do the accounts we printed yesterday
(see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/14/99). Listen again to Gibbs and Dickerson
discussing McCain's tendency to repeat certain anecdotes:
GIBBS AND DICKERSON: And then there are the stories he tellsto
which, if there's a pattern, it's to exalt other people and deflate
himself. A presidential candidate is not supposed to tell you
about the rules he broke or the strippers he dated, or the time
he arrived so drunk that fell through the screen door of the young
lady he was wooing. The candor tells you more than the content,
and reporters sometimes just decide to take McCain off the record
because they don't want to see him flame out and burn up a great
This remarkable passage says many things. Most remarkably,
it suggests there are stories we aren't being because
reporters fear they could kill a good story. And why are reporters willing to
behave this way? Because they know what McCain's really like.
In Gibbs' telling, they know that McCain's behavior on the
trail is principally a manifestation of his candor, and they also
know what McCain's stories showa tendency toward self-deflation.
But is this what McCain's conduct shows? Forgive us
for playing the skeptic. Isn't another interpretation equally
plausible? Isn't it possible that McCain's stories are intended
to gull the press and shape his eventual coverage? It is clear
in these press accounts that McCain himself routinely brings up
his unconventional behavior. It's also clear he brings up
JILL ABRAMSON: Asked why he did not get out of politics after
the Keating mess and why he decided to run for president knowing
that the [Keating Five] ethics investigation would be dredged
up again, Mr. McCain replied with a joke.
"I don't know," he said. "Several sharp blows
to the head when in prison accounts for it."
What is McCain's intention here? Is this an effort at self-deflation?
Obviously, we have no way of knowing, but this joke can be read
as something elseas an effort to dodge an unpleasant question
by changing the subject to one that works better. Based on the
profiles, McCain tells this joke a good deal, and some
scribes draw a certain conclusion:
KURTZ: As for why he's running for president, McCain invokes
the issue that his strategists would love to avoid.
"Well, my wife, Cindy, believes it's because I received
several sharp blows to the head while I was in prison," he
Kurtz assumes the argument from candor; he says McCain's advisers hate to hear him allude to the "mental health"
matter. But mightn't they instead be pleased to hear him
bring up his POW experience? Roger Simon, in a favorable profile,
makes this observation:
SIMON: Though he says he is "embarrassed" by and
"bored" with the constant repetition of his Vietnam
experience"I mean, Jesus, it can make your skin crawl"his
campaign exploits it at every opportunity...
One can't help recalling what Simon says when one reads this
account from Bill Greider:
GREIDER: As the day ends, the bus heads toward the hotel in
Concord. It's dark, and the group is exhausted, but McCain is
opening doors for further conversation.
"You know, people talk about how bad the POW camp was
in Vietnam," he begins, "but really we had a lot of
fun."...The reporters get out their notebooks again.
We know of absolutely no reason why Senator McCain shouldn't be the next
president. But sorrywe lack all confidence that the traveling
press corps can figure out what McCain is "really
like." When they build their practices around the belief
that they can, we think they flirt with misconduct and error. Tomorrow we limm a few more problems with the coverage of McCain's candid tales.
Tomorrow: Stories are more fun than issues.
That week: Jonathan Chait offers an intriguing report
on coverage of the Bush tax plan (reference below). Chait explains
the odd first-day coverage, in which page one stories characterized
the plan's effects in ways that are hard to defend. As Chait reports,
the Washington Post said the Bush plan would "focus its deepest
reductions on the working poor and the middle class." This
sweeping characterization is hard to square with later analyses
by actual economists.
Chait explains a Bush leak strategyreporters were allowed
to see the plan as long as they didn't show it to specialists.
Hapless scribes played along, and seemed to echo the campaign's
outlook in their Day One reports. Chait notes that expert analyses
were reported "in small follow-up stories that ran only after
the favorable impression had hardened."
Which brings us back to Cokie Roberts. On the 12/5 This Week, Roberts didn't know
that Bush's tax cut was larger that this year's House effort (see
THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/6/99). When Roberts' error about that
came to light, here's how the pundit continued:
ROBERTS: Yes but you know what the single most important thing
he said about that tax plan was, was he said, and I'm quoting
here, he says "it's aimed at the person with the toughest
job in America, the single mother raising children." That's
where his campaign is different. He's going after that vote in
a way that no Republican has and it is the reason that he's running
so far ahead in the polls.
As a statement of the simple politics, Roberts may be right.
But the panel never tried to evaluate the accuracy of Bush's
quote. Is the plan "aimed" at single mothers?
In what way, and to what extent? No one learned from this show
on this day. And do you think that Roberts actually knew?
Five days after the plan was released, she still didn't know the
tax cut's size compared to other recent proposals.
We express no view about whether Bush's plan is too big, too
small, or just right. We do think pundits should know basic factsand
the "don't-tell-the-experts" deal Chait describes is
an affront to rational discourse.
(Jonathan Chait, "Don't Worry, Cut Taxes," The
New Republic, 12/27/99. See also David Corn, "Bush's
Tax Flim-Flam," The Nation, 12/27/99.)