A turning point in the presidential race came when the McCain
campaign ended its candidate's habitual informal interactions with the
press. The area of the campaign plane where a couch was installed so
the Arizonian could hold court with journalists was cut off with a dark
curtain, marking the end of an era.
Since 2000, John McCain
had thrived on his irrepressible chattiness with the press, talking
about anything reporters wanted for as long as they'd listen. The press
loved the access and avoided "gotcha" coverage, letting McCain explain
any seeming gaffes. The arrangement worked beautifully - until McCain
became the GOP nominee.
Suddenly, he didn't get the same old courtesy from reporters, and
he had to go about the grim business of driving a daily message. With
the end of the running bull sessions, a trial separation began with the
press that became a divorce that became a feud.
The enduring scandal of the McCain campaign is that it wants to
win. The press had hoped for a harmless, nostalgic loser like Bob Dole
in 1996. In a column excoriating Republicans for historically launching
successful attacks against Democratic presidential candidates in
August, Time columnist Joe Klein excepted Bob Dole - not mentioning
that Dole had been eviscerated by Clinton negative ads before August
The press turned on McCain with a vengeance as soon as he mocked Barack Obama
as a celebrity. Its mood grew still more foul when McCain's campaign
took offense at Obama's "lipstick on a pig" jab. "The media are getting
mad," The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz wrote. "Stop the madness,"
urged ABC News' Mark Halperin, exhorting his fellow journalists to
fight back against the McCain campaign's manufactured outrage.
The lipstick controversy indeed represented a silly bit of
grievance-mongering. But had the Obama camp's tendentious
interpretation of Bill Clinton's "fairy tale" put-down as a racial
slight generated similar push-back from the media? Had Obama's
ridiculous depiction of Geraldine Ferraro as a quasi-racist? Had
Obama's repeated contention - with no evidence - that Republicans were
attacking him for looking different?
The media have made it gospel that McCain is attacking Obama
dishonestly. Of course, campaign ads are the last place to look for a
dispassionate rendition of the facts. McCain's ads are no different.
But they are no worse than Obama's spots.
When Obama distorted a McCain remark about staying in Iraq for 100
years - if we were taking no casualties - into an endorsement of
endless war, the media generally tsk-tsked that McCain should be more
careful about what he says. Obama just ran an ad saying McCain would
cut education funding - with no evidence. His response to McCain's
supposed out-of-control negativity is a new negative ad misleadingly
creating the impression that McCain aides are lobbying for special
What has truly driven the media batty is McCain's selection of
Sarah Palin. The days after her announcement brought gross misreporting
and personal smears; followed by a Charlie Gibson interview during
which he appeared disgusted that he even had to talk to such an
unworthy personage; followed by front-page Washington Post and New York
Times reports on her tenure in Alaska that were so hostile they left it
a mystery why she has an 86 percent approval rating as governor.
Palin will forever be a target. A pro-life, pro-gun evangelical
with five kids, Palin has made the race even more into a culture war.
Not only do national journalists resent that, they are, as urbanites
and self-styled sophisticates, largely on the other side of that war as
a matter of lifestyle and conviction. Because cultural matters cut so
close to the core, it's nearly impossible for them to hide their
Whatever affection they still have for McCain is now expressed in
self-interested yearning: Where is the McCain of old, the one who could
be reliably counted on to lose?