In recent days, media figures have touted, as an example of his self-styled "straight talk," Sen. John McCain's August 22 criticism of the Bush administration's overly optimistic rhetoric on the war in Iraq. However, these media figures not only overlooked McCain's own optimistic forecasts as the war began in 2003; they also ignored his recent defense of the White House against criticism that President Bush has mischaracterized the situation on the ground there.
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In remarks at an August 22 campaign event for Sen. Mike DeWine (R-OH), who faces a strong challenge to his seat from Democratic congressman Sherrod Brown, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) criticized the Bush administration for its overly optimistic rhetoric on the war in Iraq, arguing that it "contributed enormously to the frustration that Americans feel today." In reporting on McCain's comments the following day on ABC's Good Morning America, senior national correspondent Claire Shipman asked viewers -- referring to McCain's 2000 presidential campaign bus -- "Could it be a revival of the 'Straight Talk Express'?" Meanwhile, on MSNBC's Imus in the Morning, executive producer Bernard McGuirk described the remarks as "some straight talk from ... future president McCain." And on MSNBC's Tucker, New York Sun staff reporter Josh Gerstein said that McCain had delivered the criticism "in his straight talk fashion." But McCain has not always been consistent in his public statements on the issue. Indeed, while McCain has often criticized the White House's handling of the conflict, he has also defended the administration's credibility on the situation in Iraq, saying, as recently as July 25, that President Bush "has tried to emphasize this is very tough." Moreover, he has repeatedly claimed that Bush has "earned our trust" on national security, expressed his confidence in Bush's ability to "lead the war," and even offered some rosy forecasts of his own.
At the August 22 DeWine fundraiser in Columbus, Ohio, McCain provided examples of the Bush administration's excessively optimistic predictions and assessments of the situation on the ground in Iraq. He noted the "Mission Accomplished" banner that appeared behind Bush aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln during his May 1, 2003, speech celebrating the end of major combat operations in Iraq. McCain pointed to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's reaction to reports of looting in Baghdad following the invasion -- "stuff happens" -- and his description of the insurgents on June 18, 2003, as nothing more than "pockets of dead-enders." McCain also noted Vice President Dick Cheney's statement on June 20, 2005, that the insurgency was in its "last throes." From McCain's remarks at the August 22 fundraiser:
McCAIN: I think one of the biggest mistakes we made was underestimating the size of the task and the sacrifice that would be required. "Stuff happens." "Mission Accomplished." "Last throes." A few "dead-enders." I'm as more familiar with those statements than anyone else because it grieves me so much that we have not told the American people how tough and difficult this task would be. And it has contributed enormously to the frustration that Americans feel today, because they were led to believe that this would be some kind of a day at the beach, which many of us fully understood from the beginning would be a very, very difficult undertaking.
On the August 23 edition of Good Morning America, Shipman began her report on McCain's criticism of the Bush administration by asking: "Could it be a revival of the 'Straight Talk Express'?" -- a clear reference to McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, during which he ran as a self-styled "straight talker." Similarly, on the August 23 edition of Imus in the Morning, McGuirk framed McCain's criticism as "some straight talk from Senator McCain," whom he went on to call "future president McCain." Appearing the same day on Tucker, Gerstein described McCain's criticism as "a moment yesterday where Mr. McCain, in his straight talk fashion, was a little bit more candid maybe than he's been in the last few months." In response to Gerstein's comment, host Tucker Carlson said: "John McCain had no idea the disaster this would turn out to be, and if he did, why in the world would he have supported it from the beginning? That's not straight talk. That's a crock."
Indeed, those media figures who touted McCain's August 22 remarks as examples of his signature candor overlooked McCain's own assertion in the lead-up to the war, that U.S. forces would be "welcomed as liberators" -- a claim Cheney made during the same period. As the weblog Think Progress noted: "McCain appropriately criticizes the administration for painting an unrealistic picture of the situation in Iraq, but he conveniently neglects to mention his own rosy assessments as he was cheerleading the nation to war." Here are the examples provided by Think Progress:
- On the March 12, 2003, edition of MSNBC's Hardball, host Chris Matthews asked McCain: "Do you believe that the people of Iraq or at least a large number of them will treat us as liberators?" McCain answered: "Absolutely. Absolutely."
- On the March 24, 2003, edition of Hardball -- several days after a U.S.-led coalition had invaded Iraq -- McCain said: "[T]here's no doubt in my mind that we will prevail and there's no doubt in my mind, once these people are gone, that we will be welcomed as liberators."
But not only do references to McCain's "straight talk" on Iraq overlook his own optimistic forecasts as the war began in 2003, they also ignore his recent defense of the White House against criticism that Bush has mischaracterized the situation on the ground there. While interviewing McCain on the July 25 edition of Comedy Central's Daily Show, host Jon Stewart made arguments similar to McCain's August 22 remarks on the Bush administration's lack of credibility on Iraq. Stewart noted that the White House "has made nothing but mistakes" and asserted that "they don't have the credibility anymore that their judgment in this situation is correct." But rather than agree with Stewart, McCain came to Bush's defense. He said: "I think the president has stated on several occasions in some pretty good speeches the fact that we have made mistakes -- that if we had to do over again, simply would do a lot of things differently. And I think he has tried to emphasize this is very tough."
This back-and-forth on Iraq is nothing new for McCain, however. While he has repeatedly criticized the White House's handling of the war -- including its optimistic rhetoric -- an examination of McCain's comments also finds numerous examples in which the senator has complimented or defended Bush's management of the conflict. For instance, while campaigning for Bush's re-election in 2004, McCain often touted the wartime performance of the Bush administration:
- McCain expressed confidence that "we're on the right course" in Iraq. On the March 7 edition of ABC's This Week, host George Stephanopolous asked McCain, "Are you confident we're on the right course in Iraq?" McCain answered: "I'm confident we're on the right course. ... I am confident that an imperfect democracy is what we'll get out of Iraq will be vastly superior to what the people of Iraq had prior to this."
- McCain said Bush "has a good team around him" on national security issues. While campaigning for Bush in New Hampshire, McCain said: "I believe that he's strengthened our military. ... I think he strengthened our national defenses. I think he has a good team around him." [Manchester Union-Leader, 9/3/04]
- McCain said that Bush is "presenting a clear picture" of the benefits and consequences of U.S. policy in Iraq. On the September 21, 2004, edition of MSNBC's Hardball, McCain said: "Have mistakes been made? Yes. But the necessity of winning, I believe, is overwhelming. And I think that President Bush is presenting a clear picture of the benefits of success and the consequences of failure."
- McCain complimented Cheney's "hard-headed clear-thinking" and guidance on Iraq. At a July 16, 2004, campaign rally in Lansing, Michigan, McCain appeared with Cheney, whom he described as "deputy commander-in-chief." McCain went on to say that Bush was able to "count on the experience and wisdom" of Cheney in making the decision to invade Iraq. McCain continued: "We are very fortunate that our president in these challenging days can rely on the counsel of a man who has demonstrated time and again the resolve, experience, and patriotism that will be required for success and the hard-headed clear-thinking necessary to prevail in this global fight between good and evil."
Even this year, McCain has continued with expressions of support:
- McCain voiced confidence in Bush's ability to lead war in Iraq. On the August 20 edition of NBC's Meet the Press, guest host David Gregory asked McCain if he had confidence in Bush and his administration to "lead the war" in Iraq. McCain replied: "I do. I do. I have confidence in the president and I believe that he is well aware of the severity of the situation."
- McCain said Iraq is "on the right track" and claimed to be focused "on the bright side of this." On the March 1 edition of Imus in the Morning, host Don Imus commented that Iraq "already looks like a civil war." McCain responded, "I keep trying to look at the bright side of this, because we have to -- because the consequences of failure are catastrophic. But the gathering of the seven most respected religious leaders the day before yesterday calling for calm and calling for some kind of reconciliation, I think, was important. I think, at least we're on the right track here."
- McCain expressed confidence that Bush's decisions would be "based on conditions on the ground" in Iraq. McCain said he was confident that Bush "will only withdraw troops based on conditions on the ground." [Associated Press, 1/28/06]
But despite the past remarks noted above, media figures such as Shipman, Gerstein, and McGuirk persist in depicting McCain as a "straight talker." Furthermore, news outlets such as the AP and The Washington Post reported his criticism of the administration -- at an event for an embattled senator trying to establish his independence from Bush -- without pointing out his inconsistent rhetoric. In an August 22 AP article, staff writer John McCarthy reported that McCain "said the administration had failed to make clear the challenges facing the military." An August 23 AP article by staff writer Tom Raum noted that McCain "said Tuesday the administration had misled Americans into believing the conflict would be 'some kind of day at the beach.' " And in an August 24 article, the Post's Peter Baker reported that McCain "suggested this week that the Bush team has only itself to blame for setting unrealistic expectations."
From the August 23 edition of ABC's Good Morning America:
SHIPMAN: This is just another reminder of how difficult the issue of the Iraq war will be this fall and in the presidential bid. John McCain was here in Ohio -- which is always a critical battleground state -- to help a fellow Republican in trouble, Senator Mike DeWine. Now McCain has generally been a war supporter, but he obviously felt it was time to make a clear distinction.
[begin video clip]
SHIPMAN: Could it be a revival of the "Straight Talk Express"?
McCAIN: I think one of the biggest mistakes we made was underestimating the size of the task and the sacrifice that would be required.
SHIPMAN: He's been an ardent war supporter and an occasional critic of how the war has been carried out. But Tuesday in Columbus, Senator John McCain hit the administration hard, pointedly targeting memorable phrases and images used to sell the war effort.
McCAIN: "Stuff happens." "Mission Accomplished." "Last throes." A few "dead-enders."
RUMSFELD: Stuff happens.
CHENEY: In the last throes.
McCAIN: It grieves me so much that we have not told the American people how tough and difficult this task would be. They were led to believe that this would be some kind of a day at the beach.
SHIPMAN: It's a significant development in the often turbulent Bush-McCain relationship -- one McCain has painstakingly rebuilt in recent years.
From the August 23 edition of MSNBC's Imus in the Morning:
CHARLES McCORD (co-host): And Senator McCain, criticizing the Bush White House for having misrepresented the conflict in Iraq to the American people, saying that it would be, you know, pretty much a walk-over, when it was anything but. And he says that -- that that has simply contributed to public frustration.
McGUIRK: They mocked him by quoting some of the -- you know -- "last throes," "mission accomplished."
McCORD: Yeah. Yeah.
McGUIRK: "Dead-enders." "Stuff happens." Some straight talk from Senator McCain. From president -- future president McCain.
From the August 23 edition of MSNBC's Tucker:
GERSTEIN: I think we heard -- I think we heard from Senator McCain exactly what it is that he really thinks about the war in Iraq, which was that part of the way it was presented to the American people was unfair. And while the senator's program for the last few months has been to try to appear to be behind the president, to try to be in the president's camp as -- as Mr. McCain tries to reach out to conservatives in the party as the 2008 primaries get closer. We had a moment yesterday where Mr. McCain, in his straight talk fashion, was a little bit more candid maybe than he's been in the last few months.
CARLSON: Really? I don't see this as straight talk at all. Let's recount one of the things he said. He said: "The White House has contributed enormously to the frustration Americans -- Americans feel. We were led to believe this would be some kind of day at the beach, which many of us fully understood from the beginning would be a very, very difficult undertaking." John McCain had no idea the disaster this would turn out to be, and if he did, why in the world would he have supported it from the beginning? That's not straight talk. That's a crock.
GERSTEIN: Well, I think there is a combination of statements here. Some of this stuff is derived from stuff McCain has been saying for a while. But you're correct that if you look closely at what he said, he seems to be trying to extract himself from it, saying many of us knew that this wasn't going to be easy and some of us had these views and tried to warn people about it but they didn't listen.
So, you're right. There is an element here where he is trying to step back from what is seen as a debacle not -- not just by liberals at this point, but increasingly by moderates and even by conservatives. So, you're right. He is trying to maneuver himself a little bit here.
From the July 25 edition of Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart:
McCAIN: It's an insurgency now. Insurgencies are very tough. And it also is a rise in sectarian violence. But if we fail -- if we fail --
STEWART: No, I get that.
McCAIN: If we fail -- you get that part?
STEWART: But we are -- it is --
McCAIN: That part of it is what's -- is what's -- is what's concerning me, because the break-up --
STEWART: But the idea is still, you know, democracy as it flowers will then create a safe haven for, I guess, Jesus to come back. I don't really know what his plan is. I don't know what he's thinking, quite frankly. But my thought is --
McCAIN: I don't always, but I don't think it's that.
STEWART: Really? Thank you. That actually -- I gotta tell you -- that makes me feel a little better. But it does strike me as, you know, they don't have the credibility anymore that their judgment in this situation is correct. So, I'm -- I keep wondering: Why do they keep saying to us, 'And this keeps showing why you need to keep us in power' -- and consolidating all the government's power into an executive branch that's made nothing but mistakes.
McCAIN: I think the president has stated on several occasions in some pretty good speeches the fact that we have made mistakes -- that if we had to do over again, simply would do a lot of things differently. And I think he has tried to emphasize this is very tough -- very, very tough.
STEWART: You believe he's learned somewhat?
McCAIN: I think he's learned. I do.
From the August 20 edition of NBC's Meet the Press:
GREGORY: Do you, do you have confidence in the president and his national security team to lead the war at this stage?
McCAIN: I do. I do. I have confidence in the president, and I believe that he is well aware of the severity of the situation.
GREGORY: Despite all the misjudgments you think have been made?
GREGORY: Why -- why would you still support a group that you think has -- has been so flawed?
McCAIN: Because serious mistakes have been made in every war. General MacArthur, our greatest general, told Harry Truman, "Don't worry, those Chinese won't come across the Yalu." There are mistakes are made in war, that's why we try to avoid them. And this is an elected president. I think he's led our nation very capably.