What would it take for the media to boot McCain off the "Straight Talk Express"?

››› ››› SIMON MALOY

Despite Sen. John McCain's numerous flip-flops, reversals, backtracks, and inconsistencies, the media continue to describe him with words such as "honest" and "authentic." Is there anything John McCain could do that would cause the media to stop portraying him as a "straight talker"?

During the 2000 presidential race, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) sought the Republican nomination by campaigning as a self-styled "straight talker," touring the primary states on a bus called the "Straight Talk Express." Though McCain ultimately lost the party's nomination to President Bush, the reputation McCain created for himself as a "straight talker" has endured in the media -- to the point where even today, six years later, the media often refer to comments of any sort from McCain as "straight talk." McCain has done his part to keep this image alive, telling NBC's David Gregory on the August 20 broadcast of Meet the Press that he would "straight talk" with him.

McCain, however, has done anything but "straight talk" on all manner of issues -- he has backtracked, flip-flopped, and displayed stark inconsistency on issues ranging from the Iraq war and the Bush administration to his opinion of certain conservative Christian universities. And yet, the media continue to describe McCain with words such as "honest" and "authentic." He has even been described as "honest" immediately after being called out for being less than truthful. Such treatment of McCain leads to the question: What exactly would McCain have to do for the media to stop portraying him as "honest," "authentic," and a "straight talker"?

As Media Matters for America noted, various media figures touted as "straight talk" McCain's August 22 remarks at a fundraiser for Sen. Mike DeWine (R-OH), in which McCain criticized the Bush administration's optimistic assessments of the Iraq war as having "contributed enormously to the frustration that Americans feel today." For example, New York Sun staff reporter Josh Gerstein, appearing on the August 23 edition of MSNBC's Tucker, said that McCain had delivered the criticism "in his straight-talk fashion." Absent from Gerstein's commentary was the fact that McCain himself has offered similarly optimistic assessments of the Iraq war -- at one point echoing Vice President Dick Cheney in claiming that the United States would "be welcomed as liberators." Gerstein also ignored the fact that McCain had recently defended Bush from criticism that he has mischaracterized the situation on the ground in Iraq, and that he has consistently defended the Bush administration's conduct of the war.

Notably, Gerstein, responding to MSNBC host Tucker Carlson's claim that McCain's August 22 remarks were "not straight talk" and "a crock," agreed with Carlson but immediately afterward claimed that McCain was "being honest." From the August 23 edition of Tucker:

GERSTEIN: 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 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 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 -- 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 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.

But I do think that he is being honest when he says that he didn't agree with a lot of the rhetoric the White House has put forward. And he has been down there at the White House, I think, for the last year or so in his meetings there trying to tell them that they needed to change their talk here, or they were going to be really caught out.

McCain issued a press release on August 25 restating his "determination not to leave Iraq," and praising Bush for his "honest" public statements regarding the war -- a reversal from his criticism from just three days prior. As Media Matters noted, on the August 25 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, anchor Wolf Blitzer completely ignored this flip-flop in reporting on McCain's "clarification" to his August 22 remarks. Later in the same broadcast, Blitzer asked Human Events Online editor Terence P. Jeffrey to "[e]xplain John McCain to our viewers." Jeffrey's explanation culminated with: "I think we do need politicians, like John McCain, who are going to try and explain, clearly and honestly, what's going on [in Iraq] and what the stakes are," to which Blitzer responded: "He does an excellent job explaining John McCain." When Democratic strategist Donna Brazile indicated that she disagreed with Jeffrey, Blitzer cut her off, explaining: "I want to move on." Blitzer did end up allowing Brazile to "make a quick point."

From the August 25 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

BLITZER: Explain John McCain to our viewers, Terry.

JEFFREY: Well, first of all, John McCain isn't calling for an exit strategy. But I will give him a break on this. McCain has been critical of the president's strategy in Iraq. He's actually called for sending more troops over there. But I think what --

BLITZER: He has also been critical of Donald Rumsfeld's policies personally, too.

JEFFREY: Yes, he has. He has been very -- it was specific criticisms. He's another guy who's over there and sees the situation on the ground. But the fact is, Wolf, probably what happens in Iraq is going to be determined as much by politics here as politics over there. Your guest on Sunday [the August 27 edition of Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer], Mr. [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki, has to get the Sunnis to stop their insurgency and stop Muqtada al-Sadr from sectarian violence. But politicians in this country have to convince the American people that there's going to be political progress there that justifies the Americans continuing to take casualties.

If the Democrats take back the White House in '08 on an anti-war candidacy, we're out of there, and we could have chaos in Iraq. So, I think we do need politicians like John McCain who are going to try and explain, clearly and honestly, what's going on and what the stakes are --

BLITZER: He does an excellent job explaining John McCain. Now it's your turn to --

BRAZILE: Well --

BLITZER: No, not to explain John McCain, because I want to move on -- unless you want to make a quick point.

BRAZILE: First of all, there's already chaos in Iraq, with sectarian violence all over the country. And I don't think, if a Democrat takes over in 2008, that will lead to any more violence than there is today.

JEFFREY: If they pulled out, it would.

More recently, on the August 27 broadcast of NBC's syndicated The Chris Matthews Show, Matthews led a panel discussion about McCain's support for the administration's Iraq war policies, asserting that McCain "has stuck to his guns and to an increasingly unpopular President Bush" and asking the panelists: "Why does the media like McCain? What's going on here? Does he seem to be more authentic than other politicians?" While Matthews's panelists characterized McCain's positions on the war in different ways, not one of them challenged Matthews's suggestion that McCain is "authentic," nor did they note McCain's inconsistent statements on the Iraq war and the Bush administration's handling of the conflict.

Matthews and other NBC personalities have done more than their share to perpetuate this image of McCain. On the August 20 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press, McCain, despite his assurance that he would "straight talk" with guest host David Gregory, made a number of false or questionable statements on Iraq, terrorism, and the Connecticut Senate race, all of which Gregory failed to challenge. In the midst of a February 2006 dispute between McCain and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) over lobbying reform legislation, Matthews hosted McCain on the February 7 edition of Hardball and promised his viewers "straight talk" from the senator -- which turned out to be little more than a series of attacks on Obama. On the February 12 broadcast of The Chris Matthews Show, Matthews declared that McCain had won the dispute with Obama, and characterized the conflict as "the new kid on the block versus Mr. Straight Talk." McCain appeared on the January 25 edition of NBC's Today, and co-host Matt Lauer failed to challenge his numerous misleading statements on the Bush administration's warrantless domestic eavesdropping program. The title of the Today segment was: "Straight Talk from John McCain." On the November 27, 2005, broadcast of The Chris Matthews Show, MSNBC chief Washington correspondent Norah O'Donnell claimed -- contrary to available polling -- that the public saw Bush as "authentic." O'Donnell went on to note: "And that's why, on the Republican side, Senator McCain looks like a hot guy. Authenticity matters."

Indeed, for Matthews -- or any media personality -- to present McCain as "Mr. Straight Talk" in the context of budget legislation or lobbying reform completely disregards McCain's inconsistency on these issues. As Media Matters has noted, McCain, despite his reputation as a "pork buster," proposed a bill in December 2005 calling for $10 million in federal money to establish a center at the University of Arizona law school as a tribute to the late Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist -- a bill that has been derided by critics as "a classic case of lawmakers' trying to funnel money directly to a home-state institution for a project that should find financing elsewhere." Also, McCain -- who chairs the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which is investigating former lobbyist Jack Abramoff's influence peddling schemes on Capitol Hill -- reportedly shielded Republican colleagues Sens. Conrad Burns (R-MT) and David Vitter (R-LA) from his committee's investigation. Nevertheless, Time magazine, in its April 24 profile of McCain as one of "America's 10 Best Senators," credited McCain for spending "his entire Senate career exposing wasteful pork-barrel projects," and described him as "a waste and fraud hunter." Also, ABC News Washington correspondent Jake Tapper once described McCain as "such an opponent of pork he's almost kosher." Indeed, McCain was widely portrayed in the media as "untainted" by the Abramoff scandal. McCain, however, had received donations from an Indian tribe linked to Abramoff. While such a contribution and its acceptance are not illegal, the media coverage of other members of Congress who had received similar donations suggested that they were somehow tainted by the scandal.

McCain's reputation as a "straight talker" is linked to the perception that he is a "maverick" -- a Republican politician willing to oppose the president and the party on major issues. On the May 14 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press, Wall Street Journal national political editor John Harwood, speaking of McCain, declared: "[W]hen you have taken on a president of your party on taxes, torture, and campaign finance reform, your street cred as a maverick is pretty solid." As Media Matters noted at the time, Harwood did not explain how, or if, his assessment of McCain's "street cred as a maverick" was affected by McCain's February vote to extend Bush's 2003 tax cuts on dividends and capital gains, which McCain had long opposed, saying they exacerbated the budget deficit. Even the conservative editorial board of Harwood's own paper saw it as a politically expedient flip-flop. Harwood also ignored the fact that, after an initial rebuke, McCain has been silent on Bush's unprecedented issuance of "signing statements" declaring his authority to bypass laws passed by Congress -- including the anti-torture amendment McCain added to a defense authorization bill.

The idea of McCain as the "maverick" is often repeated in the media, and has found a strong adherent in Chris Matthews -- Media Matters has documented Matthews referring to McCain as a "maverick" on numerous occasions. On the March 13 edition of Hardball, Chuck Todd, editor in chief of the National Journal's weblog, The Hotline, commented on McCain's urging of attendees at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference to vote for Bush in its presidential straw poll, saying: "[R]ight now, rallying around the president is the maverick thing to do."

Indeed, the media seem so enamored with the image of McCain as the "maverick," that they have defended it even when the facts show otherwise. As Media Matters noted, the March 13 edition of ABCNews.com's The Note attacked New York Times columnist Paul Krugman for "writ[ing] with selective facts that John McCain is not a maverick, a moderate, nor a straight talker," but provided no facts to support its argument. Krugman, on the other hand, cited McCain's vote to extend Bush's 2003 tax cuts, his hawkish stance on the Iraq war, and his position on a controversial South Dakota abortion ban, which, Krugman wrote, "makes no sense."

Recently, McCain indicated that he is currying the favor of the same Christian conservatives who supported Bush in the 2000 presidential race and who McCain denounced at the time. On August 28, the Associated Press reported that McCain "would consider speaking at Bob Jones University, a school he criticized during the 2000 presidential campaign for its ban on interracial dating and anti-Catholic views." According to the AP:

The potential 2008 presidential candidate and Arizona senator said he would have to look at Bob Jones University's latest policy statements. "I understand they have made considerable progress," he said.

In 2000, McCain assailed the Christian fundamentalist school for its policies and rival George W. Bush for speaking there. During a debate, McCain said that if he were invited, he would have gone to the school and said, "Look, what your [sic] doing in this ban on interracial dating is stupid, it's idiotic, and it is incredibly cruel to many people."

Bush defended his speech there but later wrote Cardinal John O'Connor of New York and said he deeply regretted "causing needless offense" by not more clearly "disassociating myself from anti-Catholic sentiments and racial prejudice."

McCain's softening of his stance toward Bob Jones University followed his May 13 commencement speech at Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. During the 2000 presidential race, McCain criticized Falwell, the founder and chairman of the Moral Majority Coalition who endorsed Bush in 2000, as an "agent of intolerance."

In the face of all these flip-flops, reversals, backtracks, and inconsistencies, the media continue to polish McCain's reputation as "honest" and "authentic." Given the volume of evidence that already exists to challenge that perception, one must wonder: Is there anything John McCain could do that would cause the media to turn a critical eye on his status as a "straight talker"?

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