Media largely ignore "straight talker" McCain's "stumble" on HIV prevention


As New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney noted in a March 16 entry to the Times' weblog The Caucus, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) "stumble[d]" when asked by a reporter aboard McCain's campaign bus, the "Straight Talk Express," whether he supports "the distribution of taxpayer-subsidized condoms in Africa to fight the transmission of H.I.V." and whether he believes "contraceptives help stop the spread of HIV." According to Nagourney, McCain, whose self-styled reputation as a "straight talker" has been embraced by the media, admitted that he was "stumped" by the questions, and told the reporter: "You know, I'm sure I've taken a position on it on the past. I have to find out what my position was." This exchange, however, has gone unreported by several news outlets that have recently praised McCain as a "straight talker."

Nagourney wrote:

The unthinkable has happened. Senator John McCain met a question, while sitting with reporters on his bus as it rumbled through Iowa today, that he couldn't -- or perhaps wouldn't -- answer.

Did he support the distribution of taxpayer-subsidized condoms in Africa to fight the transmission of H.I.V.?

What followed was a long series of awkward pauses, glances up to the ceiling and the image of one of Mr. McCain's aides, standing off to the back, urgently motioning his press secretary to come to Mr. McCain's side.

Avoiding a question was not, of course, "unthinkable" for McCain, as Nagourney himself had reported earlier that day. Still, Nagourney was one of very few reporters to take note of it.

A March 16 entry to's On the Campaign Trail weblog similarly noted:

Sensing a vulnerable moment, reporters kept the questions coming. What about sex education in the schools? Should it mention contraceptives? Or only abstinence, like President Bush wants?

"I think I support the president's present policy," he said, tentatively.

More questions: Do condoms stop sexually transmitted disease?

A long pause.

A stern look.

"I've never gotten into these issues or thought much about them," he said, almost crying uncle. "Obviously, we all want to stop the spread of AIDS. Everybody wants to do that. What's the most viable way of doing that?"

Well? The reporters asked?

In a last ditch attempt to rescue himself, McCain told an aide to go get a briefing paper prepared by Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, a doctor, who he said has been advising him on "these issues." But the aide couldn't find the briefing paper. "We've lost it," McCain mumbled.

However, a Nexis search of "All News" revealed that only one media outlet reported on the exchange -- Jill Zuckerman of the Chicago Tribune on March 18:

En route to Cedar Falls, McCain hesitates and then demurs when asked if he would support taxpayer funding for condoms to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in Africa. He praises Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a family physician, for his work promoting abstinence. And he won't say whether he thinks condoms stop the spread of disease, blushing at the question.

The day before, McCain refused to answer questions about whether he believes homosexual acts are immoral, as Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently said. "I just don't think it's a purview of public policy," he said, declining to speculate how he would react if one of his children told him he or she is gay.

McCain's "stumble" was not reported in the pages of The New York Times or The Washington Post, despite the March 16 entries in each paper's weblog. Nor was it reported on ABC or NBC, even though ABC senior national correspondent Jake Tapper had praised McCain on the March 15 broadcast of World News with Charles Gibson for his "willingness to entertain any question" and NBC News congressional correspondent Chip Reid reported on March 15 that McCain was offering "straight talk about Iraq and his support for the war."

McCain's HIV prevention "stumble" has drawn only scant attention from The Politico -- senior political writer Ben Smith linked to Nagourney's Caucus entry in a March 16 entry to his own blog on, writing: "And Nagourney's going to get himself tossed off the Straight Talk Express if he keeps, like, demanding answers to stuff." Politico senior writer Jonathan Martin, who was traveling with the McCain campaign on March 16 and whose blog purports to focus on the 2008 Republican presidential candidates, linked to the On the Campaign Trail entry, writing simply: "The Bus giveth and The Bus taketh away." Martin has, however, posted several blog entries on McCain and the "Straight Talk Express" since March 16, one of which was titled "The Well-Oiled McCain Machine."

John McCain, 2008 Elections
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