Sen. John McCain (Matt York/Associated Press)
Sen. John McCain (Matt York/Associated Press)

Brian Rogers, the communications director for Sen. John McCain, says he and his boss don’t have a running problem with Politico. “To me, this one’s a one-off,” says Rogers.

A one-off, that is, that prompted quite the public rebuke from McCain’s office. At issue was a Wednesday story in Politico by reporter Edward-Isaac Dovere. Titled “President Obama, John McCain fight like it’s 2008,” the story addressed the mud that’s been slung back and forth between the Obama and McCain camps over the use of force in foreign policy. President Obama this week gave a speech at West Point articulating the narrow circumstances in which U.S. force should be deployed. McCain blasted the speech, saying that the president was “posturing as the voice of reason between extremes.”

This disagreement premised Dovere’s piece. What irked McCain was this passage abridging the veteran senator’s positions on overseas hotspots:

McCain has a dependable view: With his call to send special forces in to Nigeria to rescue the kidnapped girls from Boko Haram, he’s up to at least seven different conflicts since Obama was elected where he’s called for American military or military assistance to be dispatched around the globe. That counts the military assistance McCain’s called for to be sent to the Ukrainian and Malian armies and the rebels in Syria, the invasions of North Korea and Iran and the bigger force he would have sent into Libya.

Bold text added to highlight the words that touched off the following statement from Rogers:

It is disturbing to witness a respected media outlet like Politico completely misrepresent Senator McCain’s positions as it did in an article today. The article, which is entirely based upon an anonymous attack against Senator McCain by ‘an administration official,’ asserts that Senator McCain has called for ‘the invasions of North Korea and Iran’ – neither of which are true. Further, it is unfortunate that Politico reports uncritically the administration official’s conflation of Senator McCain’s support of military assistance programs for countries such as Ukraine, Syria and Mali that are struggling against aggression by our adversaries, with direct U.S. military involvement and fighting wars without end. As is clear to any objective observer of the record, Senator McCain hasn’t supported invasions of any of these countries. Suggesting otherwise is the height of intellectual dishonesty, much like we heard from President Obama yesterday at West Point, in a speech full of attacks on proverbial straw men. Our country needs an honest debate about America’s role in this dangerous world, not outright untruths and distortions of positions held by those who disagree with the Administration.

Doing this story called upon Dovere to sum up the foreign policy positions of a politician who’s been in the Senate since 1986, an undertaking of some complexity. And to be sure, McCain has advocated an assertive U.S. foreign policy in his numerous statements and interviews over the years. To wit, Mother Jones last year generated a map: “All the Countries John McCain Has Wanted to Attack.”

That compilation noted that McCain had once said about Iran, “It’s that old Beach Boys song, ‘Bomb Iran’? Bomb bomb bomb. . . .” The riff came in front of a small crowd in 2007, and it drew some chuckles. (See the video below.) Regarding rogue states in general, he said, “I would arm, train, equip, both from without and from within, forces that would eventually overthrow the governments and install free and democratically-elected governments.”

Such positions, argues Rogers, fall short of advocating invasion, which is what happens when American forces roll across the borders of a sovereign country. “I think there’s a common meaning for invading,” says Rogers. After pressing Politico on the “invasion” characterizations, Rogers says the Web site changed the text but maintained that McCain had advocated the “bombing of Iran.” “Apparently they took seriously Sen. McCain’s ‘bomb bomb Iran’ joke from 2007,” notes Rogers in an e-mail.

NewsDiffs, a clever site that tracks changes to the articles of some news organizations, plots the evolution:

First: “That counts the military assistance McCain’s called for to be sent to the Ukrainian and Malian armies and the rebels in Syria, the invasions of North Korea and Iran and the bigger force he would have sent into Libya.”

Second: “That counts the military assistance McCain’s called for to be sent to the Ukrainian and Malian armies and the rebels in Syria, the bombing of Iran, the shooting down of North Korean missiles and the more sustained force he would have sent into Libya.”

And following a second round of complaints from McCain & Co., Politico rested on this formulation.

Third: “That counts the military assistance McCain’s called for to be sent to the Ukrainian and Malian armies and the rebels in Syria, being ready to pull the trigger on Iran, the shooting down of North Korean missiles and the more sustained force he would have sent into Libya.”

“Being ready to pull the trigger” sounds like the sort of U.S. military posture that applies to any country on earth. “I have no idea what that means,” says Rogers. To its credit, Politico has posted a correction on the story noting the changes. Thanks to the two-round battle with McCain’s office, however, the original correction merited a correction.

Here’s the original: “CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated some of the military involvement Sen. John McCain has proposed. He has argued for shooting down North Korean missiles, and bombing Iran.”

And here’s the corrected correction: “CORRECTION: A correction on an earlier version of this article misstated some of the military involvement Sen. John McCain has proposed. He has argued for shooting down North Korean missiles, and being ready to bomb Iran.”

That’s a healthy level of self-disclosure.

Yet Rogers suggests the story shouldn’t even exist, given that it rests on this fulcrum:

“No matter the problem, McCain’s only answer is unilateral war,” said an administration official. “Every play comes from the same playbook that got us mired in Iraq. No diplomacy, no allies, no plan to pay for it, and no influence to get his fellow Republicans to agree.

“It’s amazing that his words aren’t scrutinized, because he’s proposing to have America at war and in proxy wars in 10 countries simultaneously,” the official said.

That’s an awful deployment of anonymity, and it comes from an organization that knows better.

Politico didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.