For McCain and the Press, the End of the Affair?

A media darling in the 2000 election, Sen. John McCain is no longer seen by the press as a maverick politician.
A media darling in the 2000 election, Sen. John McCain is no longer seen by the press as a maverick politician. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 10, 2006

John McCain was expecting journalists to start slapping him around, and he hasn't been disappointed.

As he gears up for a likely presidential campaign, the Arizona senator knows that reporters and columnists -- whom he jokingly described last year as "my base" -- have to prove their independence this time around. Media folks spent so much time riding on McCain's bus and listening to his rolling news conferences in the 2000 campaign that they were often mocked for swooning over the candidate.

A spate of critical columns, some of them by disaffected liberals who were once honorary McCainiacs, seemed to culminate last weekend on "Meet the Press" when Tim Russert asked:

"Are you concerned that people are going to say, 'I see, John McCain tried "Straight Talk Express," it didn't work in 2000, so now in 2008 he's going to become a conventional, typical politician, reaching out to people that he called agents of intolerance, voting for tax cuts he opposed, to make himself more appealing to the hard-core Republican base'?"

McCain said he fights for what he believes in and defended his rapprochement with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, whom he had branded an "agent of intolerance" six years ago.

As a cultural watershed, though, nothing compares with Jon Stewart asking McCain last week on "The Daily Show": "Are you freaking out on us? . . . You're killing me. I feel it's a condoning of Falwell's crazy-making."

The reasons for the chilling of the climate go beyond a desire by journalists to prove they aren't in the senator's pocket. The press has a weakness for mavericks, and McCain is running as more of a regular Republican this time, embracing President Bush on most issues, making amends with the religious right, and voting to make permanent the tax cuts he once derided as excessive.

"When loving McCain was a way of expressing a negative opinion about the Republican Party, they were all for him," says Mike Murphy, a top McCain adviser in 2000. "Now that McCain is a strong potential candidate, some fickle liberal hearts are not fluttering as much."

McCain's apparent flip-flops are fair game, of course, but some of the liberal sniping at the senator seems based on ideology. McCain has always been a conservative, antiabortion, pro-military Republican who took more moderate positions on a few key issues. Now he is suddenly being outed as . . . a conservative Republican.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman: "It's time for some straight talk about John McCain. He isn't a moderate. He's much less of a maverick than you'd think. And he isn't the straight talker he claims to be."

Arianna Huffington, the author and blogger, says she "admired" and "loved" McCain. But, she writes, "watching a true American hero hang a For Sale sign on his principles is a profoundly sad thing."

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne: "If McCain spends the next two years obviously positioning himself to win Republican primary votes, he will start to look like just another politician. Once lost, a maverick's image is hard to earn back."

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