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

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."

The American Prospect's Mark Schmitt writes that people should "have no illusions: McCain is a very conservative Republican who has now embarked on the project of reaffirming his position as the rightful heir to Barry Goldwater's politics as well as his Senate seat."

Why are liberals suddenly more exercised about McCain? In 2000, he was a colorful underdog running against the party establishment's candidate. He was funny, told great stories, admitted mistakes and enjoyed dining with reporters. He was endlessly available for television interviews. He championed what seemed like a quixotic crusade for campaign finance reform. He was a certified war hero as a former prisoner at the Hanoi Hilton. He was unfairly slimed in the South Carolina primary. And, in the view of the press, he had little chance of winning.

This time around, McCain is arguably the front-runner for the GOP nomination. If he runs, he could well win the White House, shutting out the Democrats for the third straight election. And that is rallying the pundits of the left.

Mark Salter, McCain's administrative assistant, says the senator "is not unhappy with the press coverage he's receiving." Of course, it is far better for him to be put through the media meat grinder now, in early 2006, than when voters are paying attention. And getting banged around by liberal columnists hardly hurts him on the right.

Still, the skeptics are right on one point: McCain's crossover appeal is built on the idea that he speaks his mind without political calculation. If he loses his media "base," that may be a sign that he has returned to the ranks of political mortals.

Refighting the War

Bob Woodward must be accustomed to criticism by now. But rarely does the Washington Post sleuth react as strongly as he did to a recent slam by David Corn, the Nation's Washington bureau chief.

Corn took on Woodward's book "Plan of Attack" as a "tilted" narrative, citing his reporting on a January 2003 meeting on Iraq between President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In a recently disclosed memo, a Blair aide wrote that the date for war "was now penciled in for 10 March," even as diplomatic efforts continued at the United Nations, and that Bush had spoken of creating a pretext to justify the war.

But the book, Corn wrote, contained "a less-than-full but Bush-positive account of the event. This goes to show that Woodward is only as good as his sources and that those insiders are not always so good when it comes to disclosing the real story."

In a lengthy letter, which Corn posted on his Web site, Woodward wrote that he was "genuinely shocked" by Corn's analysis. "The column is thoroughly dishonest and represents another low for journalism. Apparently facts don't matter to you if you think you can score a point."

Anyone reading the book would already know of the president's war plans before getting to the Bush-Blair meeting on Page 297, Woodward argued. For example, he cites a passage in which Bush told then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, "Probably going to have to, we're going to have to go to war"; another that says Vice President Cheney "had come to realize that the president had made his decision"; and one that says Bush, Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar and then-Secretary of State Colin Powell that Bush had decided on war.

"You really ought to be embarrassed," Woodward wrote Corn, adding: "You owe me but more importantly your readers an apology."

In response, Corn says: "Bob Woodward has a point. I should have mentioned that in 'Plan of Attack' he had reported that Bush had already decided to go to war before meeting with Blair on January 31, 2003. That's an important element of the book." But after quarreling with some of Woodward's points, Corn maintains that "the limitations of his methodology -- and that of all source-based reporting (which I and every other journalist practice) -- were revealed."

Mystery Blogger

The Cincinnati Enquirer's "Grandma in Iraq" blog is literally true in that Suzanne Fournier is a grandmother.

But she is also a spokeswoman for the U.S. military. Which may explain why the blog is relentlessly upbeat about what a great job American soldiers are doing.

Enquirer Editor Tom Callinan told Editor & Publisher that he had to change the description of Fournier: "She never hid the fact that she worked for them. But we did not put a disclaimer at the top, we had overlooked that. We have now corrected it."

Fournier wrote on the blog that she never tried to hide her affiliation but "wanted to share my experiences because I am in a unique position of being able to travel to nine of the southern provinces with my job as a communicator."

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