Journalists and John McCain: Is The Honeymoon Really Over?

Sen. John McCain, with wife Cindy seated beside him, jokes with reporters on the Straight Talk Express yesterday.
Sen. John McCain, with wife Cindy seated beside him, jokes with reporters on the Straight Talk Express yesterday. (Stephan Savoia / Ap)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 26, 2007

PORTSMOUTH, N.H., April 25 -- A jostling throng of shoulder-to-shoulder journalists, hands cupped to ears, surrounded John McCain against the blue hulk of the Straight Talk Express.

The shouted questions began: "Senator, how can you support the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and yet distance yourself from the Bush administration?"

"There seems to be a lack of enthusiasm about your candidacy -- "

"Your candidacy is so closely associated with the war -- "

The Arizonan's mouth was moving, but that was the only evidence that he was speaking, as the bus's idling engine drowned out his low-decibel voice. Dan Rather, Maureen Dowd, Candy Crowley, three New York Times correspondents, three Washington Post reporters, two Politico scribes and dozens of other chroniclers could not hear a word he was saying.

The chaotic scene, minutes after McCain formally launched his candidacy here Wednesday, amounted to a comical metaphor for a candidate struggling to break through a cacophonous media filter.

Seven years ago, as reporters rode around this first primary state on McCain's campaign bus, chatting up the candidate for hours on end, a romance was born.

"Journalists go weak in the knees around the guy," wrote Slate's Jacob Weisberg, who admitted joining the swoon. "McCain is easier to get access to than a Hong Kong hooker," a Time cover story announced. Ari Fleischer, the spokesman for candidate George W. Bush, complained that "John McCain is a media darling."

But the relationship has turned decidedly chilly, with reporters denigrating the Republican's chances and liberal columnists accusing him of selling out. McCain's partisans say this is all about his unwavering support for the administration's effort in Iraq.

"The press has decided to view McCain through the prism of a war they almost unanimously oppose," says Mike Murphy, who was a key adviser in the 2000 campaign. "When McCain deviates from Republican orthodoxy, it's brave. When McCain deviates from the elite media's orthodoxy, they write that he's not brave, which is unfair. There's a bit of a negative bandwagon going on."

Fred Barnes, executive editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, similarly disdains reporters "who took the Kool-Aid in 2000. They don't allow for the notion that you can be a maverick while backing Bush on the war in Iraq. The fact that he is not gratuitously taking shots at Bush has driven the press away."

The pundits are certainly piling on, from the left and even the center. An E.J. Dionne column in The Washington Post, arguing that the senator's loyalty to Bush is dragging him down, was headlined "The McCain Tragedy." A Newsweek column by Jonathan Alter was titled "McCain's Meltdown." NBC analyst Craig Crawford has suggested that McCain might want to "exit with dignity."

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