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."
Alter, who professes "great personal respect" for McCain, says the key factor is not the war but McCain's shifting positions on, for instance, President Bush's tax cuts, which he opposed in 2001 but now wants to make permanent. In McCain's first White House campaign, Alter says in an interview, "the standard he set was not that of a liberal Republican, it was that of a straight talker. And suddenly he's not talking so straight."
A noticeable lack of journalistic excitement on the trip just commencing could be traced to the small crowds and the fact that McCain has informally announced once or twice before -- compounded by aggravation over the campaign's abject failure to provide lunch.
The challenge, says Chicago Tribune reporter Jill Zuckman, "is being fair to the guy. I don't want to beat him to death with all his campaign's problems . . . didn't raise enough money, reshuffled some staff, only talks about the war. That's the nature of campaigns, and you can still live to see another day."
Besides, appearances can be misleading. "When you see him on TV, he looks grim and dark," Zuckman says. "But when you sit with him on the bus, he's just as funny as ever. He just wants to shoot the breeze."
McCain strategist Steve Schmidt says that "the coverage is different to the degree that eight years after the 2000 campaign, we're a nation at war, he has a principled position he believes in deeply, and some people covering the race may not share it." But Schmidt says "the media universe is no longer one-dimensional" and that McCain has been using conservative blogs and radio shows to respond to criticism.
On an hour-long bus ride to Concord, McCain declared it "a major tactical blunder" that there were limited seats for reporters, and when asked why no senator has won the White House in nearly half a century, he said: "Knowing most of the Senate, I can understand that."
But he spent much of the time fielding serious questions on subjects from immigration to campaign finance reform. McCain declined invitations to grumble about his coverage, saying that for politicians to complain that "the media's against me" is "kind of a convenient excuse. Ninety-nine percent of the press corps reports what they observe in as objective a manner as possible."
But the tenor of the questions was revealing, as reporters kept asking McCain why he didn't seem the supercharged candidate of yore and whether his age, and second-time status, might be a factor. The senator insisted things are going fine.
As the lines of inquiry were exhausted, McCain allowed that he is superstitious (he won't pick up pennies if they're tails side up) and traced that to his days as a fighter pilot.
Journalists regularly treat candidates who have slipped in polling and fundraising -- McCain trails GOP rivals Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani on the money front -- as losers. "You can't be the fresh new thing twice," says Politico columnist Roger Simon, who sees McCain these days as "a less enthusiastic, gloomier candidate."
In 1999 and 2000, when McCain was an underdog challenging his party on campaign finance reform and denouncing some religious-right leaders, the press cast him in the role of rebel. This time, news accounts are more likely to highlight that he has mended fences with Jerry Falwell and is stressing his opposition to abortion.
To be sure, no one can accuse McCain of pandering, with his outspoken backing of an unpopular war that he readily admits may sink his candidacy. But the press gives him little credit for that stance, instead stressing that the war has cost him his front-runner status.
McCain has made his share of missteps, most notably earlier this month, when he declared that some Baghdad neighborhoods were safe enough for Westerners to walk around unarmed. His stroll through a Baghdad market, guarded by 100 soldiers and several helicopters, drew ridicule.
After a week of being pummeled over his remarks -- CBS's Allen Pizzey said McCain was talking "utter rubbish," and CNN's Michael Ware suggested he was in "Neverland" -- the senator acknowledged on "60 Minutes" that he had overstated the case.
During the Baghdad visit, McCain also said that Americans are not getting "the full picture" in Iraq because "what we don't read about every day . . . is a lot of good news" about progress there.
"McCain may have turned on the press before the press turned on McCain, echoing this very stale line that negative reporting out of Iraq was because there is a media filter," Alter says. "It struck me as ironic that he engaged in garden-variety GOP press-bashing."
Many conservative commentators remain wary of McCain, especially on such hot-button issues as immigration and his signature campaign-finance reform. But some have started to warm to the senator as he continues to champion Bush's war.
In the right-leaning punditocracy, it is an article of faith that the skeptical mainstream coverage is rooted in ideology. National Review says "the press has been savage" toward McCain and has "dumped" him for "irreconcilable differences." The Wall Street Journal editorial page points out "the chasm that distinguishes Mr. McCain from the Beltway media that used to adore him." The headline on a Barnes piece says that "hell hath no fury" like jilted journalists.
The stories on traditional rallies in New Hampshire may be less important than McCain's appearance Tuesday night on "The Daily Show," a popular venue for politicians trying to connect with younger voters. Even there, however, he wound up in a testy, extended exchange over the war with host Jon Stewart, rather than trading punch lines.
While campaign reporters haven't cut McCain many breaks, there may be a silver lining. "Having the press be mad at you will probably help with Republicans," Barnes says. "They assume if the press is attacking you, you must be doing something right."