By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 21, 2008
SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- As the JetBlue charter from Michigan touched down in South Carolina, I strolled up to John McCain's front-row seat -- none of his aides batted an eye -- and asked if he would continue to chat with reporters around the clock if he won the Republican nomination.
Most candidates, after all, grow more cautious around the media mob as the stakes get higher.
McCain said he couldn't stop, because "that destroys credibility." And besides, he said, "I enjoy it a lot. It keeps me intellectually stimulated, it keeps me thinking about issues, and it keeps me associated with a lower level of human being than I otherwise would be."
There he goes again.
McCain's ability to charm the press wasn't responsible for his big win in Saturday's South Carolina primary, but it didn't hurt. After the slimy, rumor-filled campaign run against him in that state in 2000, media outlets yesterday embraced the notion that his triumph was "poetic justice" (Chicago Tribune), "exorcising the ghosts" of South Carolina (New York Times) and a "spiritual victory" (Slate).
Every presidential campaign is constantly calculating whether journalists are potential allies or incorrigible foes. The media are a great -- and dirt-cheap -- vehicle for carrying a candidate's message, but submitting to questioning also carries the risk of being thrown on the defensive, as Mitt Romney learned in a tense exchange with Associated Press veteran Glen Johnson last week over the role of lobbyists in his campaign.
As a front-runner, Hillary Clinton spent most of last year keeping reporters at arm's length. But after falling behind in Iowa, she held an off-the-record dinner with traveling correspondents, brought them doughnuts on the press bus, pretended to be a flight attendant and began doing a slew of interviews, culminating in her "Meet the Press" appearance eight days ago. Accessibility, Clinton has concluded, has its benefits.
Barack Obama has staked out a middle ground, holding occasional "press avails" -- but traveling on a separate bus from the pack -- and recently agreeing to open his major fundraisers to journalists.
Mike Huckabee has been the ringmaster of a traveling media circus, even inviting reporters to watch him get a haircut. With a shoestring budget, he has been endlessly available as a talk-show guest, yukking it up with Jay Leno and Stephen Colbert, and regularly holding conference calls with journalists. Rudy Giuliani, despite taking a swipe at "the pundits" in a recent television ad, holds a daily news conference on the trail.
And then there is McCain. Reporters rarely quote his aides because the man himself is available to react to just about everything. And that "infinite" access, says Boston Globe correspondent Sasha Issenberg, helps the Arizona senator.
"He's pretty good road-trip company," Issenberg says. "The guy stays up on sports, movies and what's in the news. I've had the ability to have extensive conversations with him -- often Socratic dialogues -- about the issues. He's a richer candidate in stories written about him than other candidates are in stories written about them."
How candidates treat reporters shouldn't matter in the coverage, but it does. Journalists tend to reward those who engage them and get testy when they are stiffed, concluding that such candidates are overly calculating and wary of unscripted exchanges.
McCain enjoys fencing with the press. At a news conference in Ypsilanti last week on the day of the Michigan primary, he ducked -- and sometimes mocked -- the flurry of horse-race questions.
"What does your gut tell you?" one journalist asked.
"My gut has told me many things that turned out to be wrong, and so has my brain," McCain said.
"Do you think the nomination will be decided on Super Tuesday?"
"I have no clue."
Fox's Carl Cameron, noting the presence of Sen. Joe Lieberman, who is campaigning with McCain, wondered: "Are we looking at your running mate?"
"I think it'd be presumptuous of me, having won one primary, to be thinking about running mates," McCain said. "I'll admit to a massive ego, but not quite that massive."
There was a serious moment when BBC correspondent Justin Webb asked why McCain kept bringing up global warming -- not a popular cause with many Republicans, particularly in Michigan, where resistance to fuel-efficiency standards is strong.
"You've got to do what you know is right," McCain replied.
"You could lose as a result," Webb said.
"There's a lot worse things than losing in life," the former POW said.
McCain's bus strategy began in 1999, when he had little money in his race against George W. Bush and needed all the attention he could get. As he gained ground in New Hampshire, the Straight Talk Express became a hot ticket, with media executives and big-name columnists parachuting in for a ride.
McCain began the 2008 campaign anointed by the media as the GOP front-runner. But some journalists turned on the Arizonan, with such liberal columnists as Paul Krugman, Jonathan Alter, E.J. Dionne and Arianna Huffington taking him on.
His staunch support for the Iraq war, then at the peak of its unpopularity, was clearly a factor. So was the widespread belief that the longtime maverick had become an establishment candidate, making compromises and mending fences, particularly with leaders of the religious right.
Last summer, when McCain's fundraising imploded and his top strategists left, the previously admiring press corps instantly turned on him. A flurry of articles amounted to premature obituaries -- he had no money, so how could he be a serious contender? -- and McCain, often carrying his own bags on commercial flights, faded from the news.
The reporters returned once he started surging in the New Hampshire polls, and McCain's bus again became the rollicking center of his campaign. As modest progress in Iraq, coupled with stumbles by his rivals, gave McCain a boost, the tone of the coverage turned decidedly positive.
Still, the shadow of the last campaign hangs over this one.
"The journalists who covered McCain in 2000 feel very self-conscious about the criticism that the press came under for apparently being so taken with John McCain," says Ana Marie Cox, the Time blogger who has been covering him. "There's a sense that the first time was so fun and exciting, but this time we're really going to be sober and critical and the dispassionate observers we're supposed to be."
Reporters following McCain and his rivals are sometimes frustrated at how the Democratic race overshadows the GOP contest -- which may have muffled his New Hampshire bounce. From Jan. 6 (two days before New Hampshire) through Jan. 11, says the Project for Excellence in Journalism, 37 percent of the campaign stories it studied were either primarily or significantly about Hillary Clinton, 32 percent about Barack Obama and 24 percent about McCain.
McCain strategists recognize that he made a tactical error in Michigan that boomeranged on him in the media's sound-bite culture. He said in the recession-battered state that many manufacturing jobs aren't coming back -- and vowed, through retraining and technology programs, not to leave those workers behind.
But television often failed to include the more complicated second part of his message. One ABC story, reporting only that McCain prescribed "tough love," showed him saying: "Well, I wanna look you in the eye and tell you some straight talk: The old jobs won't come back." Romney, who grew up in Michigan, seized the opening, promising to pump as much as $100 billion into auto-industry research to restore the lost jobs. In the blur between New Hampshire and Michigan, few reporters questioned how Romney would finance his plan or compared the candidates' proposals until the former Massachusetts governor had carried the state.
McCain showed a brief flash of anger when I asked him if he had made a misstep. "Whether you view it as a misstep or not, I will tell people the truth," he said sharply.
As the Straight Talk Express rolled from Greenville to Spartanburg, McCain, sipping a Coke, was upbeat with a half-dozen reporters, even though he had lost Michigan the night before. After he fielded questions on strategy, the economy, abortion, Iraq, Romney and Huckabee, the assembled journalists seemed to run out of ammunition and the conversation grew more relaxed.
McCain talked about the beauty of Greenville's minor-league baseball stadium. He recounted his time drinking vodka with Hillary Clinton in Estonia. He made a show of blaming a top aide, Steve Schmidt, for losing Michigan -- "It's all his fault, it certainly isn't mine" -- and downgraded him from Capt. Schmidt to Cpl. Schmidt.
"What did you do without us this morning?" asked Chicago Tribune reporter Jill Zuckman, since the senator had taken the unusual step of traveling separately from the press corps.
"It was terrible," McCain replied. "Withdrawal. Shaky. Had to have a couple of shots of vodka and calm myself down."
"Were you hanging out with other reporters?"
McCain acted horrified. "I was not unfaithful," he insisted.