John McCain's Rapid-Fire Responders
Aides Turn the Media Rebuttal Into a Savvy Campaign Tactic

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 20, 2008

When Newsweek ran a story last week on how John McCain and his allies may attack Barack Obama in the fall, the Arizona senator's top adviser fired off a letter calling the article "offensive" and "scurrilous" -- and threatened to kick the magazine's reporter off the campaign plane.

After The Washington Post reported on McCain's support for a land swap that wound up benefiting one of his top fundraisers, McCain called The Post Co.'s chief executive, Donald Graham, last week to complain.

And when USA Today reported Friday that McCain had won $14 million for the Air Force to buy land from the same Arizona developer, a campaign spokesman denounced the story as "absurd," "shameful" and a "smear job."

While McCain enjoys an image as a media darling, based largely on his bantering relationship with reporters on his bus, he and his presidential campaign aides have been hitting back hard against high-profile news reports they regard as inaccurate or unfair. The result is a more contentious relationship between the presumed Republican nominee and major news organizations than is publicly apparent.

"If stories are wrong, we have an absolute obligation to say so, and to say so as loudly as we can," said Mark Salter, McCain's longtime confidant, who writes the rebuttal letters. "It's not working the refs. It's just correcting things when the refs blow a call."

The McCain camp also circulates these letters to conservative radio hosts and bloggers, hoping to provide an alternative narrative for the press. "There is no point in calling the reporter," said McCain strategist Steve Schmidt. "There is no point in calling the [story] editor." When confronted with untrue accusations, he said, "we will use that to communicate with our supporters and donors to take advantage of the unfairness."

This approach contrasts sharply with the popular image of McCain as enjoying a cozy relationship with media organizations that he has jokingly called "my base." That image is rooted in reality: McCain allows reporters to question him for hours at a time, is a frequent talk show guest and mingles easily among the media elite. On the trail, journalists enjoy his sarcastic sense of humor and have provided him with generally favorable treatment.

In March, McCain hosted traveling reporters at his ranch in Sedona, Ariz., grilling baby back ribs and chicken for his guests. In 2004, when McCain threw himself a swank birthday party in New York during the GOP convention, Tom Brokaw, Tim Russert, Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Barbara Walters, Ted Koppel, George Stephanopoulos, Chris Matthews, Charlie Rose and Don Graham were among those savoring the lobster salad, loin of lamb and creme brulee.

Behind the scenes, though, it is a rougher game. The Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and their operatives have at various times vigorously complained about their coverage or the questions asked at debates, and that is hardly unusual during a campaign. But GOP candidates often reap added benefits by challenging news organizations that polls show are less trusted by Republicans.

Salter says he and other aides take the lead against negative reporting because "you can't expect the candidate to sit down like a lawyer and pick apart every point in the story."

The Newsweek piece, by Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe, said that "the Republican Party has been successfully scaring voters since 1968" and that McCain "may not be able to resist casting doubt on Obama's patriotism." Salter wrote Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham that McCain has repeatedly disavowed underhanded attacks by supporters against the Democratic front-runner.

The story, Salter wrote, said "ominously" that "our campaign includes Steve Schmidt and Charlie Black, characterizing them basically as noted Republican attack specialists. The Obama senior staffers were described as idealists and decent sorts. . . . Without a trace of skepticism, your reporters embraced the primary communications strategy the Obama campaign intends to follow: any criticism of their candidate is a below the belt, Republican attack machine distortion."

Meacham volunteered to post the letter on Newsweek's Web site, and quickly did so. "We're big boys," he said. "We give advice all the time to people in politics and public life. We should let them have their say." As for the piece itself, Meacham said, "in retrospect, there are some points I wish we'd put differently." Meacham said he is talking to campaign officials, who have not banned Newsweek correspondents, about continued access.

Obama spokesman Bill Burton said that for McCain aides "to say the media has laid down for Barack Obama is absolutely absurd. Senator Obama has faced tough scrutiny on every aspect of his life, and that is completely fair because he's running for president."

The McCain camp has objected to two Post articles in recent weeks. Earlier this month, The Post reported that McCain was a "key figure" in pushing through Congress a massive land exchange that benefited an Arizona rancher, who in turn gave the job of building as many as 12,000 homes to a company run by longtime McCain supporter Steven Betts.

The article by Matthew Mosk quoted Betts and a McCain spokesman as saying there was no connection between the developer's contract and his raising more than $100,000 for McCain's White House bid. The Post gave the campaign 24 hours to respond, which Salter says was unfair because of the complex questions involved.

McCain called Graham the day after the piece was published. "Senator McCain told me he was unhappy with the story," Graham said. "I told him the editorial page would be happy to look at a response." The campaign arranged for two Arizona mayors to submit a letter, published by The Post Wednesday, in which they said the story "did a gross disservice to readers" by "falsely portraying" McCain's backing of the deal as an effort to benefit supporters.

Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie said "anybody we've written about has a right to call" and that he didn't view McCain's conversation with Graham as "undue pressure." He said the explanations that McCain offered Graham already had been included in the story, and that the paper's Web site posted the campaign's three-page response along with the story.

Last month, Post reporter Michael Leahy addressed questions about McCain's temper, quoting some politicians who said it was a problem and others who said it made him more effective. The article also noted that the senator himself had written that he has tried to control it "with varying degrees of success."

In a letter posted on National Review's Web site, Salter called the piece "99% fiction." In some instances, he wrote, Leahy "declined to print my rebuttal. He used my quotes in ways that made them seem as if I were confirming his thesis when I insisted that McCain's temper is no greater than the average person's, and that I personally know 20 or 25 Senators with much worse tempers."

Downie described Salter's letter as "a political statement," saying: "I've yet to see any factual challenge to any fact in the story."

Salter says Leahy asked him to respond to an allegation that McCain once tried to block the hiring of an Arizona woman with whom he had clashed but refused to say when the incident occurred or whom McCain was alleged to have called. Leahy says that was the condition on which he was given the information, although the details were published in his story. "We have multiple sources for that incident and it's absolutely solid," Leahy said.

The article quoted former New Hampshire senator Bob Smith as saying McCain's temper was dangerous and that the Arizonan once belittled Smith's Vietnam War service because he wasn't in direct combat, although he served on a Navy ship in the combat zone. Salter, in last week's interview, cited a Fox News report that Smith was quoted inaccurately. Fox correspondent Carl Cameron told viewers that "the McCain campaign is very vehemently opposing the article" as "not factual." He said he had had conversations with Smith and that the "violent outburst and the exchange of harsh words was exaggerated in the article . . . and what is reported in the article today is what Mr. Smith has already said never actually happened."

Smith said in an interview that he was "quoted accurately" by The Post and that Cameron's account is "totally false. . . . I swear to you I never talked to Carl Cameron. . . . I'm very concerned about it because my reputation is on the line."

Cameron said he apologized to Smith "for having misspoken" and giving "the impression that I had just spoken to Smith about the Washington Post story." He said he explained on the air the next day that his conversations with Smith, in which Cameron says Smith offered a slightly different version of his difficulties with McCain, occurred 15 years ago.

McCain himself sometimes leads the charge against negative media reports. When The Post reported last year that he was embracing some of the same fundraisers and tactics he had criticized in a long crusade against Washington special interests, McCain told CNN the article was the "worst hit job that has ever been done in my entire political career." The Post stood by the story but ran a correction for what it acknowledged was a misleading headline.

In the case of USA Today, McCain aides say the story failed to acknowledge that there was strong bipartisan support in Arizona for the land sale to the development firm whose employees have contributed to his campaigns.

An epic clash with the New York Times began heating up in December. When word leaked that several of its reporters were investigating McCain's dealings with a female lobbyist, McCain called Executive Editor Bill Keller to say he was being treated unfairly. The senator's aides say he simply wanted the chance to sit down with the paper's reporters.

In February, the Times reported that in 1999 some top aides in McCain's first presidential campaign intervened to block access by the lobbyist, and that some suspected she had a romantic relationship with the senator. The paper quoted McCain as denying such a relationship or the suggestion that he had done legislative favors for her clients, denials that he repeated at a news conference the morning the story appeared.

The campaign mounted a sharp counterattack. Schmidt, the McCain spokesman, told reporters that the article "was something that you would see in the National Enquirer, not in the New York Times." Campaign manager Rick Davis sent out a fundraising letter charging that "the liberal establishment and their allies at The New York Times have gone on the attack."

The episode may, on balance, have helped McCain. Numerous commentators, including the paper's own ombudsman, criticized the Times for suggesting an illicit relationship based on unnamed sources who did not claim to have firsthand knowledge.

Keller said in an interview in February that McCain's advisers were trying "to use the New York Times as an opportunity to rally the base" and that the story was "fair and balanced."

The clash left bruises on both sides. After such an "incredibly sensitive" story, said Richard Stevenson, the Times editor overseeing campaign coverage, "it's fair to say that there were some bad feelings. McCain's aides are fierce advocates for their candidate." But, he added, "whatever feelings the McCain folks might have, we haven't let it affect the way we do our jobs."

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