The Gaffe Patrol

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 23, 2008 8:50 AM

We interrupt the nonstop coverage of Barack Obama's overseas trip to bring you some breaking whispers about John McCain.

He has been making a series of verbal slips -- invariably described as "gaffes" -- that are starting to ricochet from liberal blogs to the mainstream media. And fairly or not, some critics are suggesting the 71-year-old Republican candidate is showing his age.

McCain referred to the "Iraq/Pakistan border" in a "Good Morning America" interview; since there is no such border he must have meant Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has twice referred to Czechoslovakia, a country that ceased to exist in 1993; mixed up Sunnis and Shiites; and identified Vladimir Putin as president of Germany.

Aides to the Arizona senator dismiss the missteps as meaningless, noting that their man is far more accessible to journalists than Obama. "When you engage with reporters from 8:30 a.m. till 8 at night, you're bound to make a gaffe," says McCain communications director Jill Hazelbaker. "People are yearning for the kind of president who takes tough questions, and that's who John McCain is."

As for the candidate's septuagenarian status, Hazelbaker says: "I'd encourage anyone who has concerns about John McCain's age to join him on the campaign trail. He keeps an exhausting schedule -- often visiting two or three states a day -- answering dozens of questions from voters and the media along the way."

With Katie Couric, Charlie Gibson and Brian Williams traveling overseas to interview Obama this week, a debate has erupted over the imbalance in media attention. Last week, says a Project for Excellence in Journalism study of print and electronic coverage, Obama was a significant or dominant factor in 83 percent of election stories, and McCain in 52 percent. The McCain camp yesterday sent out a mocking video compilation of pundits praising the Illinois Democrat, saying: "The media is in love with Barack Obama. If it wasn't so serious, it would be funny."

But there is a counter-narrative, which has taken root on the left, that McCain is the one being treated with journalistic kid gloves. In this view, Obama's every utterance is scrutinized while McCain, who enjoyed warm relations with reporters during his 2000 White House campaign, pays little for blunders.

Dan Abrams, the host of MSNBC's "Verdict," told viewers Monday that "gaffe after gaffe after gaffe come from John McCain and they are forgotten . . . There is no way Barack Obama would be able to get away with something like this."

Politico catalogued the errors on its Web site yesterday, saying: "McCain's mistakes raise a serious, if uncomfortable question: Are the gaffes the result of his age? And what could that mean in the Oval Office?"

The question is fair, says veteran analyst Charlie Cook of National Journal. "People wonder if McCain is kind of like a pitcher seven or eight years past his prime and misses a few here and there," he says. "When you're about to turn 72, people are going to be watching to see if you're slipping."

Of course, a 46-year-old candidate can slip as well. Obama told reporters in Jordan yesterday that "Israel is a strong friend of Israel's," obviously meaning to say the United States.

Still, Obama supporters are turning up the volume on what they see as a slanted approach.

"McCain has been a media darling forever, and now he's making the claim that he's not getting enough media coverage? It's comical," says Mitchell Bard, a writer and filmmaker who blogs at the Huffington Post.

"If Obama had said the things McCain has said, the media would be all over that as an example of his inexperience: 'He doesn't even know that Iraq and Pakistan don't share a border. He doesn't even know that Czechoslovakia hasn't been a country for 15 years.' When John McCain says it, it's 'Oh, that's just John McCain.' The media have decided that McCain is a knowledgeable foreign policy expert and anything that doesn't fit into that paradigm is just ignored."

McCain's years in the Navy and frequent visits to such war zones as Iraq may well provide him with a degree of inoculation. Kevin Madden, the former spokesman for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, said it is "much harder to make the argument that John McCain doesn't know what he's talking about" because of his long experience in foreign policy.

In Obama's case, Madden said, "every single misstep magnifies his inexperience. Whereas the challenge for John McCain is that every single misstep magnifies his age. The McCain campaign is cognizant of that. He often defuses it very quickly with humor."

McCain's age has become a staple of late-night comedy shows, and the candidate sometimes plays along. He said on "Saturday Night Live" that America needs a president "who is very, very, very old." And last week he pretended to doze off when Conan O'Brien raised the subject.

But a penchant for mangling the facts is not so easily laughed off -- at least if it becomes a theme of media coverage. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, says a critique pushed by bloggers may resonate because of concerns about McCain's age.

"For that reason, the murmurs have become louder with each additional error," Sabato says. But, he adds, "if any of us had a camera on us 24 hours a day, the list of mistakes would be longer than our arms."

Now, since I've got more room online than in the dead-tree version, some excerpts that are cited above.

Politico's Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei:

"Ironically, the errors have been concentrated in what should be his area of expertise -- foreign affairs. McCain will turn 72 the day after Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) accepts his party's nomination for president, calling new attention to the sensitive issue of McCain's advanced age, three days before the start of his own convention.

"The McCain campaign says Obama has had plenty of flubs of his own, including a reference to '57 states' and a string of misstated place names during the primaries that Republicans gleefully sent around as YouTubes.

"McCain aides point out that he spends much more time than Obama talking extemporaneously, taking questions from voters and reporters. 'Being human and tripping over your tongue occasionally doesn't mean a thing,' a top McCain official said."

Mitchell Bard at the HuffPost:

"I am so sick of hearing about how the media are biased toward Barack Obama. It's bad enough that John McCain's campaign is making this completely bogus claim, but now the mainstream media are reporting it as if the slant towards Obama is a given . . .

"Nobody in the history of modern politics has been a bigger media sweetheart than John McCain. And in this campaign, he is allowed to virtually say or do anything without being called on it . . .

"I am not arguing that McCain's geographical aphasia is quid pro quo proof of his foreign policy incompetence. But I am arguing that McCain never gets called on his errors by the mainstream media (Diane Sawyer was silent after his Iraq-Pakistan statement on Good Morning America), where Obama would absolutely be taken to task (and probably called inexperienced) if he made the same errors."

Mother Jones's David Corn chimes in:

"Can you imagine if Barack Obama made a similar verbal slip? The McCain camp would declare it proof he is unfit to command. And media commentators would howl. (Have you noticed that much of the media coverage of Obama's overseas trip is framed this way: the trip is fraught with risk . . . for if he makes any mistake overseas, he's done for?)

"Yet with McCain, this is just another . . . eh, McCain moment . . . How many passes does McCain get? I don't know."

Barely a day goes by without McCain talking about how he pushed for the surge and Obama opposed it, which is absolutely true. But he went a step further yesterday in New Hampshire:

"This is a clear choice that the American people have. I had the courage and the judgment to say I would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war. It seems to me that Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign."

That set off Joe Klein: "This is the ninth presidential campaign I've covered. I can't remember a more scurrilous statement by a major party candidate. It smacks of desperation. It renews questions about whether McCain has the right temperament for the presidency. How sad."

The NYT picks up the story:

"Mr. McCain's advisers, who are seething about the extensive news coverage of Mr. Obama's trip, went further in a conference call on Tuesday when Randy Scheunemann, Mr. McCain's chief foreign policy aide, sarcastically asked if Mr. Obama's foreign policy credentials were based on his attendance at a junior high school in Indonesia or a trip he took to Pakistan during spring break in college. Mr. Scheunemann added that Mr. Obama 'seems to forget that we have elections in this country, not coronations.'

"But at the public forum at the Opera House here, Mr. McCain also displayed the bumpy and sometimes hapless nature of his own effort to prove that he is the candidate with the sterling foreign policy credentials. While he calmly fielded angry questions about his Iraq policy from a member of the audience -- and invited her twice to follow up as the audience booed her -- he also referred, for the third time this month, to Czechoslovakia, a country that has not existed since 1993 when it was split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

"This time Mr. McCain caught himself, although he was a few seconds too late."

Jonah Goldberg says the surge argument is a political loser:

"The tragic Catch-22 for the Arizona senator is that the more the surge succeeds, the more politically advantageous it is for Obama. Voters don't care about the surge; they care about the war. Americans want it to be over -- and in a way they can be proud of.

"Richard Nixon didn't win in 1968 by second-guessing LBJ about the mess in Vietnam; he ran on getting us out with honor. McCain is great talking about honor, but the getting-us-out part is where he gets tongue-tied. Obama, meanwhile, talks about getting out of Iraq as though Americans don't care about honor. That may have worked for him in the early primaries, but it won't in the general election. Americans don't like to lose wars . . .

"If it were going worse, McCain's Churchillian rhetoric would match reality more. But with sectarian violence nearly gone, Al Qaeda in Iraq almost totally routed and even Shiite Sadrist militias seemingly neutralized, the stakes of withdrawal seem low enough for Americans to feel comfortable voting for Obama."

Was Obama negotiating in Iraq? The reports were that he didn't raise his withdrawal timetable with the PM in Baghdad. But Hot Air's Ed Morrissey sees that as a technicality:

"CNN political analyst David Gergen believes that Barack Obama made a political mistake in engaging Nouri al-Maliki on the question of the American presence in Iraq. He stepped over the line in explicitly admitting what amounts to negotiations with an American ally during wartime, a role that rightly belongs to the executive under all circumstances. Gergen calls this the first real political mistake of Obama's trip -- but will anyone notice? . . .

"In fact, Obama's intervention violates two principles of American politics. First, presidential candidates do not conduct foreign policy. They can, as Gergen notes, criticize it all they want, but they have no standing to enter negotiations."

Arianna, who hails from Greece, thinks being cheered in Europe is, yes, a good thing:

"I understand why John McCain's campaign is desperately looking for negatives in Obama's overseas trip. But why have so many in the media internalized the McCain campaign's claptrap?

"Here is the McCain line on Europe, delivered via Politico by a nameless campaign aide: 'I don't know that people in Missouri are going to like seeing tens of thousands of Europeans screaming for The One.'

"And here was Gloria Borger on CNN, responding to Wolf Blitzer's assertion that Obama seemed to be on top of his game by pulling out the Straight Talk talking points (and leaving logic and rational thinking in a pile on the studio floor): ' . . . as the McCain campaign points out, he can't appear to be seen as running for the president of Europe. He's going to be really cheered in Europe, he's going to give a huge speech. He's going to have a lot of support there. But he's running for the president of the United States. And so they have to walk a very, very fine line here because they don't want to be seen having too many adoring people after him in Europe because he's running for president of the United States.'

"What do Borger and the McCain campaign think would play better in Missouri, Obama getting off the plane in Germany and having the locals throw tomatoes at him? Would that endear him to the people in Middle America -- who, in McCain World, are like an insecure girlfriend, panicked by just the thought of someone else finding their guy attractive?"

Joe Klein weighs in on the NYT-McCain op-ed brouhaha:

"I suppose that McCain's stubborn brittleness on this subject isn't news. But his inability to respond to a major change in policy from our Iraqi allies--the announcement that they can take it from here--certainly is newsworthy. There are three possibilities:

"--McCain doesn't believe the Iraqis can take it from here. (In the most benign reading, he may see this new position as mere domestic political posturing on Maliki's part, which is no doubt part of the truth.)

"--McCain doesn't want the Iraqis to take it from here. He still wants long-term, 100 year, military bases.

"--McCain doesn't move very quickly to adapt to changing facts on the ground.

"None of them speak very well of the guy."

The Washington Post's 12-part series on the murder of Chandra Levy is evidence of racism--or so says a Post reporter.

The Netroots Nation convention in Texas last weekend led to a big blunder by the Austin American-Statesman, as Editor & Publisher reports:

When feature writer Patrick Beach "referred to the crowd as 'marauding liberals' I knew it was not to be taken literally. But then we got this: "-- The audience nearly staged a 'faint-in' when Gore appeared (note use of '60s term).

"-- Pelosi is so far left her title should include '(D-Beijing).' This would come as a surprise to many in the crowd who have criticized her timidity -- and posed hostile questions in the Q & A. . . .

"-- Paul Krugman, as if to 'galvanize stereotypes,' wore Birkenstocks -- but Beach throughout the article clearly needed no help in having his own stereotypes galvanized. "-- It's shooting fish in a barrel 'to paint liberals as overly intellectual types incapable of having fun unless reading Noam Chomsky counts, and its sure does for them.' "

The American-Statesman has now yanked the piece online and run this editor's note:

"Our front-page story Sunday about the Netroots Nation convention included doses of irony and exaggeration . . . For many readers, we failed. In trying for a humorous take on the Netroots phenomenon without labeling it something other than a straightforward news story, we compromised our standards."

Ouch. I'm sure the congresswoman from Beijing appreciates it.

Katie Couric, in Tel Aviv to interview Obama, talks about her CBS tenure with Haaretz (via Politico):

"I find myself in the last bastion of male dominance, and realizing what Hillary Clinton might have realized not long ago: that sexism in the American society is more common than racism, and certainly more acceptable or forgivable. In any case, I think my post and Hillary's race are important steps in the right direction."

I wonder if Katie and Hillary have talked about this.

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