By Perry Bacon Jr. and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
Responding to questions about whether Sen. John McCain had an unfair advantage over Sen. Barack Obama at Saturday's forum on faith at the Saddleback Church in California, a spokesman for the Rev. Rick Warren said both candidates had an advance look at a few questions.
Spokesman A. Larry Ross said the candidates had agreed that McCain would not listen to Obama's interview, which came first by a coin-flip agreement. But Ross said Warren gave them both a sense of what to expect.
Warren provided McCain and Obama with the four subject areas, Ross said -- leadership, stewardship, worldview and international compassion -- and provided them a sense of the themes he would ask about, including topics such as energy and taxes.
He also offered three examples of questions he planned to ask: What is your greatest moral failure? What is America's greatest moral failure? Who are the three people you rely on for wise advice?
"He wanted to give them an idea of where he wanted to go with this," Ross said in an interview.
The interviews were billed as frank conversations to which the candidates were offering off-the-cuff answers. Several times during the broadcast, Warren referenced a "cone of silence" for McCain during Obama's interview.
Ross said the mentions came "with a chuckle" and were intended to reflect the basic agreement that McCain would not listen to Obama answering his questions.
"He said that metaphorically," Ross said. "There was no whirring glass bubble like Maxwell Smart or something like that. He was speaking to the integrity of the arrangement."
Ross said a Saddleback employee disconnected the live feed from the television in the green room, where McCain stayed during most of Obama's interview.
"He literally disabled it. Even if someone tried to turn it on, it wouldn't work," Ross said. He added that he was given assurances by McCain's campaign that the senator from Arizona had not listened to the radio during the drive to the church in Lake Forest, Calif., while Obama was beginning his interview.
Despite those assurances, some bloggers raised the question about whether McCain got some notice that Obama did not, demanding to know what McCain knew and when he knew it. NBC political reporter Andrea Mitchell reported Sunday that Obama aides thought McCain "may have had some ability to overhear what the questions were to Obama."
That prompted a furious response from the McCain campaign. It issued a blistering letter to the president of NBC News yesterday, accusing the network of bias.
Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, wrote of Mitchell's report that "there is not one shred of evidence that it's true," saying that McCain was driven to the event and then was "in a green room with no broadcast feed" during Obama's appearance.
"We are extremely disappointed to see that the level of objectivity at NBC News has fallen so low that reporters are now giving voice to unsubstantiated, partisan claims in order to undercut John McCain," Davis wrote to Steve Capus, in a letter the campaign released to other members of the media.
Tucker Bounds, a McCain spokesman, said the senator's aides did not watch him and tell the candidate which questions Obama was asked, either. An Obama spokesman declined to comment on the controversy.
The McCain campaign continued to refer to the controversy throughout the day. In an e-mail Monday evening on another topic, Bounds started his statement with the phrase: "After being upstaged at the Saddleback Compassion Forum . . ."
The attack on the media was not unusual for the campaign, which recently blasted the New York Times for not publishing an op-ed article written by McCain on Iraq, after it had published one by Obama. The paper's editors say they objected to how the piece was written but were open to having McCain revise it.