Return of the McCainiacs

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 26, 2005; 9:03 AM

Five years ago, when I was riding around on the Straight Talk Express with John McCain (and a few hundred of my closest media buddies), I was amazed at how much good press the senator was able to generate.

This was in part because his New Hampshire campaign was catching fire, in part because many journalists admire the former POW, and even more because the guy spent 10 hours a day answering our questions. He stepped in it a few times, but McCain's smother-them-with-access approach, in an age when candidates are tightly handled and scripted, paid remarkable dividends.

At one point, National Review editor Rich Lowry told me he had some advice for Bush: "He should run an ad saying, 'Why is the media in love with John McCain?'"

The love affair, or at least a serious dalliance, is back in bloom this week in the wake of McCain's role as Gang of 14 leader and preserver of the filibuster. Yes, journalists love Republicans who take on their own party, but whatever your position on the non-nuclear showdown, it's clear that McCain (and Warner and Lieberman and the others) were doing what they thought was right. But McCain, being McCain, was the one who was making the morning show rounds. (He's also gotten good headlines for his crackdown on athletic steroids drive, and the movie version of his book "Faith of My Fathers" is about to come out. Talk about timing.)

The New Yorker has a pretty glowing profile of Johnny Mac this week, and reporter Connie Bruck explains in an online interview: "I think what has made McCain different is that he has created a persona that is, in essence, an anti-politician."

Bruck's piece makes clear that McCain is running in '08, and the conservative outrage over his horsetrading role this week is certain to make his path in the Republican primaries a bit rockier.

"I wouldn't have come out against the nuclear option if my presidential ambition were playing a role in this," The Hill quotes McCain as saying. "I knew it would hurt me. I'm not dumb."

There's one difference between the media swoon of 2000 and the current McCain boomlet: bloggers. Lots of conservative bloggers are mad at what they call the Spineless Seven (the Repubs who joined the compromise) and at their putative leader.

First, the media praise. Lawrence O'Donnell, a former Democratic Hill aide who now writes for "West Wing" and sometimes opines on MSNBC, says on HuffPost:

"Senator Reid was on the verge of becoming the weakest Minority Leader in Senate history. But for the last minute defections of Lindsay Graham and Mike Dewine, the Republicans had the votes to change the cloture rule. Senator Reid played his side of the chess board brillantly. And Bill Frist knows it. That's why Senator Frist couldn't even fake a smile and claim victory.

"If John McCain is not the next Republican presidential nominee, it will be because he outraged the Dobson wing of his party with the cloture compromise. Senator McCain knew that he was risking his political future every minute he was in the room discussing compromise. What Senator McCain did in the end -- pushing both gangs of seven together for the press conference announcing what no one thought they could accomplish -- is easily the bravest political act of this century."

Wow--save some space on Mount Rushmore.

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