Americans admire John McCain for his service in the military and the Senate, and journalists do, too. But there is another reason for the gush of goodwill expressed by reporters after the Arizona Republican was diagnosed with brain cancer.
A recent bit of drama in the halls of Congress helps explain:
On a Tuesday morning last month, reporters covering Congress were unexpectedly ordered not to approach senators for impromptu on-camera interviews in Capitol hallways because of new Senate Rules Committee restrictions requiring advance permission to ask questions.
It turned out that the order was the result of some kind of misunderstanding. Rules Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) later clarified that new restrictions were merely being considered “to help provide a safe environment for members of Congress, the press corps, staff and constituents as they travel from Senate offices to the Capitol.”
Naturally, journalists wanted to know what McCain thought of the proposal. Only a week earlier, The Washington Post had reported on safety concerns brought on by an influx of journalists covering major news events at the Capitol. Here's an excerpt:
It’s a legitimate fear, one reporter noted while observing 80-year-old Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) attempting to navigate a heaving throng in the Senate basement.
“We are one tripped senator away from losing our access,” the reporter said.
If anyone might have had cause to support new restrictions on the press, it would have been McCain. And yet:
Standing up for media access is a surefire way to endear yourself to reporters.
Make no mistake: McCain has feuded with the media, at times, most notably during his unsuccessful White House bid in 2008. Time magazine captured the tension in an article that fall:
One of the McCain campaign's largest single fundraising days came in February, the day after the New York Times raised questions about McCain's relationship with a lobbyist, a story the campaign condemned as an attack by the liberal media. Since then, the campaign has fired off public letters charging bias at news organizations as varied as Newsweek and MSNBC. During the GOP convention, the campaign canceled McCain's appearance on “Larry King Live” in retaliation for the supposedly unfair questioning CNN anchor Campbell Brown pursued with a campaign spokesman. And they have complained privately about coverage to many other news outlets, including Time.
The approach also reflects what aides describe as McCain's increasing personal frustration with the press. He is aggravated, aides say, by what he calls the mainstream media's favoritism of Barack Obama — proven, he contends, by the volume and tone of coverage that the Democratic nominee receives. McCain also feels that his inquisitors are consumed with the pursuit of frivolous “gotcha” questions.
By the way, the first byline on that Time article belonged to Jay Carney, who would later become Obama's press secretary.
Even in moments of frustration, however, McCain never accused the media of rigging an election or being “the enemy of the American people.” On balance, he was accessible and affable during the 2008 race and during a prior White House bid in 2000, qualities which made reporters' jobs easier and helped cement McCain's status as one of the best interviews in Washington.
He has consistently shown respect for the role of the press and kept his criticisms in bounds. At a time when the head of McCain's party does neither, journalists appreciate his relative grace all the more.