Politics & Policy

Media Obituaries Didn’t Give Us ‘The Full McCain’

Sen. John McCain in Tallinn, Estonia, in 2016. (Ints Kalnins/Reuters)
The sugary praise, often from former critics, does his memory no favors.

The past week has featured so much extravagant praise of John McCain that Jill Abramson, the former editor of the New York Times, had to admit “McCain would cringe over some of the glowing tributes pouring in.”

Take this example from The New Yorker:

In death, McCain had finally become one with the country that was the object of his deepest faith, and any praise lavished on him, during the funeral proceedings or at any point afterward, would redound to the greater glory of America.

Yes, of course, John McCain was an American hero. But his sudden elevation to superhero status demonstrates one reason so many Americans view the media and the political establishment with skepticism. Many must have wondered whether they were getting the “real McCain” story or being fed a thinly veiled political message. As Joe Concha of The Hill newspaper asked,

If the senator had gotten along with Trump, perhaps voted for the “skinny repeal” of Obamacare that he so famously shot down with one vote change at the 11th hour, hadn’t publicly called Trump “disgraceful,” would we see this level of reverence?

Many commenters rightly criticized President Trump’s churlishness toward John McCain. But when it was revealed that Sarah Palin, his 2008 vice-presidential running mate — who has never said a negative word about McCain and indeed expressed only gratitude toward him — was being excluded from his funeral and memorial services, the same pundits were silent. Noticing the public rebuke of Palin would have interrupted the narrative of John McCain as an example of what’s best and noble in our politics.

Dana Milbank of the Washington Post led the parade of puffery earlier this year when he declared McCain “the single greatest political leader of our time.” He followed up this week by declaring that McCain “never forgot that political opponents are not his enemies, and that there are things more important than winning elections.”

Even those who view McCain in iconic terms would find that statement preposterous. The media loved McCain’s being accessible at their beck and call, his willingness to leak about his Senate colleagues, and his apostasy on key GOP positions ranging from campaign-finance reform to global warming and Obamacare. His failings were forgiven by the media during his 2000 presidential campaign, during which political columnist Joe Klein described him as “a man on a white horse attempting to traverse a muddy field.”

During the 2000 Republican presidential convention in Philadelphia, I went to a tony restaurant to attend a reception. By accident, I stumbled into a room chock-full of top-shelf media types: Dan Rather of CBS, the late Peter Jennings of ABC, Tom Brokaw of NBC, Arthur Sulzberger of the New York Times. After a few minutes, I realized I was at the wrong event. It was a birthday party for John McCain. I recall telling Peter Jennings that it was a strange party for a politician to have. As far as I could tell, there were no family members present, no donors, no party officials. In a deadpan tone, Jennings told me: “Well, this is really the first meeting of John McCain’s next precinct-organizing committee.”

But when McCain ran a more conventionally conservative campaign in 2008, competing with the media’s new heartthrob, Barack Obama, the pundits turned on him with a vengeance. According to the Pew Research Center, between the Republican National Convention’s close on September 4 and the final presidential debate on October 15, McCain’s media coverage was negative over positive by a 4-to-1 ratio.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd complained that McCain had “turned on his former base, the news media.” He now had feet of clay: “Even some of McCain’s former aides are disturbed by the 73-year-old’s hostile, vindictive, sarcastic persona.”

VIEW SLIDESHOW: Remembering John McCain

I always got along with John McCain, despite some frosty relations a couple of times after I wrote about his failings. But many others did not.

Take Bradley Smith, who was chair of the Federal Election Commission in the early 2000s. He was a critic, on free-speech grounds, of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law that had passed Congress and was later, in 2010, declared largely unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

McCain had declared Smith “corrupt” for his opposition to McCain-Feingold. In response, Smith sought to meet with McCain, who always turned him down. Then in 2004, both men were scheduled to testify before the Senate Rules Committee. Smith was in a wheelchair after having had abdominal surgery, but he nonetheless wheeled himself over to McCain before he began his testimony. He reached out his hand to introduce himself (they had never met). As Smith told the Washington Post two years later, at first McCain grasped Smith’s outstretched hand. But after Smith introduced himself, he snatched his hand back, snarling:

I’m not going to shake your hand. You’re a bully. You have no regard for the Constitution. You’re corrupt.

Several journalists witnessed the exchange, but no one wrote about it at the time.

To be fair, McCain would sometimes express regret over his excesses. In his 2002 memoir, he copped to “ridiculously immature behavior” in calling two Arizona Republic staffers liars. But much of that behavior was never reported by the media. Reporters covered for him. So too did some establishment senators. Johnny Isaacson, a Republican from Georgia, went so far on Monday as to say, “Anybody who is any way tarnishes the reputation of John McCain deserves a whipping.”

Jack Shafer, the brave media critic for Politico, was so struck by the “sugary summations” of McCain’s life that he wrote a piece last week headlined “Are Journalists Allowed to Criticize John McCain?” He noted that “those who offered a dissenting or realistic view of McCain were rewarded with abuse.”

But John McCain was enough of a genuine American hero that he need not be placed on a pedestal and treated like a plaster saint. He was throughout his career what is called “a man in full,” a leader defined by his bold moves, bold personality, and bold accomplishments. He also deserves to be described in our farewells as a man in full, with all of his contradictions, inconsistencies, and expedient behavior.

By holding up him up as a paragon of virtue, the media failed last week in their job of telling John McCain’s story in full. I suspect their credibility took another hit with many Americans as a result, a credibility that is already so low that someone like Donald Trump has been able to exploit it.



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