The Corner

McCain, Obama, and the “Cone of Silence”

I’ve been looking into all this buzz that McCain somehow cheated — that he wasn’t in a “cone of silence” — during Barack Obama’s half of the Saddleback summit Saturday night. The talk got started on “Meet the Press” yesterday, when Andrea Mitchell said, “The Obama people must feel that he didn’t do quite as well as they might have wanted to in that context, because that — what they’re putting out privately is that McCain may not have been in the cone of silence and may have had some ability to overhear what the questions were to Obama. He seemed so well prepared.”

A few points. First of all, it appears that some commentators believe there was an actual “Get Smart”-style “cone of silence” at Saddleback. There wasn’t. Pastor Rick Warren was making a little joke when he used that phrase. But he was assuring the crowd that McCain was not hearing any of the questioning of Barack Obama.

Next, McCain, like Obama, knew the first two questions that would be asked of him — the “three wisest people” question and the “greatest moral failure” questions. Both men knew exactly what was coming at the start of the appearance. This morning I talked to A. Larry Ross, who is the media representative for the Saddleback Church, and he told me that Warren “gave both candidates the first two questions because he didn’t want them to be nervous…so they would be at ease.” Ross says that in separate phone calls with the McCain and Obama, Warren also went through the four general categories of questions and said things like, “I’ll probably ask you a question on this, or on that,” but gave no specific wording.

In addition, according to Ross, Obama knew a third specific question that Warren would ask — the one about a “president’s emergency plan for adoption.” “[Warren] felt that since that was basically asking for a commitment, he felt that it was fair to tell them in advance that he was going to ask them that,” Ross told me. So Warren told Obama, and planned to tell McCain when McCain arrived at Saddleback, but wasn’t able to because of other distractions. So according to what Ross told me, Obama actually knew one more question in advance than did McCain.

As far as the McCain side is concerned, I spoke to Charlie Black a few minutes ago. He told me McCain’s motorcade left his hotel at 5 p.m. Saturday — that’s the time Obama went on stage at Saddleback. Black told me the trip took 35 minutes, and that McCain was in the car with the Secret Service guys, Sen. Lindsey Graham, and press aide Brooke Buchanan. (Black was in another car.) Black says that McCain did not hear any of Warren’s questions or Obama’s answers during the car ride. Then: “We arrived at Saddleback and went into a holding room, which is a separate building from the main church. In the room there were four or five staff people, plus McCain, and there was no TV, no audio, no nothing. We talked through a few of the topics. We had spent time in the afternoon preparing, doing Q&A, and we did a few more questions to warm him up. At about ten til six, the advance guys came to get McCain to take him to the stage, because the handshake with Obama was a few minutes before 6 p.m. McCain never heard any of this stuff.”

Black confirmed that Warren had given McCain the opening questions, plus the broad themes, earlier in the week. “Other than what we knew from [Warren],” Black continued, “you didn’t have to be a genius to know that we were going to get asked about life, marriage, personal faith, staffing for faith-based organizations — a log of things we prepared him for didn’t come up, but a lot of them we anticipated.”

The bottom line is that Black, and others in the campaign, absolutely deny that McCain heard any of Obama’s answers or had any advance knowledge beyond what Rick Warren had given him. “Why would we need to do that?” Black asked me. “We had him prepared, and in any given situation, McCain is going to use his own instincts and give his own answers. It was like a town hall meeting, and Rick Warren was the only person in the meeting.”

“I’m sorry the Obama campaign is whining about having a bad night,” Black concluded, “but it wasn’t because we knew anything they didn’t.”

NOTE: When I referred to the “president’s emergency plan for adoption,” I should have written “president’s emergency plan for orphans,” which is the phrase Warren used. 

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