David Brock and Paul Waldman from Media Matters Action Network wrote a new book entitled "Free Ride: John McCain and the Media." Before I discuss the book, however, I need to make a confession: I used to like McCain.
I bought into the media persona of 'McCain the Maverick.' I've done a ton of reading on politics over the last four to five years. I've read, and re-read, the Constitution. I read the Washington Post and the New York Times most days. So, I've read a lot on McCain. You simply can't help it if you read about national politics because McCain's name pops up repeatedly. He is especially a favorite on the Sunday morning 'yack-a-thons.' That's how I got sucked in.
The one thing that has recently become obvious, even to me, is that McCain has changed his position on a number of major issues over the last seven years. Specifically, his position on the religious right, tax cuts, torture and the Iraq War has changed over the years.
So, back to the book "Free Ride." Free Ride is a well-written and extremely well-documented expose on John McCain. The foundation of McCain's media personality is based on three issues: his Vietnam experience, campaign finance reform and the way he deals with reporters. The combination of these three things have given McCain an almost saint-like quality. Let's be honest, most people groan in pain when Washington is mentioned. McCain has managed to paint himself as the most un-Washington of all of the politicians in Washington.
In Vietnam, McCain was shot down while flying a mission over Hanoi. He was tortured for five and a half years before being released. He is a true war hero. I don't deny this, and neither does this book. But unlike other veterans who have run for office or are still in office, McCain's service is special according to the press. McCain comes across as honest and incorruptible because of his service in the war. In addition, McCain seems modest and really doesn't want to talk about his service. Although I will again point out that his service to our country was incredible, just because he served doesn't mean that he is incorruptible. Despite this fact, the press continues to support the narrative of McCain's 'sainthood.' The authors point out that any article mentioning McCain, whether it is about the Iraq War or nuclear waste or clean air, will also mention that McCain served in Vietnam. These same standards apparently do not apply to John Kerry or Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in Vietnam.
The most inaccurate part of the public McCain narrative, in my opinion, focuses on his supposed modesty. McCain frequently mentions his Vietnam service in his own speeches. And his campaign just launched a media campaign to introduce McCain to the public-- starting with his war service. McCain will use his military experience as a punchline. He has used the line, "I haven't had his much fun since I was in Hanoi" on a number of occasions. Even more, after watching the Arizona Diamondbacks lose a game to the New York Yankees in the World Series he said, "I hadn't had so much fun since my last interrogation in Hanoi." When McCain's honesty was questioned over the Keating Five scandal, he shot back, "Even the Vietnamese didn't question my ethics." McCain, my opinion, wears his Vietnam service like a shield that he uses to deflect criticism and bolster his character flaws.
Campaign Finance Reform gave McCain his 'maverick' label. The media painted the picture that he was fighting against the powers-that-be in Washington. They focused on how he stuck by his guns and got a tough unpopular bill passed because he thought it was the right thing to do. That is a nice tale, but doesn't quite tell the whole story. The majority of Americans supported campaign finance reform. The majority of Democrats also supported this measure. He did, however, face some opposition in his own party. The irony of McCain-Feingold is that it choked off democratic money from traditional sources like unions. Republican big donors moved seamlessly to 527 groups. The 527's have infused more, not less, money into campaigns. So, it is hard to see how a label of a 'maverick' really applies.
The media gave favorable coverage, McCain learned early on, if he spent time with the them. So, of course, he gave the media quality time. He would invite them into his office or on his bus to talk "openly" for hours-- a contrast to the "guarded" language that most politicians offer. He will have a drink with them. He will tell off-color jokes like, "Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Janet Reno is her father and Hillary is her mother." He once referred to a senior citizens home named Leisure World as "Seizure World." Now, if Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama had said anything even close to that, the media would put it in an endless loop and play it for a week straight. I had never heard these offensive jokes until I read, "Free Ride." The media just doesn't report McCain-isms (Is this a new term? Should I copyright it?).
I could go on and on about McCain, but I would like to relate one story about McCain's temper that is described in "Free Ride." McCain's temper is famous and he has blown up at Republicans and Democrats alike. A volunteer for McCain was charged with setting up the podium for him to speak. McCain tore this poor volunteer a new orifice because the podium was too tall and it made him look short. In another incident, McCain was very aggressive in his questioning of Anita Hill (remember the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill confrontation?). An elderly constituent, Diane Smith, took the time to write McCain and explain that she thought that he was overly aggressive. McCain called Ms. Smith and "rant[ed] on and on about what nerve I had to question his integrity," she said. One could easily blow off Ms. Smith, but there are tons of Ms. Smith stories out there.
"Free Ride" is a must read. If you are going to read any political book this politician season, I would highly recommend "Free Ride: John McCain and the Media."