In 1999, E. J. Montini, a columnist for the Arizona Republic, had an interesting conversation with an out-of-town reporter. "The reporter from Atlanta wanted to know what the problem was between Arizona Sen. John McCain and the Arizona Republic," Montini recalled. "He said McCain's campaign people told him not to talk to reporters in Arizona, not if he wanted to get to know the real McCain." The correspondent was also told by McCain's campaign "to speak with reporters in Washington, D.C." if he wanted to find out more about the senator -- surely an odd recommendation. "Why would the McCain folks say that?" he asked Montini.
"Because they're smart," was the columnist's reply. Montini knew of what he spoke. As a Republic writer, he had known John McCain since before he was a national figure, and had seen how Washington reporters came to view him far differently than their Arizona colleagues. As Montini wrote:
Just about any member of the Washington press corps will be able to reel off three things about Sen. John McCain: 1. He's a war hero, having suffered through 5 ½ years in a North Vietnamese prison camp. 2. He's a maverick who's taken on his own political party in fights with Big Tobacco and campaign finance reform. He's a straight-shooter, a lovable rogue who admits raising hell as a young man.
But having known the senator for much longer, Montini knew that such a depiction of McCain was the journalistic equivalent of an airbrushed pinup. "McCain is the most attractive political candidate in America, on the surface," Montini acknowledged. "And that's exactly where McCain's presidential campaign wants to keep it. On the surface."
A love affair took place aboard John McCain's Straight Talk Express during the 2000 presidential primaries, one truly unique in the history of American political journalism. And it has hardly waned in the years since. The media, usually known for their ravenous appetite for scandalous behavior, have conveniently left out the legendary tales of the senator's hair-trigger temper, his mean and vulgar sense of humor, and his questionable ties to shady characters. While reporters spill gallons of ink on McCain's admirable qualities, they have shoved to the side his unattractive traits, features of the McCain personality and record that he is no doubt all too happy to have the public overlook.
If one looks beneath the surface, one can find a treasure trove of stories and anecdotes about a McCain that would be unrecognizable to many Americans: short tempered, foul mouthed, bullying, and unscrupulous. Such accounts have been found mainly in Arizona media and less widely read sources. Those who have covered him the longest, the reporters of the senator's home state, have over the years done an admirable job of offering a full and complex portrait of the senator. For their efforts, these reporters have frequently been bullied by McCain -- the stories of McCain's angry run-ins with reporters almost all concern those from Arizona -- and largely ignored by the Washington press.
E. J. Montini says that Arizona reporters were once like the national media, smitten by the dynamic new lawmaker in the 1980s. But as with most love affairs, the passion cooled. "Over the years, though, contradictions surfaced," he wrote. "The campaign reformer cozied up to bigwigs he's supposed to regulate. The iconoclast trashed Big Tobacco but not Big Alcohol, financing campaigns with money from a beer distributorship owned by his wife's family." As the Arizona Republic noted during his first presidential run, McCain "has romanced the national press while warring with Arizona reporters."
McCain's character and record are worth discussing because for so long the press has portrayed McCain as a paragon of virtue, a man to whom the stereotype of politicians as calculated and venal simply does not apply. To grasp just how different his media image is, imagine for a moment if every politician were portrayed the way John McCain is. The focus would stay on their perceived greatest strengths, not their most glaring weaknesses. Reporters would retell the stories of candidates when they seemed at their best, not the moments when they were at their worst. Their "character" would be defined in the media by the noblest thing they had ever done, and the less flattering incidents would be pushed aside, to be dismissed if mentioned at all.
Whether such coverage would produce a more informed public better prepared to understand our nation's politics is debatable. What we do know is that the McCain the media have given us is all virtue and no vice -- a veritable Washington superhero. The real John McCain, however, is all too human.
About the Authors:
David Brock is the author of four political books, including The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy. In his preceding book, Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative, a 2002 New York Times bestselling political memoir, he chronicled his years as a conservative media insider. Brock currently lives in Washington, D.C.
Paul Waldman is the author or coauthor of three books on politics and media, including The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories That Shape the Political World. His last book was Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success. Waldman is also a columnist for The American Prospect and lives in Washington, D.C.