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KLEIN REINVENTS! Klein said McCain was “almost laughable.” Today, though, he rewrites the facts: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MAY 19, 2006

THE COURAGE TO CONQUER: John McCain is “charming, funny, intelligent and heroic.” We know this because Michael Kinsley tells us, in a somewhat confused op-ed column in this morning’s Post. What is confused about Kinsley’s piece? Kinsley seems to think that conservatives dislike McCain “even though they agree with him” on the issues—on his “strong right-to-life stand on abortion,” for example. In fact, many conservatives don’t like McCain because they disagree with him on various issues—and because they don’t trust him on abortion, in large part due to his endless shape-shifting on the issue during Campaign 2000. No, McCain didn’t talk straight on abortion back then—he tended to say all things to all people—but all is forgiven in the national press. After all, you know the great rule: John McCain must always be fawned to. And yes, this rule finds slavish adherence. For example, here’s how Kinsley judges two graduation speeches by this greatest of all living saints:
KINSLEY (5/19/06): In his pre-campaign for president, McCain is delivering four university graduation speeches. He gave two already, at Falwell's Liberty University and at Columbia University. His words to these two different audiences are quite similar (a brilliantly McCainian combination of laziness and courage). Read the texts. They are marvelous: witty, self-mocking, above all interesting. When McCain climbs onto an old warhorse like, say, filial obligation, you really do not know where he might take it. It would be wonderful to have a president whose speeches weren't a duty to listen to.
Were McCain’s speeches “marvelous: witty, self-mocking, above all interesting?” That, of course, is a matter of judgment. (For ourselves, we’d judge somewhat differently.) But note the additional judgment we’ve highlighted. When McCain gives the same speech at two different schools, Kinsley admits that he’s been a bit lazy. But so what! Rules are rules! McCain’s performance was also “brilliant”—and, of course, it showed his “courage!” Remember: Every gesture, every word, must, by law, display McCain’s courage. There’s simply nothing the great man can do that the Kinsleys can’t find ways to fawn to.

That said, we were intrigued by the following anecdote:

KINSLEY: Journalists love him, of course. His frankness flatters us, and he flatters us more directly as well. Visiting a big convention of journalists last fall, McCain joined a group that was gambling at the hotel casino until the wee hours. In his speech the next morning, he cleverly nailed his audience and himself by declaring that he was happy to be among “my base.”
So “clever!” So honest! So refreshingly “frank!” But yes, we were intrigued by this picture of major journalists pal-ling around with the man they will cover when he starts his run for the White House. Did any of these high-minded scribes excuse themselves from the casino when McCain showed up to schmooze them till the wee hours? Did any journalist remove himself? Did any refuse to be fraternized?

We’ll offer much more about the press corps’ fraternization—and about McCain’s flattery—in the series we run next week. But for the record, the convention to which Kinsley refers was the American Magazine Conference, held at the Wyndham El Conquistador in Fajardo, Puerto Rico last October. After the conference, Jeff Bercovici of Women’s Wear Daily wrote a column in which he gave out some awards. One of them went to the conquistador himself—to McCain:

BERCOVICI (10/21/05): Second-Best Bill Clinton Impression: John McCain. In the middle of a two-hour gambling session, the Arizona senator introduced himself to an attractive young brunette and invited her to join him at the craps table. He soon declared the woman, who was attending the conference on behalf of a Rhode Island-based technology firm, to be his lucky charm, and forbade her to leave while his winning streak lasted.
Not that there’s anything wrong with it! For the record, Bercovici described a bit more of McCain’s “marathon session” in this short earlier post.

One more time, we’ll spell this out. We think McCain is a perfectly OK guy. But when journalists insist on describing his endless vast courage, they are deciding the next White House race. In Campaign 2000, they invented a demon; this time around, they’ve invented a saint. Dems and liberals said nothing back then. This time, the pattern is clear—and the time to start complaining is now. Or have we become such a bunch of whipped dogs that we’re too dumb and beat down to do it? We’ll guess at the answer now: Yes.

Special report: Inventing a saint!

PROLOGUE—KLEIN REINVENTS: In Campaign 2000, they invented a demon—and thereby sent George Bush to the White House. This time around, they’ve invented a saint—and Democrats must start complaining right now. All next week, we’ll offer you the comical story of the way this saint—this great Saint McCain—was invented by the press corps during Campaign 2000, as he flattered them on his fine bus. But make no mistake—he still gets treated like a saint, even now. Indeed, the sanctification has gone on for so long that recitation of this script has become second nature for career writers. Example: Consider the way Joe Klein reinvents McCain in his definingly awful new pseudo-book, the horrible Politics Lost.

In his book, Klein begins discussing McCain’s 2000 campaign with an inspiring note about health care. As usual, the solon’s work is beyond compare—at least, the way Klein recalls it:

KLEIN (page 165): If Jerry Brown’s Maryland campaign was the most fun I’ve ever had covering politics, McCain’s New Hampshire race was the most exhilarating. This was a candidate without fear, speaking in the plainest possible language. I never saw him duck a question, and his best responses had a startling clarity. Asked about health-care reform, for example, he said: “The problem is the Democrats are in the pocket of the trial lawyers and we Republicans are in the pocket of the insurance companies. And so there is gridlock, and there will continue to be, until we get the special-interest influence out of politics.”
But did McCain’s answer display “startling clarity?” In fact, you’ll note one problem with his answer; it fails to offer any ideas about successful reform! Indeed, when McCain finally presented his health plan in December 1999, its half-baked quality drew much comment, even from some mainstream reporters. For example, here’s paragraph 2 of Michael Kranish’s report in the next day’s Boston Globe:
KRANISH (12/15/00): McCain's speech was filled with broad statements about how it was unacceptable to have so many uninsured people, but his language was vague in many areas and he left out some detailed cost estimates. Asked after his speech to say how many of the uninsured would be covered under his various proposals, he responded: "Off the top of my head, half of them." A McCain spokesman said the total cost of the senator's program would be $4.3 billion in the first year, rising to $7.6 billion by the fifth year.
Others reported the fact that McCain’s aides were still calculating those basic figures several hours after his speech. And Kranish noted this slapdash approach on the part of McCain himself. (Kranish: “[I]n a statement that characterized much of his speech yesterday, McCain added: ‘If the package of reform I've outlined isn't enough to do the job, we'll do more.’”) But Kranish was hardly the only scribe noting McCain’s what-me-worry approach to health care. Two weeks later, in the Washington Monthly, Stephen Pomper gave McCain a grade of D-plus for his campaign performance on this issue. When it came to health care, McCain “has trouble staying on topic,” Pomper noted—and at some length, he explained what he meant. Pomper describes a Republican debate held on December 2, 1999:
POMPER (1/1/00): McCain supported Senator John Chafee's reform proposal in 1991 but disappeared during the great national debates and has only recently started to talk about health care again...But even today, he has not made the issue a strong priority and he has trouble staying on topic.

Here is McCain's response to health-care questions raised a few minutes after Orrin Hatch had been discussing the Internet (a subject McCain really likes) during the first Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire:

Moderator: "Senator McCain, several major HMOs are failing financially. The system isn't working. What do you propose to fix it?"

Senator McCain: "We need a Patient's Bill of Rights, and the reason why we haven't gotten it through the Congress is because on the Democrat side the trial lawyers have them in their control and they'll want to sue anybody for anything under any circumstance. On the Republican side, we're in the grip of the huge money from the insurance companies and the HMOs—the typical gridlock which has caused Americans to have such a low opinion of what goes on in Washington."

Not bad. But then he veers off-topic.

"The Internet should not be taxed. The Internet should not be taxed. The Internet is the greatest thing that's happened to the world—somewhere between the invention of the printing press and the industrial revolution..."

After another 100 words endorsing the Internet, the bell sounded and the moderator tried again...

Pomper quoted the moderator restating her question—and he quoted McCain veering off-topic again.(We offer the full transcript below.) In short, McCain had next to nothing to say about health care—except for the statement Klein cites in his book, a statement which made him look like a conquering hero in contrast to the two corrupted parties. “The Internet is important. But so is health care,” Pomper wrote as he gave McCain his D-plus. But so what? Six years later, Klein uses health care as the prime example of the way McCain “never ducked a question.” In fact, in the debate which Pomper cites, McCain used the very statement Klein cites to do that very thing.

But then, scribes like Klein have long been brilliant at ignoring McCain’s intellectual laziness, or even at turning it into an asset. (See Kinsley, Michael.) As he continues in Politics Lost, Klein makes a silk purse from the weathered sow’s ear of McCain’s hapless policy work during Campaign 2000:

KLEIN (page 166): [S]oon top editors from New York and Washington were trooping up to New Hampshire for rides of the “Straight Talk Express,” a road show that was part press conference, part borscht belt comedy routine, and occasional trial by fire. Every time a new big shot boarded the bus, armed with gotcha question and anxious to challenge the candidate’s vaunted candor, McCain would disarm him in the simplest possible way: he would admit that he had made a mistake or had gotten something wrong or didn’t know the answer. He did this constantly, and it was always successful.
According to Klein, McCain was “constantly” explaining that he didn’t know the answers to journalists’ questions—and this “was successful” with the press every time. But then, anyone who reads the profiles of McCain from Campaign 2000 will note a highly comical fact; it seems that McCain made thoroughly uninformed statements on virtually every major policy issue at some point during this race. (Next week, we’ll recall a string of these misadventures.) But before we close today’s report, let’s recall another Big Scribe who noted McCain’s awful work with health care during Campaign 2000. And yes, you guessed it—that scribe is Joe Klein! In his definingly awful new Politics Lost, Klein specifically cites health care when he says that McCain never gave a bad answer. But in a New Yorker profile during Campaign 2000, Klein recorded awkward exchanges with McCain about a string of policy matters. “When asked about the current state of welfare reform, he admitted that he hadn’t given much thought to the hard-core unemployables who soon may be left without benefits,” Klein wrote. “Nor had he given much thought to the estimated thirty percent of teen-age pregnancies that, according to some studies, may be the result of statutory rapes.” And uh-oh! These were hardly McCain’s only problem areas; McCain was also “boggled by health care,” Klein wrote in this piece. Indeed, Klein recalled the embarrassing scene when McCain released his health care plan in December—the scene which Kranish had mocked:
KLEIN (1/17/00): Health care isn’t easy, but McCain is running for president. He had just released, with no small fanfare, a “plan,” but it was almost laughably sketchy—with no real answers for the forty-four million people without health insurance, many of whom work at low-wage jobs. (Even the accompanying fact sheet was filled with errors.)
Uh-oh! In real time, Klein said that McCain had been “almost laughably sketchy” on health care, even when he presented his formal plan. Even his “fact sheet” had been filled with errors, Klein pointed out in real time. Today, though all has been reinvented. Today, Klein chooses this very issue as the prime example of McCain’s campaign brilliance. “This was a candidate without fear, speaking in the plainest possible language,” we’re told. “I never saw him duck a question, and his best responses had a startling clarity.”

But then, as we’ve seen for the past eight years, there is simply nothing these people won’t do to make the facts conform to their scripts. Today, your astonishing press corps has found a great saint—and they’re willing to lie to get you to love him. During Campaign 2000, McCain floundered and evaded badly on health care—his work was “almost laughably sketchy,” Klein wrote. Today, though, all is forgotten—disappeared. In a book which pretends to seek an “authentic” politics, Joe Klein shows that he knows his cohort’s great rules. Every gesture must show McCain’s greatness. Every speech must show his great brilliance—even those which were deemed to be “laughable” back when they actually occurred.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Simply put, there’s nothing Klein won’t say or do to make the facts conform to his scripts. In the passages we quote above, he reinvents McCain as a saint. To see him reinvent Gore as a demon, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/3/06. In Politics Lost, Klein reinvents the facts about Gore—just as he does with McCain. And as he does, he keeps insisting—he wants a more “authentic” politics!

FULLER TRANSCRIPT: Here’s the fuller transcript of McCain as he evades on health care. (Pomper nailed this session quite accurately—although this was not the first GOP debate.) The moderator who questioned McCain was WMUR-TV’s Karen Brown. Two weeks later, McCain presented his health care plan—and it was “almost laughable:”

BROWN (12/2/99): Senator McCain, several major HMOs are failing financially. The system isn't working. There is rampant patient dissatisfaction. What do you propose to fix it?

MCCAIN: We need a Patients Bill of Rights, and the reason why we haven't gotten it through the Congress is because on the Democrat side, the trial lawyers have them in their control and they'll want to sue anybody for anything under any circumstance. On the Republican side, we're in the grip of the huge money from the insurance companies and the HMOs—the typical gridlock which has caused Americans to have such a low opinion of what goes on in Washington.

The Internet should not be taxed. The Internet should not be taxed. The Internet is the greatest thing that's happened to the world, somewhere between—a combination between the invention of the printing press and the industrial revolution. It has unlimited potential to spread knowledge, information and freedom throughout the world, and economic development. And the sales taxes, as a result of the increase of the Internet commerce, even though there's a moratorium, have increased. And I believe that that's ample testimony that the Internet will increase sales taxes, and the governors are incredibly short-sighted when they want to tax this baby in its cradle. [Bell sounds.]

BROWN: Let me return to the issue of health care and HMOs. Given how expensive health care is, HMOs are now waking up to the fact that they can't deliver the promises they made to consumers and still be profitable. If, ultimately, HMOs disappear, what then fills the void?

McCAIN: Obviously the HMOs need to be made whole. We need to spend more money to make sure that they do. We have added more money for Medicare and Medicaid payments in the last emergency supplemental—(laughs)—that we passed. All of those thing have to be done, but I also believe that we have to take care of patients first. And if patients are not well-treated in HMOs, then obviously then the HMOs are not going to be sought out by them.

Again, on the Internet, we need to install—we are installing in every school and library in America filtering software that would filter out according to community standards the objectionable material. That's the way we resolve this issue of such a flood of pornography. And we are wiring those schools and libraries at taxpayers' expense.

At this point, McCain was finally saved by that bell; it was time for Brit Hume to question Gary Bauer. And now? Seven years after this gruesome performance, we’re told that the saint never gave a bad answer. “I never saw him duck a question,” a definingly awful book says.

But so it goes as the Washington press corps picks our next U.S. president for us. If Democrats aren’t happy with this, they need to start talking back—now.

CHAIT SWOONS: In a recent column in the Los Angeles Times, Jonathan Chait recalls Campaign 2000—and explains his own swoon for McCain. Since he mentions McCain and health care, we thought we’d toss it in now:

CHAIT (4/23/06): My swoon over McCain was for ideological reasons. McCain adopted all sorts of positions I shared. And his reasons seemed genuine. When he came to Congress, he had little expertise in issues other than the military, and thus tended to follow the Republican crowd. As he told me in 2000, "I was probably a 'supply-sider' based on the fact that I really didn't jump into the issue."

Then several things shook him loose from Republican ideology. As a presidential candidate in 2000, McCain had to think about the direction he wanted to take the country. He came into contact with middle-income Americans who were concerned about healthcare and making ends meet, not the capital gains tax. And he found himself attacked by the party apparatus for championing campaign finance reform, which up to that point had been his only real heresy.

McCain began questioning the GOP's alliance with the business lobby. "I think the party to some degree has lost its way," he told me, "and I think this is because of the influence of big money." He read up on Teddy Roosevelt, and saw himself as an heir to the great progressive who championed regulation and progressive taxes and bolted the GOP because of its alliance with business. McCain wanted to fuse energetic government at home with energetic and activist government abroad.

Say what? As a candidate, McCain “came into contact with middle-income Americans who were concerned about healthcare?” At the time, McCain had served in the House and the Senate for sixteen years. Does anyone know why he waited until he ran for the White House to “come into contact with middle-income Americans?”

As we’ll see next week, career journalists love to admit to “the swoon”—and then they unashamedly show it. In many ways, McCain was an utter embarrassment during Campaign 2K. Some swooners disappear that fact now. Other explain it away.