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24 February 2000

Our current howler (part IV): Easy grader

Synopsis: McCain has been “all over the lot.” But he’s called a straight-shooter. Why is that?

Commentary by Lars-Erik Nelson
Washington Journal, C-SPAN, 2/14/00

McCain Fits Quite Well On Flank Firing at Him
Melinda Henneberger, The New York Times, 2/19/00

This man is not a Republican.
Jonathan Chait, The New Republic, 1/31/00

McCain's High Horse
Michael Kinsley, The Washington Post, 2/22/00

Inured to the chill of death?
Ann Coulter, The Washington Times, 2/23/00

McCain Rejects Accusations of Improper Tactics
David Broder and Rene Sanchez, The Washington Post, 2/24/00

Whoa, Nelly! First Lars-Erik Nelson fielded a call saying McCain had lied about Bush's budget (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/23/00). A short while later, Nelson heard this, from a caller supporting The Dub:

BRIAN LAMB: The last caller suggested that John McCain looks you in the eye and tells you the truth all the time. What's your experience with George Bush?

CALLER: ...I hear McCain saying, "I'm a straight-talker," and yet on my issue, which is pro-life, unlike your last caller from Charleston, I've heard McCain say, straight in the eye, that if he were given the option to overturn Roe v. Wade he would not do it, "in the short term nor the long term," then I've seen him look us straight in the eye and say he would overturn Roe v. Wade. I've heard him look us straight in the eye and say that his daughter, his minor daughter, if she were pregnant, that it would be her choice, then I've heard him look us straight in the eye and say the opposite.

Gulp. As with the previous caller, the lady's comments struck us as fair. McCain gave a speech in San Francisco this summer, declaring he would not repeal Roe v. Wade, and when an outcry from the right ensued, he quickly reversed his position. Asked (inappropriately) about his daughter, he wandered all about the town, saying first it would be his daughter's choice, then saying it would be a family decision. Neither answer seems to jibe real well with his claim to be pro-life. Even Nelson, who's partial to McCain, had to admit that the caller had a point:

NELSON: McCain has been all over the lot on abortion. It's a difficult issue. He's obviously not a true believer in the way that Gary Bauer was or that Alan Keyes was.

Again we meet the lazy standards often used when McCain seems to wander. Abortion may be a "difficult issue," but that was not the caller's point; her point was that McCain keeps saying different things—does not seem to be a "straight shooter." But even with top scribes like Nelson, McCain often seems to get passes. And when those New York Times scribes get it all workin'—well, here's Melinda Henneberger, in the piece we quoted in yesterday's HOWLER. Again, Henneberger is discussing claims by conservative groups that McCain is really "a moderate:"

HENNEBERGER: In fact, while conservative groups have questioned his commitment as an opponent of abortion, Mr. McCain has proved quite a reliable ally on the issue. The National Right to Life Committee has given him a 100 percent approval rating in 7 of his 13 years in the Senate, and his overall average of 86 percent would be far higher if not for votes on fetal tissue research, which he supports, and on campaign finance.

Asked about those numbers, the group's executive director, David N. O'Steen, said he was more disturbed by "signals" that Mr. McCain had sent during the campaign than by his Senate record.

But what exactly were those "signals?" Remarkably, Henneberger doesn't say. The passage cited ends her discussion of McCain-on-abortion. Henneberger begins her next paragraph like this: "Other positions of Mr. McCain that are apt to provoke some conservatives are similar to those held by Mr. Bush." Implication? Those crazy conservatives have their shorts in a wad over minor distinctions. But any right-to-life voter or organization would be concerned by McCain's shifting statements about abortion—statements which Henneberger's reader can't evaluate because Henneberger keeps them out of her piece.

What conclusion can we draw from McCain's statement in San Francisco? Either he doesn't understand abortion at all—doesn't grasp the issue's most basic parameters—or he was trying to signal moderate voters that he doesn't care about the issue that much. Is it conceivable that McCain just misspoke? It's hard to believe that any congressional veteran could possibly be so uniformed on this topic—except that McCain has displayed a woeful ignorance of an astounding array of issues. Read this, from Jonathan Chait:

CHAIT: Take one example. McCain says his economic plan is meant to help "the have-nots." As evidence, he points to his proposal to lift the amount of income subjected to the 15 percent tax bracket...But expanding the 15 percent tax bracket only helps those who are above the 15 percent right now, which is only the wealthiest one-fourth of all tax-payers. When told this, McCain is first undaunted. They "are in that bracket, but their boat is not rising," he insists. "They're a group of have-nots. They're in the have-not group." Later in the interview, though, McCain betrays second thoughts. "Maybe I'm not paying attention to the poorest of America," he says. "Maybe my priorities are not correct. I selected this course not thinking that it's perfect but thinking that it's the best I could come up with."

Such ignorance of one's own budget plan would be surprising in any hopeful. But McCain pleads ignorance on a wide range of issues in his TNR interview with Chait, and in a separate interview with Joe Klein in the New Yorker. (We'll examine these interviews in more detail next week.) Meanwhile, the flip-flops on abortion hardly stand alone; McCain did an instant 180 on the confederate flag, saying on Meet the Press that "we all know" the flag is a symbol of racism, then saying the next day, in South Carolina, that he considers it a symbol of heritage. (The straight-shooter read his statement directly from a sheet of paper he pulled from his pocket.) And does McCain shoot straight when he gets tough questions? Michael Kinsley offered a comment this week that we think is perfectly fair:

KINSLEY: McCain is not above misusing his honor as a blunt instrument. In the South Carolina debate last week, Alan Keyes raised a perfectly legitimate question about McCain's muddled position on abortion. How can McCain believe that fetuses are full human beings and still say that he would allow his daughter to decide for herself whether to kill one? McCain staged an umbrage fit: "I've seen enough killing in my life, a lot more than you have...and I will not listen to your lectures about how I should treat this very important issue." Oh, please. McCain cheapens his own heroism when he tries to use five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp as a rhetorical get-out-of-jail-free card.

This was the second debate at which McCain avoided Keyes' question in precisely this way. In yesterday's Washington Times, conservative Ann Coulter notes that McCain frequently hides behind Vietnam when he gets questions he wants to avoid:

COULTER: OK, fine. John McCain was shot down in Vietnam and held as a prisoner of war for five years, and Alan Keyes and George W. Bush were not. We know that. It's impossible not to know that since Mr. McCain reminds us of it every time he doesn't have a substantive answer to a question, which is becoming increasingly frequent.

One final point, from yesterday's news. Earlier in this cycle of stories, we watched McCain "explain" a South Carolina campaign flier, first by denying it came from his campaign, then by saying he had stopped distributing it, then by saying that he was still distributing it, but it was OK because the flier was accurate (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/22/00). We find it hard to reconcile this sort of hoohah with the "straight-shooter" label the press has hung on McCain; and in the Michigan campaign, it is now clear, the same behavior emerged.

Phone calls went out to Michigan voters describing Bush's visit to Bob Jones University. In part, the message on the call was inaccurate. The message said "John McCain, a pro-life senator, has strongly criticized [Bob Jones University's] anti-Catholic bigotry, while Governor Bush has remained silent." In fact, Bush has repeatedly stated that he does not share the views of Bob Jones III on the Catholic Church. But accurate or inaccurate, the calls did occur. Broder and Sanchez take it from there:

BRODER AND SANCHEZ: After denying any knowledge of the calls early Tuesday [election day], the McCain campaign confirmed today [Wednesday] that they had been made, but McCain said the statements were "accurate and didn't call anybody a bigot."

In this case, the McCain campaign denied its conduct while the calls were being made, then defended its conduct after the fact by (falsely) saying that that the phone calls were accurate.

Does this mean that McCain is dishonest, or shouldn't become the next president? No. We return to the point, first made by Frank Rich, with which we began this story cycle (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/21/00). We see no sign, as we review this campaign, that some hopefuls are saints and some are vile sinners; in particular, it is impossible to review McCain's complete campaign conduct and conclude that he is the hopeful free of error and spin. But the press corps continues to drum out a message; Saint John, they declare, is an authentic straight-shooter. Where, oh where, does this certainty come from? Come along as we go for a ride.


Tomorrow! Road trip! Four more stories! Laughing at jokes and enjoying free doughnuts, the celebrity press corps takes the public for an embarrassing bus ride.

Quindlen surprises the analysts: The analysts came right out of their seats, here at DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters, when they read Anna Quindlen's contrarian piece in this week's Newsweek. We don't necessarily agree with Quindlen's views, but the analysts were shocked to see a piece that so takes on conventional wisdom. As we've reported again and again, the uniformity of thought from the mainstream press is the most troubling aspect of current press culture. It's become rare to see anyone disagree with the norm. Quindlen had the analysts cheering. They were stunned to see a scribe do her job.