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8 March 2000

Our current howler (part I): "I love his story"

Synopsis: Can you tell McCain’s life story to kids? Yes, you can—if you just tell the good parts.

Nothing Left To Fear
Carl Bernstein, Vanity Fair, 12/99

The Old Order Closes Ranks
Jonathan Alter, Newsweek, 2/21/00

A Very Human Hero
Jonathan Alter, Newsweek, 2/14/00

Commentary by Tim Russert, John McCain
Meet the Press, NBC, 3/5/00

It's now commonplace to remark on John McCain's favorable coverage, but a passage from one profile caught our eye some months back. It was an opening quote in Carl Bernstein's Vanity Fair profile of McCain, which was entitled "Nothing Left to Fear." The inspiring title was one of many which seemed to draw conclusions from McCain's life story. The profile began with a quote from Bob Kerrey:

KERREY: He's not afraid to lead and not afraid to take some hits. He's faced death and survived it. That makes John who he is. I love his story. Yeah, he'd be a great president.

Kerrey's comment was remarkable coming from someone who was actively supporting a different candidate (Bill Bradley), but it expressed a view about McCain's campaign that has been widely expressed. That view: McCain's life story shows that McCain is uniquely suited to serve as president. More particularly, McCain's conduct and experience in the Vietnam War help show he would be a great prez.

In Bernstein's profile, it wasn't just Kerrey who cited McCain's story. Early on, someone else drew conclusions:

BERNSTEIN: What has set McCain apart, makes him outsize, and keeps him near the top of the list of every TV-talk booker is what he did before he got to Congress—and how he has assimilate that experience since. "He's had a life," notes Bill Bradley, the former senator (and fellow presidential aspirant), of whom the same might be said. "I think near-death experience allows you to focus on what's really important, because, you know, you might not be around if you keep waiting for the big moment."

Even other candidates were inspired by McCain's story! Meanwhile, Bernstein's editors had a different take on the ultimate meaning of McCain's history. Here's the synopsis that introduced Bernstein's piece:

VANITY FAIR: By now, the heroism of Senator John McCain's five years as a P.O.W. in the "Hanoi Hilton" has become a legend. More intriguing, as McCain seeks the Republican presidential nomination, is the way his political near-death—the Keating S&L scandal—brought him a new kind of freedom.

For Bernstein's editors, Bradley had cited the wrong "near-death." It wasn't McCain's literal "near death" in Hanoi that was liberating. It was the figurative "near death" the solon experienced in the course of the Keating Five affair.

As a candidate, you know it's going well when you're cited for "bad judgment"—as McCain was cited in the Keating Five affair—and the experience is later presented as proof of how great you would be in the White House. But that's the way it's been this year as the press corps has limned McCain's history. Pundits have drawn endless strings of conclusions from the remarkable events of Senator McCain's early life. For example, here's how Jonathan Alter closed out a column written just before McCain's defeat in the South Carolina primary:

ALTER (2/21): I met several South Carolina Republicans convinced that the reason so many Democrats want to vote for McCain is to trick the GOP into a nominating a candidate so weak that he'd be easy for Al Gore to beat. In their minds, the press was turning over the Queen of Diamonds, manipulating their primary. In fact, McCain would be Gore's worst nightmare: as Bush is learning, it's hard to torment a man who's been tortured by professionals.

It is? It's now conventional wisdom that McCain blew his cool during and after the South Carolina primary—that he became personally angry at Bush campaign tactics, and veered off-course and off-message. In fact, just a few paragraphs earlier in his piece, Alter had recounted this anecdote:

ALTER (2/21): "He [McCain] is my best friend," Sen. Phil Gramm told a group of lobbyists at a Bush fund-raiser shortly after the New Hampshire primary, "but his views on campaign-finance reform would make us the minority party for the next 25 years." Gramm should have spoken in the past tense about the friendship with McCain: it was one thing for him to endorse the fellow Texan Bush; another to actively trash McCain, who campaigned for him in 1996 and now looks pained at the mention of his name.

This anecdote might have suggested a possibility which has since seemed to be proven true—Senator McCain is remarkably thin-skinned for a politician of his well-deserved stature. But for many journalists, the evidence of the senses has been overwhelmed by compelling lessons derived from The Story. The Story has become the basic text from which McCain sermons are drawn.

Is it smart to judge hopefuls on their personal "life story?" We think it's a dangerous practice. When scribes begin reciting a hopeful's "life story," it's an open invitation to gross subjectivity, and to highly selective narration. Consider a comment which Alter had made one week earlier in a Newsweek profile. Alter commented on "Vietnam and the mythic status it affords [McCain], especially among pampered baby-boomer males." Then he made this observation:

ALTER (2/14): More important, McCain's life story can be told to their children, an important selling point for women voters too. The whole "straight talk" campaign is predicated on McCain's being the ultimate anti-Clinton. Instead of the blue dress, there's the tattered wash rag that for years was prisoner McCain's only possession.

The passage presents several basic points frequently made about McCain's life story. These points are commonplace—but are they really true? Is it true that you can tell McCain's story to kids—all of his story, not just the good parts? Is it true that McCain is the "anti-Clinton"—McCain, the only one of the four major hopefuls whose sexual history resembles The Big He's? Can you tell kids the story of the first McCain marriage? Can you tell them about Marie, the Flame of Florida? Can you tell them the one about McCain drunkenly crashing through his date's screen door? Indeed, can you tell them the one about the Keating Five, if the story isn't lightly cleaned up? Anyone's story can be told to kids if you only tell the kids the good parts. Bill Clinton has a fantastic life story, if you leave out the parts folks don't like.

No one who reads about McCain's POW years could fail to be stunned by the suffering involved. But what, if anything, should that mean to a voter? Life stories don't interpret themselves. When scribes start interpreting a hopeful's life story, they tread on notoriously subjective soil. It's lots more fun than actually examining the long public record of a major public figure. But the repetitive coverage of Senator McCain helps us see something about life stories—they can lead the public discourse astray, as ardent scribes decide to tell us the parts of the stories they like.


Tomorrow: When journalists tell us McCain's life story, they often skip over parts they don't like.

We don't get it: We think the issue of those "Catholic Voter Alter" phone calls has been thoroughly hashed and rehashed. It would have been fine with us if they had never come up when McCain appeared on Meet the Press this past Sunday. But host Tim Russert did bring them up, quizzing McCain about his past statements. Here is part of what Russert said:

RUSSERT: It went on to Tuesday night [2/22]. David Gregory said to you, "He had allies criticizing you. You had allies criticizing him." McCain: "Not so. No, that's not so. The calls were made that I had anything to do with—although I don't know who paid for them—had to do within pointing out that Governor Bush did go to an institution that prohibits racial dating, that is anti-Catholic." You knew who was paying for that call.

On screen, Russert's producers posted the transcript of the quoted exchange with Gregory, including the text of Gregory's question.

Responding immediately, McCain said this:

MCCAIN (continuing directly): I was paying for calls that stated the facts. The question that was asked me was, "Are you running calls that are—that accuse Governor Bush of being anti-Catholic or practicing racial bigotry?" I said no then. I say no now. We were running factual statement

But, as the posted transcript (which Russert read) makes clear, McCain was not asked if he was "running calls that accuse Governor Bush of being anti-Catholic or practicing bigotry." As we have pointed out before, McCain's oft-repeated account of what he was asked is difficult to square with the facts.

What did McCain say when Russert brought this up? Nothing, because Russert never mentioned the discrepancy. Having just read the text of Gregory's question, he accepted McCain's description of the question without any question or comment. At this point, Russert had had an entire week since Sam Donaldson accepted the same odd statement from McCain on This Week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/29/00). We mention this not to pile on McCain—again, we think this issue has been thoroughly explored. But it's important to see the weakness of the analytical skills found at the top of our national discourse. We don't know how to explain this work—Russert clearly wasn't trying to coddle McCain, since he went on to criticize McCain for being indirect to the point where McCain was visibly annoyed. But it's important to understand: the most obvious howlers often pass unnoticed at the top levels of our national discourse. This example was so stark, so puzzling and so disappointing that it brought the analysts right out of their chairs. What's the point of asking a question if you're prepared to accept answers like this?