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9 March 2000

Our current howler (part II): To the good times

Synopsis: In telling Senator McCain’s life story, scribes have left out the parts they don’t like.

John McCain: An American Odyssey
Robert Timberg, Touchstone, 1995

Out of the Fire, Politics Calls
Lois Romano, The Washington Post, 3/2/00

No One Like McCain
Richard Cohen, The Washington Post, 11/16/99

P.O.W. to Power Broker, A Chapter Most Telling
Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times, 2/27/00

University Surprised by Lifting of Ban
Jim Davenport, The Washington Post, 3/5/00

[Note: We know, we know. Senator McCain may drop out of the race. But we want to compile a basic outline of the press corps' coverage of the White House campaign. We'll continue with this four-part look at the way McCain's bio has been reported. Coming next week: A trip to the temple—the Buddhist temple, of course.]

Imagine a White House hopeful with the following bio. He grew up the son of a high-ranking Washington official. He attended fine Washington-area prep schools. As a youth, he would sit in his family's Washington home, and listen in as his Dad spoke with senators and congressmen.

It sounds like the story of Vice President Gore, who has often been scorned for his insider background. But it's also the profile of Senator McCain, whose father was also an important Washington official. Let McCain's biographer, Robert Timberg, explain it:

TIMBERG (p. 23): At Saint Stephen's, an exclusive private school in the Washington, D.C. area, [McCain] had begun to display a defiant, unruly streak. But it was not until a few years later when he entered Episcopal High School, a boys' boarding school in Alexandria, Virginia, that those qualities emerged with a vengeance.

Why was McCain's family in the Washington area? Timberg explains that too:

TIMBERG (p. 29): During this period, [McCain's dad] took on two jobs that some feel jump-started a career on the verge of stalling. As the Navy's first chief of information, a public relations post, he cultivated influential Washington correspondents. A short time later he became the Navy's senior congressional lobbyist. Soon many of the nation's most powerful politicians were streaming to the spacious McCain town house at First and C., S.E., now the Capitol Hill Club, the GOP's official watering hole.

Did this have any effect on young McCain? Later, Timberg describes McCain as a POW, speaking with his cellmate, Bud Day:

TIMBERG (p. 87): Day was ten years older, but McCain was the more worldly, regaling his cellmate with tales of youthful carousing and womanizing. He was also more politically sophisticated, having kept an ear to the wall when his parents entertained senators, congressmen, and other big-wigs at their Capitol Hill home. Day said McCain helped him understand how Washington really worked, with emphasis on the human dimension.

These images bear an uncanny resemblance to images that appear in biographical profiles of Gore, right down to the coincidence about the Capitol Hill Club. Profiles often note that Gore was once allowed to listen in when his father spoke on the phone with JFK. They frequently note that Gore's family lived across from the Cosmo Club, a handy emblem of Washington power. Gore profiles generally cite these facts to highlight the official spin on Gore—to picture the veep as a privileged child, born to influence and power. But these similar episodes from McCain's early life have rarely appeared in his profiles, helping show the dangerous ground we tread when we let journalists become psycho-biographers.

What do Timberg's snapshots tell us? At THE HOWLER, we aren't really sure. Not being psychiatrists, sooth-sayers, clairvoyants or mind-readers, we try not to invest too much time and effort in limning a candidate's childhood. We think important public figures like Senator McCain should be judged and profiled on their adult public record—in McCain's case, on his 18-year record in the House and Senate. We realize that's boring and tedious work—much less fun than typing up pleasing bios. But we also think the profiles of McCain have shown the danger in conducting campaign-coverage-by-bio—in deciding to judge a White House hopeful on the basis of his (reported) life story.

Why have McCain profiles left out these episodes? In any given instance, we can't say. But, as the press corps fell into its much-remarked "swoon," the minor episodes we've mentioned above weren't the only items that disappeared from McCain's standard bio. Journalists said that McCain should be prez because of his inspiring and instructive life story. Meanwhile, they told that story in selective ways, stressing the suffering and heroism of Vietnam and omitting less admirable episodes.

Take, for example, a recent page-one profile that appeared in the Washington Post. Lois Romano offered a lengthy account of the years in which, to quote the sub-headline, the "Ex-POW Turn[ed] Washington Insider." Romano described how McCain served as naval liaison to the Senate, then moved to Arizona and ran for the House. In the lengthy article, Romano gives a brief, four-paragraph account of the end of McCain's first marriage. This is Romano's full account of extramarital conduct by McCain:

ROMANO: McCain has acknowledged having extramarital affairs after his return from Hanoi, and by the late 1970s his marriage was in trouble.

We have no particular problem with this way of telling McCain's life story, although it stands in contrast with some of the ways that President Clinton's extramarital conduct has been churned. (Nicholas Kristof goes into somewhat more detail in a similar profile in the 2/27 New York Times.) The Romano profile reverts to the "Kennedy rules"—to a day when the "private" conduct of public officials was generally not reviewed in the press. Under these rules, press and public had to judge public figures on the basis of their verifiable public conduct. On balance, we still think that's the way that public officials are most wisely and sensibly judged.

We have no problem with Romano's discretion in describing this part of McCain's life story. But what about some other scribes, who have said McCain's inspiring story shows he should be the next president? If scribes assert or imply such a view, don't they have some obligation to report the entire story? In Carl Bernstein's profile in Vanity Fair, for example, Bob Kerrey said, "I love his story" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/8/00). But the profile skips quickly past the marital conduct, directing readers to other parts of Senator McCain's life. And what kinds of judgments have been drawn from his Vietnam service? In November, Richard Cohen wrote this:

COHEN: A few times at some campaign stop, we would hear McCain described as a hero. Yes of course—but not in the sense of someone who had a surge of courage, a moment of virtual insanity, and won a medal as a result. No, McCain's heroism was a day-to-day affair, a marathon of agony, terror and despair over a matter of principle. That says something. That says everything.

Quite literally, readers are told that the Vietnam service tells them everything about McCain. When journalists offer that kind of judgment, they're surely obliged to tell the whole tale. But ardent scribes have generally told only certain parts of McCain's story. To all appearances, they have often told only the parts of the story they like.

By the way, Kristof's recent profile told a part of McCain's story we had never heard mentioned before. Kristof, saying that McCain had been ambitious from quite early on, described a conversation while McCain was still imprisoned:

KRISTOF: Mr. McCain let the scope of his ambitions slip out again in fall 1970, when he was in Vietnam and four of the prisoners of war were put together in a cell. They spent a couple of weeks talking nonstop, and the conversation soon touched on their dreams...

"We asked John what he wanted to be—chief of naval operations?" recalled Richard A. Stratton, one of those present. "He said, no, the best job in the Navy is commander in chief of the Pacific forces, because then you're chief warrior. But he said that what he really wanted to be was president.

"With him, it's no flash in the pan, no sudden dream," Mr. Stratton said. "He's been thinking of this for a long time."

So has Gore, we've often been told, although we don't recall reports of such direct statements by Gore. Why hasn't this anecdote appeared in other McCain profiles? We, of course, can't really say. Is there any chance that, in a year when ambition just wasn't considered cool, it didn't tell us the story scribes liked?


Tomorrow: Scribes have drawn sweeping inferences from McCain's bio. Some haven't quite turned out right.

Bigot watch: We congratulate scribes who have attempted to provide more nuanced treatment of the Bob Jones U flap. Are the Bobcats a predictable bunch of bigots? One piece of reporting was done by Jim Davenport, in the Post. His article ended like this:

DAVENPORT: Bob Jones IV, 33, is the first in four generations to break ranks for a career outside the university. Jones, a writer for the Christan magazine World, said he made a deliberate decision not to follow in his namesakes' footsteps.

He said his academic career belies the charge that his father is anti-Catholic. He earned a master's degree in history at Notre Dame with the full support of his father, he said.

Gustav Niebuhr wrote an interesting piece in the 3/5 New York Times, noting that the BJU student body president—Kevin Inafuku, from Waiame, Hawaii—is the son of an East Asian father and a white mother.

The traveling press corps—as is their wont—leaped to easy conclusions about BJU. We suspect the truth about the 'cats may be a bit more complex.