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10 March 2000

Our current howler (part III): Boys being boys

Synopsis: Wild, crazy sex was back in vogue when scribes told McCain’s inspiring story.

John McCain: An American Odyssey
Robert Timberg, Touchstone, 1999

The Outside Shooter and the Fighting Pilot
Howard Fineman, Newsweek, 11/15/99

His Early Promise Vanished, Bradley Plans to Quit Today
James Dao and Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times, 3/9/00

A Soft Spot for a Hard Charger
Jonathan Alter, Newsweek, 11/8/99

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

What you see is what you get
Franklin Foer, U.S. News, 2/14/00

Wild, crazy sex was back in vogue when scribes told McCain's inspiring story. For years we had been treated to lurid tales about another Alpha Male's horrid sex habits. But suddenly, the weather had changed. Robert Timberg's 1999 biography of McCain was the basic resource for many McCain profiles. Timberg, describing McCain's naughty past, seemed to express a retro ethic: boys could be boys once again. Timberg described McCain's final night with that hot Rio model we've mentioned:

TIMBERG (p. 54): The following night, McCain's last in Rio, the designer who brought them together had scheduled a farewell party for McCain. He and Elena ["not her real name"] planned to go to dinner first. He arrived at her apartment about eight, knocked on her door, and readied himself to be greeted by the aunt or one of the servants. No one answered his knock. He tried the door, found it unlocked, and let himself in.

You're probably wondering what happened next. Timberg, continuing directly:

TIMBERG: "I'll be right in," Elena called from the bedroom.

McCain wandered about the terrace. The moon was glinting off the bay. A bottle of champagne was chilling in a bucket of ice. When Elena joined him a few minutes later, she was not, McCain would later say, dressed for dinner.

Heh heh heh. You know what that means! We'll give you a moment to visit, then resume our incomparable deconstruction.

Back! Winking admiration for McCain's racy past is found all through the press profiles. McCain's hard-drinking, crash-through-the-screen-door courtship style seemed to evoke a simpler time, when men were men—and frequently tipsy—and didn't have to talk to their girl friends. Indeed, Timberg's critique is so permissive he even extends his approval to plane wrecks. Here's his account of an amusing incident from Spain, in the early '60s:

TIMBERG (p. 68): To the relief of McCain watchers everywhere, these early glimmers of maturity did not signal a radical transformation. His professional growth, though reasonably steady, had its troubled moments. Flying too low over the Iberian Peninsula, he took out some power lines, which led to a spate of newspaper stories in which he was predictably identified as the son of an admiral. The tale has gotten better with age. These days they talk about the day McCain turned the lights out in Spain.

"He continued to play hard on liberty," Timberg continues, "drinking, gambling, and otherwise availing himself of the charms of the Mediterranean littoral."

We have no particular quarrel with Timberg's approach to McCain's "carousing" past. But then, we haven't suggested that McCain be judged by other parts of his early bio, and we haven't spent the last eight years clucking about Gennifer Flowers. It's hard to read the press corps' accounts of McCain's early exploits, and their discreet avoidance of his post-Vietnam extramarital conduct, without thinking of the same group's critiques of Bill Clinton—and without seeing how we expose ourselves to gross subjectivity when we judge public figures by personal events from their past.

Subjectivity, selectivity and shaky inference have animated the biographical profiles. McCain's Vietnam experiences are so compelling that the press corps soon was fixated on them. This might almost seem like a noble approach, until one recalls that the press corps took a similar approach to Bill Bradley's NBA career. Last fall, Bradley rose in the polls before McCain, and received similar favorable reviews in the press. In Newsweek's November 15 edition, Howard Fineman spelled out the theory: "Bradley and McCain are hawking this year's hottest commodity: the aura of authenticity—and plain-spoken candor—that comes from a life that starts outside politics." Somehow, Bradley's ten years in the NBA was better than Gore's seven years as a scribe. Having praised the insurgents for leading real lives, Fineman explained the problem with Bush and Gore:

FINEMAN: By contrast, Al Gore and George Bush [seem to need to win to be complete]. Perhaps that's understandable. Both are the namesake sons of political fathers. Both expressed early ambivalence about politics and found their identity, belatedly but with a sense of fatalism, in running for office.

Of course, McCain was also the namesake son of a famous father; he too, as a youth, had observed political Washington right in his home (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/9/00). And Bradley had routinely heard he would run for president at least since he was in college. But never mind—throughout the fall, profiles stressed the insider status and ambition of Gore and Bush, while treating McCain and Bradley like hillbilly rustics. Scribes debated which was more cool: to be a war hero or a former sports all-star. A recent review of Bradley's failed campaign recalled the heady atmosphere:

DAO AND KRISTOF: Mr. McCain and Mr. Bradley were both running as insurgents against the political system, and both were running in part on biography. Mr. Bradley's Hall-of-Fame background had seemed about as amazing a past as a politician could have, but Mr. McCain was the one candidate who could trump him in that category.

Reporters were drawn to the utter irrelevance of Bradley's years in the NBA; but McCain trumped Bradley because of his stunning experiences in Vietnam.

Were those experiences relevant to matters at hand? Several pundits said that boomer scribes responded to McCain in part out of guilt—guilt that they had avoided Vietnam, where McCain had suffered so remarkably. Whatever the case, the attraction of McCain's POW years was obvious, and pundits soon were explaining matters large and small on the basis of the hopeful's experience:

ALTER (11/8/99): Walter Shapiro, a columnist for USA Today who admires McCain, says journalists are always looking for psychological effects of his five-and-a-half years of captivity in North Vietnamese prisons..."I think he suffers from 'conversation deficit,' and he's trying to make up for it," Shapiro says. "He talks to the press for hours while other candidate are hiding behind their briefing books."

Everything stemmed from Vietnam. By February, Alter knew different:

ALTER (2/14/00): At first it seemed that McCain's love of talking might be connected to his nearly two years (out of five and a half in Hanoi) of solitary confinement, where he could communicate with POWs only through an elaborate knocking code or by whispering through cups held up against the wall. But then old friends insisted he has always been this way.

Oh well. But it didn't stop U. S. News' Franklin Foer from sticking with the more pleasing story:

FOER (2/14/00): Fueled by the eight cups of coffee he drinks daily, he possesses an almost endless capacity to talk, as if he were making up for the months he spent as a POW in solitary confinement.

As Timberg said—sometimes good stories just get better. And sometimes they last when there's little truth to them. With McCain, something less happened—sometimes the press corps drew major inferences from Vietnam that would turn out to be deeply flawed.


Monday: What had Vietnam shown about Senator McCain's temperament? Lazy inferences turned out to be wrong.

First, you cry: Keening, wailing, and gnashing of teeth were found all through Thursday's Washington Post, as columnists struggled to come to terms with McCain's Super Tuesday defeats. For Richard Cohen it was still all about Vietnam:

COHEN: Tuesday was McCain's fifth crash. The previous four were in airplanes, but this one was in presidential politics.

It's called "more prejudicial than probative;" see Monday's DAILY HOWLER. Cohen was still reciting the stories he loved:

COHEN: It is all over now, finally and inevitably, a campaign like no other, a candidate like no other. McCain said anything and everything, a gusher of candor and humor that left me wondering—and finally asking—if there was anything he would not talk about.

We mean no disrespect to McCain to point out that he didn't seem to want to talk about those Michigan phone calls, or those South Carolina fliers, or his actual attitude about abortion. Cohen loved the hero too much to describe the actual man.

Meanwhile, Michael Kelly treated himself a standard dark-light candidate contrast; had McCain won the GOP nomination, he said, we'd have had a "genuinely attractive war hero" running against "an inside-Washington...son of privilege." That McCain was also a son of a Washington insider (nothing wrong with it) is a story these pundits know enough not to mention.

Mary McGrory was mad at the voters—"with the honorable exception of four New England states." Yankees are always the smart ones to McGrory, who praised New York's "sophisticated" GOP voters because they "pay close attention" (they also gave their state to Bush over McCain, by the way). Did you think we were kidding about the silly reactions to bio? Explain this passage if you will:

MCGRORY: McCain and Bradley were about as plausible a pair of reformers as could be—a war hero and a sports star.

We've searched for evidence that this was meant as a joke, but we really can't say that we found it. McGrory complained that neither Bush nor Gore "has a compelling personal history." Aawww. Poor scribe! To McGrory, Latrell Sprewell trumps dull Bush and Gore. Here's her view of how those hapless voters broke faith with the poor betrayed press corps:

MCGRORY (paragraph 1): Thank you, we'd rather be trite. That's what 11 states said on Super Tuesday.

(2) ...Fizz is fine, yes, and it's true we told you last fall we wanted authenticity above all else, but we've thought it over, and there's a lot to be said for the hackneyed and the hacks.

Of course, if "hackneyed and hacks" are in this year, some scribes should have few worries. Voters "told us" no such thing last fall—it was the press corps, telling the story it liked, who said the voters wanted "authentics;" pundits were even nice enough to say which two hopefuls would fit that description. But when voters don't do what the press corps instructs, they will soon be called unflattering names. Is it possible that some voters weren't thrilled with Bradley's laconia, or with the anger and emotionalism that emerged in McCain? Sorry—if voters don't do what the press corps instructs, they will soon find themselves called a variety of names: "bigots" if they live in the south, hack-lovers if they're from other climates.