Thursday, February 21, 2008

Who's a maverick and who ain't

Last night the New York Times posted a story about John McCain’s relationship with lobbyists, notably a female telecommunications lobbyist who was seen in his company a lot circa 1999, the first time McCain ran for President.

The above seems like a weak summary of a 3000-word story, but really, there’s not that much more substance to it. A number of observers have remarked how odd the story is on the page, as a news story. It talks around two issues: whether McCain had an affair with this lady, and whether McCain’s sense of his own integrity matches up to his actions relative to political money. But it’s a lot of smoke, not much fire.

The inside-the-Beltway, inside-baseball aspects of it are of most interest to me. The story reflects a self-consciousness on the Times’ part about its and the press’s role in creating the image of McCain the Maverick; there’s an impetus, if not to contradict, at least to complexify McCain and address the media’s complicity in his rise. (See also Ryan Lizza’s recent New Yorker profile of McCain.) A sidebar to today’s controversy is that The New Republic has a story about the debate within the Times’ offices whether to print the McCain + lobbyists story or not -- they’d been working on it for well over two months. The McCain campaign says that the TNR’s reporting forced the Times’ hand, which rings plausible to me. TNR’s Gabriel Sherman says the story seemed dead just a couple of weeks ago, and Times managing editor Bill Keller basically dared Sherman to write the meta-story to a story the Times killed. This all could be the result of a game of chicken gone amusingly wrong.

About the sex angle, I don’t care and would just as soon not know if McCain had this affair or not, but GOP primary voters might not feel the same, and the Romney campaign, for one, was intensely interested in whether or when a McCain adultery story would hit. The ethics angle is more troubling, but a recap of McCain’s career as a so-called reformer is not especially timely. The timing is important, and it may have worked out ideally from McCain’s vantage: too late to affect the primary season, too early to affect the general election.

I almost, *almost*, feel sorry for the NYT. Buffeted by wingnut invective on one side, the challenge of the Internet on another, the legacy of Judy Miller, Jeff Gerth, et. al. on another, the Grey Lady really doesn’t know which end is up a lot of the time. I’ll be interested to see if the story has any lasting impact, and if so, whether the impact is positive or negative for McCain. Claiming to be the victim of a jihad by the New York Times may be just the thing to unify the Republican base behind him.

I suppose it will be a good thing if today marks a break in the fawning treatment that John McCain usually gets in the political press. Far from being a saint, McCain is vain, ill-tempered, has a warped view of foreign policy, and should never be given unsupervised access to nuclear weapons. A curious thing, though, is that I have enjoyed getting this more complex and nuanced view of McCain. I started to write “I like him more,” but that’s not exactly right. I’ll never vote for him, and I imagine I’d find him a blowhard. Ryan Lizza writes how hungry McCain is for human contact – he’s a people person, which the great majority of war heroes and conservative politicians are not, and I’d wager that combination accounts for 90% of the seductive effect he has on reporters; take away the POW experience and they’d find him to be a blowhard too. But McCain’s had an amazing life, he has undeniable wit and charm, and there is something compelling and maybe tragic in his elevation of values like honor and courage in the arena of Washington politics. Being a maverick, or just being perceived that way, in a job (GOP Senator) that brutally punishes mavericks, paradoxically gave him room to operate. After a poor start to his 2008 campaign, he caught a series of lucky breaks and “stumbled” (Ryan Lizza’s word) to the head of a party in crisis.

I don’t mean that McCain’s honor or integrity are unimpeachable; his actions fail to measure up to his words. The main thing to say is he doesn’t deserve the reputation of a maverick reformer; his ethical behavior as described in the Times story is merely run-of-the-mill for a US Senator. I remember the Keating 5 scandal better than most people; I had a job during the Bush 41 years that required me to bone up on the savings and loan meltdown. The Times story doesn’t mention it, but the media should make more of the fact that McCain’s campaign is not going to follow the “McCain-Feingold” campaign finance rules. For all this, I still find McCain somewhat sympathetic, if flawed. His self-righteousness and self-regard just give him a notable blind spot. As others have observed, McCain is not a good ass-kisser or vote-panderer. Also, the outrage I might otherwise feel about McCain’s alleged influence-peddling is tempered by the knowledge that he’s not a particularly good fund-raiser – his campaign was flat broke a few months ago, he’s had to scale back his operations substantially (a less luxurious Straight Talk Express, for one thing), and some of his campaign staff are working without pay (though the NYT spins this as an ethically sketchy gift-in-kind). He’s not Machiavellian, he’s just an egotist; he’s never surprised when people do him favors.


I wanted a writing exercise, otherwise I’d have outsourced all McCain-and-the-media commentary to Eric Alterman here.

Here, however, is an example of Dr. Alterman’s puffed-up and wrongheaded views about popular music. It just so happens that I’ve been listening both to Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and Sweethearts of the Rodeo recently. Frankly, Sweethearts is a straight country record, and a fairly mediocre one. There’s not a thing about it that is more innovative than what Johnny Cash and others had done earlier in the 60s. It just happens to have been made by noted long-haired drug-taking hippie types. Gram Parsons is overrated, and Alterman has been taken in by the hype. Whereas on Everybody Knows Neil Young is doing something distinctive and new. People remember “Cinnamon Girl” and “Down By The River,” which are rock numbers, but the title track and “The Losing End” are closer to alt-country than the Byrds were. Experts may differ and so on, but Alterman is wrong to dismiss EKTIN’s importance so cavalierly.

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