McCain and the Media: A Tragic Love Story

In the beginning, it was beautiful, as all young love is. He was the dashing fighter pilot and war hero turned Senator; they were the belles of the DC ball, the coquettish and pretty national media. John McCain swept them off their feet with his mavericky ways and unfettered access. Nothing else made the press giggle with girlish glee as a politician biting his party’s hand in lip-service to “the people.” That McCain’s actions rarely affected any outcome or prevented the GOP from getting its way was irrelevant. [] He was good for a contrarian sound bite and allowed the innocent press to project onto him their fondest wishes of what a real Daddy politician should be like, and all was right with the world. McCain was a staple on all the popular pundit shows, and they loved him for it. They talked ‘til the wee hours in the morning about what it was that “real” Americans liked. They laughed at all his jokes and he really seemed to get them, tailoring his talking points not to his constituents or Americans in general, but to them. He made them feel important. It was magic.

The romance reached full flower heading into the 2000 presidential election. Eager to see their town rid any remnants of that nasty Clinton man, who they just hated hated hated, the national media lined up behind their Maverick. When John McCain won the New Hampshire primary, the press swooned. When he took on the religious “agents of intolerance” and the bigots at Bob Jones University, they clapped and cheered his straight talking style. But trouble loomed on the horizon. A brash newcomer from Texas had caught the media’s eye. He was rich, well connected and had an even folksier quality than their Arizona beau. When George W. Bush sucker punched McCain in the South Carolina primary, the press booed and attempted to console their man, but at the same time they were secretly impressed. Fighting dirty turned them on. It was hot. Soon after, McCain received his “Dear John” letter from the press. It’s not you, they told him, it was them. They had met someone else. Bush had won the Republican nomination, and the press had to be true to themselves, and they just had to go with the winner. They hoped McCain understood.

The Maverick was disconsolate. Something inside of him died with his lovers’ betrayal. He tried to move on, to be a good Republican in the hope they would take him back. He even embraced his former rival, quite literally, but seemed resigned to the old adage “’tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” But then a funny thing happened. It turned out the media’s new love wasn’t the Big Man on Campus they’d been led to believe. Sure, he talked a good game, and that mangled-English Joe Six Pack quality still made them blush, but it started to become apparent that Bush was a bust, and they’d picked the wrong man. The press was too vain to admit their mistake, but when they saw their first love take the spotlight again with his awesome Surge, the spark rekindled. Soon the press was writing McCain love letters again. He was hanging out with that nice Lieberman boy, whom they also had a (platonic) fondness for, and when McCain announced his 2008 campaign, the press jumped on board with both feet. And for a time, it was like they’d recaptured that old magic. The barbecue parties, rides on the tire swing, cuddling in the back of the Straight Talk Express. Heaven.

But McCain was a different man now, never having forgotten the crushing emotional blow in 2000. The press had matured, somewhat, as well. Having learned some small lesson from their ill-fated affair with Bush, they would occasionally ask McCain a question that went beyond his charming sound bite. He didn’t like that. He became a little pricklier with the media, his temper quicker to rise when they asked him for any details on his vague proposals. And then he started hanging out with a different crowd, the same lunatic fringe that he had denounced in 2000. The media tried to overlook this. They focused on the bright side, that McCain had learned his lesson from eight years ago and was now playing to win. But it soon became apparent that something wasn’t quite right. First was the realization that maybe the public wasn’t listening to them when they went on and on about how great McCain was and how he wasn’t like all those other unpopular Republicans. And then there were the lies. Small ones at first, which, naturally, the press tried to cover or dismiss or find some false equivalency for. But then the lies got bigger and harder to ignore. The public was laughing at them now, and it began to dawn on the media that it was because of their unwarranted affection for John McCain. This would not do.

Then, the unthinkable happened. It was on a hot August night in 2008, after both parties were trying to maintain the illusion that everything between them was fine, that McCain got a little freaky. He proposed a menage a trios with some Alaskan hussy. The media blanched. Sarah Palin? He was kidding, right? But John McCain wasn’t kidding. He started showing off his new friend all over town, and while Palin seemed okay at first – she was folksy to a fault and didn’t let facts or logic get in the way of red-blooded conservative rhetoric – it was her friends that the DC cocktail crowd simply did not approve of. The press resented the rightwing fringe for always calling them the “liberal media,” despite their decades-long effort to undermine Democrats and advance every nutty notion the Republican party put forth. It began to seem like McCain himself valued these nutters even more than the press. The sex was still good – no one gave good interview like the Maverick – but there was little or no pillow talk afterwards. And then, one day, the media didn’t get invited to the back of the bus. John wouldn’t even let them talk to his new running mate. This made the press mad, and like a lover scorned, they began to turn on John McCain.

Among the first to announce that the relationship just wasn’t working anymore was Joe Klein []. Then Thomas “the Unit” Friedman gave McCain back his varsity letter []. Roger Cohen, one of McCain’s most fervent admirers, made quite the scene when he threw back McCain’s mix tape and ran sobbing from the room []. Showing a bit more sophistication, but no less disenamored, conservative stalwarts George Will [] and Chris “Son of William F.” Buckley [] put down their sherry glasses and announced they were leaving. Even David Brooks, putting lie to his claim of knowing what admirable qualities lay in the heart of hearts of average Americans, called Sarah Palin a “cancer” []. Even Christopher Hitchens roused himself from a drunken slumber to realize who he’d gone to bed with, and proceeded to gnaw off his left arm to make his escape []. As with all breakups, there was ugliness too. Kathleen Parker at the National Review Online – the internet repository for hardcore kool-aid drinkers – had the temerity to suggest that McCain’s new hottie should take a hike []. Parker’s moment of clarity was met with thousands of emails filled with the kind of hate normally reserved for…gasp!…liberals and Democrats []. And when someone like Bill Kristol, who only days ago was advising Palin to pursue the scorched earth campaign [] that was turning his fellow pundits away in droves, called McCain’s campaign “pathetic” and called for him to fire his staff for having stupidly followed his own advice [], gets accused of “buying into the Obama campaign’s party line,” [] you know the romance is over.

Soon the only remainder of the love that once was will be David Broder, watching the dust settle as his comrades hightail it down the road in the overstuffed clown car they all came to the party in. Then he’ll turn, slowly, to face McCain’s rictus grin and Palin’s insanely perky visage, and stand in awe of the 800lb rabid behemoth of wingnut rage that is their only remaining support, declaring these people to be emblematic of the “real America.” Then, just before the beast opens its drooling maw and bites his head clean off his shoulders, will Broder utter his final words, a fitting epitaph for his entire profession, who will begin the search for their new conservative sugar daddy on, say, November 5th:

“True love never dies.”

– Michael Turner