Feb 24 2000

Covering McCain

Are Journalists On the Bus or Off the Bus?

In the battle for the Republican presidential nomination, George W. Bush has deployed the traditional big guns of the party establishment and carpet-bombing TV ad campaigns. Yet he’s been unable to subdue John McCain, whose mobile, guerrilla operation is bolstered by a merry band of fellow travelers in the press.

Imagine that in a roomful of journalists, Bush or Al Gore had told a joke about the ugliness of the teenage daughter of a political rival. Or had used a racial slur. You’d expect loud, negative news coverage. But if the candidate is McCain and the room is his “Straight Talk Express” campaign bus, you get not a bang, but a whimper from reporters.

When McCain referred to Vietnamese as “gooks” months ago, not one journalist objected and few reported it. (His campaign said last week he would discontinue using the term.) When he belittled the teenager, according to U.S. News and World Report, “one reporter just begged McCain to shut up and protect himself.” Journalists on board sometimes seem more like campaign aides than reporters.

McCain’s bus may be the most celebrated since Ken Kesey’s psychedelic bus crisscrossed America in the days of Barry Goldwater’s campaign. The LSD-ingesting Merry Pranksters on Kesey’s bus sought to create their own magical reality. The assumedly sober journalists on McCain’s bus are supposed to find their way to objective reality.

The Senator has dazzled reporters with his candid (often simplistic) talk. Refreshingly independent, folksy and blunt, McCain is as charismatic a leader as Kesey, author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But unlike the Pranksters, political journalists aren’t commune members on a wild trip barreling toward unified consciousness.

To do solid reporting, journalists must be independent of their subject. Loyalty in Kesey’s commune was tested by asking: “Are you on the bus or off the bus?” In McCain’s traveling roadshow, journalists should be — at least mentally — off the bus.

Here’s some straight talk: A big part of McCain’s appeal to elite journalists is Vietnam guilt. Many baby-boomer reporters were well-connected collegians who evaded the war. In McCain, they see a hero: someone who didn’t evade the war, and who bravely survived brutality in captivity.

But was it heroic to dutifully bomb a poor country 7,000 miles away from our own? And in a war that killed over a million Vietnamese — many by napalm, white phosphorus and other chemical agents dropped from U.S. aircraft – was the killing made easier by dehumanizing those on the ground, including civilians, as “gooks” or “slopes” or “dinks”?

McCain is like a walking ghost returned from Vietnam, raising that dreaded issue from the grave. Yet few journalists — the Nation‘s Robert Dreyfuss is an exception — have seriously scrutinized how McCain’s Vietnam experience fuels his interventionist streak from Kosovo to North Korea that makes Goldwater look like a dove.

And few reporters are brave enough to ask McCain not only about the racist legacy of Confederate flags, but in the U.S. war against Vietnam. Those journalists aren’t usually aboard “The Straight Talk Express.” When an outsider like Dreyfuss rode the bus and asked a negative question, he sensed the consternation of other reporters: “The whole bus went silent.” Dreyfuss felt like “a skunk at the garden party.”

It’s not just “the boys (and girls) on the bus” who’ve fallen for McCain. National magazines began serving up cover-stories touting him in 1997; Esquire‘s headline trumpeted “John McCain Walks on Water.” A National Journal headline hailed him as “The Lone Ranger.”

Supposed TV tough guys CBS‘s Mike Wallace and ABC‘s Sam Donaldson both aired puff pieces on McCain. Wallace later told a reporter that if McCain wins the nomination, he might quit his job to support the Senator.

MSNBC has paid homage to McCain’s life and legend over and over for months, including Tuesday night after his Michigan victory, with specials that skirt over his less than heroic moments. No mention, for example, of the 1993 fundraiser he headlined for a fervidly anti-gay group in Oregon — an event that began with a speaker praising an Oregon woman who’d shot a doctor who performed abortions. (McCain justified his presence by speaking vaguely about tolerance.)

In view of claims that the political press corps is leftist and ideology-driven, it’s telling that journalists have shown such sympathy for a candidate who is conservative on almost every issue of social, economic or foreign policy except campaign finance and tobacco. In 1996, McCain endorsed right-winger Phil Gramm for president. He votes consistently anti-choice on abortion and against gun control measures like the Brady Bill and the assault-weapons ban. He opposes a minimum wage-hike.

Last year, the League of Conservation Voters ranked McCain’s environmental voting record at 11 percent, up from zero in 1998. The liberal Americans for Democratic Action gave his overall voting record last year a 5 percent ranking.

The “Straight Talk Express” may not roll over George Bush, but it has already run over and killed the myth of the liberal news media.

A version of this appeared in the Los Angeles Times (2/24/00).