When corporate media have discussed the Iraq War as an issue in the 2008 presidential election—which is not very often, given the press’s eagerness to play down the war’s importance—pundits have treated it as an advantage for presumptive GOP candidate Sen. John McCain over his eventual Democratic opponent.
Given that McCain calls for a continuation of George W. Bush’s decidedly unpopular war, this might strike some as curious. And McCain’s foreign policy philosophy is, if anything, more hawkish than Bush’s; he has long been advised by leading neo-conservatives who generally despise international institutions and favor unilateral military force (Nation, 3/24/08).
But the conventional wisdom is that McCain simply has a built-in advantage on military matters. As NBC anchor Brian Williams put it to the Democratic contenders at a February 26 debate, one of them would be running against “a Republican with vast foreign policy expertise and credibility on national security.” The New York Times (3/5/08) similarly called McCain a “national security pro.”
In a March 13 report on how the three leading candidates differ on national security and military issues, NBC Nightly News correspondent Andrea Mitchell summed up the Republican: “John McCain’s life was defined by being a naval aviator, prisoner of war and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.” A soundbite from McCain followed in which the candidate boasted that he has “been involved in every major national security challenge for the last 20 years.”
When a Hillary Clinton television ad sparked a debate over national security qualifications, Time magazine’s Joe Klein (3/17/08) thought that while Barack Obama’s citing his Iraq War opposition was a strong response, “Even better was McCain’s: If you want someone really experienced on national-security issues to answer the phone, that would be me.” Obama’s war opposition is a good comeback, but McCain’s full-throated support for the war, oddly enough, is even better.
On February 20, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News devoted segments to McCain’s attacks against Obama. Both reports included McCain’s critique of comments Obama had made about Pakistan. As NBC’s Norah O’Donnell summarized, McCain “made a stinging judgment, saying Obama doesn’t grasp the fundamentals after Obama talked publicly about his willingness as president to strike terror targets inside Pakistan without telling that government.” While NBC quoted McCain calling Obama “naive,” left unsaid was the inconvenient fact that what Obama was advocating already seems to be U.S. policy (Washington Post, 2/19/08).
When McCain falsely claimed that Shiite Iran was supporting the militant Sunni group Al-Qaeda in Iraq, NBC’s political director Chuck Todd remarked (MSNBC, 3/19/08) that the media’s gentle treatment of McCain’s ludicrous claim “just shows you how much of the foreign policy experience stuff he’s got in the bank, because had Clinton or Obama done something like this, this would have been played on a loop, over and over, and would have absolutely hurt them politically.”
The media’s adherence to the pro-McCain storyline can be taken to unusual extremes; U.S. News & World Report (3/17/08) used the headline “McCain Has the Allure of a War Hero” over a piece about McCain’s relatively poor public speaking skills. But identifying McCain as a “war hero” could go a long way towards explaining the decision to label the most Iraq War-identified candidate as the best qualified to deal with such issues.
In a revealing moment, Newsweek’s Evan Thomas explained on the Charlie Rose show (2/8/08) why McCain gets away with harsh criticisms of his Democratic rivals on Iraq: “I think McCain has a license to use words that the rest of us could not,” Thomas explained, citing McCain’s years as a POW in Vietnam. “I mean, he can be pretty out there, using words like ‘surrender,’ because who is really going to question John McCain?” Not Newsweek, evidently.
Indeed, McCain’s Vietnam service explains much of his appeal to the media—but is itself something that can’t be examined with any measure of criticism. The exceptions to the rule are few. Phoenix New Times reporter Amy Silverman tried to wrestle with McCain’s war record in a lengthy piece headlined “Is John McCain a War Hero?” (3/25/99), pointing out that while McCain occasionally declines to label himself a “hero” for his wartime deeds, he nonetheless advances his biography as a political asset.
On his blog (Red State Son, 1/30/08), former FAIR staffer Dennis Perrin recalled an appearance on a New York radio show hosted by Fox News Channel’s Alan Colmes during McCain’s unsuccessful run for the Republican nomination in 2000. Asked to comment on McCain’s heroism, Perrin recalled stating, “I’m not sure how heroic it is to incinerate Vietnamese children.” The other panelists recoiled at his language; one told him later that such talk would never lead to regular gigs as a pundit.
That advice was no doubt true, but only points to the problem: Does John McCain deserve to be treated with such deference because he flew 23 bombing missions over Vietnam? Does being shot down, captured and tortured really constitute national security experience? These questions are simply beyond consideration for the corporate press, which seems eager to advance the idea that McCain’s Vietnam experience gives him sound judgment about foreign policy—never mind his actual record.