When John McCain selected Alaska governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate, pundits and reporters saw the move as more proof of McCain’s “maverick” nature–despite the fact that Palin’s selection would seem in large part to be an attempt to placate the Republican Party base, further undermining his media-sustained reputation as an independent politician who breaks with his party.
The day after the announcement, a Washington Post headline (8/30/08) declared, “With Pick, McCain Reclaims His Maverick Image.” The following day, a Post subhead was “Fellow Maverick Survived McCain’s Thorough Vetting Process, Aides Say.”
On NBC‘s Chris Matthews Show (8/31/08), reporter Norah O’Donnell asserted, “He’s trying to recapture the maverick label.” Fellow panelist Howard Fineman of Newsweek weighed in: “Sure, it’s risky, but he had to shake things up, and as his top adviser told me, this is a maverick picking a maverick.” O’Donnell later added: “All the headlines in the papers were ‘Maverick chooses maverick.’ McCain couldn’t be happier with the headlines the day after.”
On NBC‘s Meet the Press (8/31/08), reporter Andrea Mitchell explained that McCain “has returned to the original John McCain, the maverick.” Her explanation, though, actually provided more evidence of the opposite; she explained that McCain had wanted to nominate Sen. Joe Lieberman, but that was “shot down by the conservative base.”
The usual definition of a political maverick involves a willingness to defy a party and its base; for years McCain has enjoyed such a reputation with journalists, though the actual evidence for that has been wildly exaggerated by the press. (McCain’s voting record has for years been among the most conservative in the Senate–see Extra!, 5-6/08.)
For the media, the storyline for McCain seems to be that he’s a maverick just because he’s John McCain. Weighing McCain’s decision to choose either Palin or former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, John Harwood wrote in the New York Times (9/1/08), “Both choices offered the opportunity to reinforce Mr. McCain’s image as a free-wheeling maverick.” For much of the mainstream media, there is no other way to describe John McCain–no matter what reality is telling you.