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John McCain: more complicated than that

It’s been a commonplace truth of politics for some time now that the press is Senator McCain’s base. He gets tremendously favorable coverage. He works hard to get it, and makes good use of it. Trying to look at it fresh, it’s actually remarkable that they like him so much, since he has little in common with them. He’s a cranky old man from a military family. He doesn’t come from a background in journalism; lots of politicians do, and they don’t always get breaks from the press (see Gore, Albert, Junior).

The answer seems to be that Senator McCain makes their jobs easier. He gives lots of access, and lots of quotes. The quotes are often newsworthy, and they are generally very simple. Paul Waldman over at The American Prospect says that John McCain may be More Bellicose than Bush?

Ask, say, Joe Biden a question about foreign affairs, and he’ll blabber on for hours about all the different forces at work affecting a particular region of the world. You may nod off midway through, but there’s little doubt the guy knows what he’s talking about. Ask McCain, on the other hand, and he’ll do little more than repeat some shopworn clich├ęs. If he has a wealth of knowledge and understanding, he’s certainly doing a good job keeping it hidden.

The thing is, I can imagine the reporter’s frustration in listening to the hypothetical answer from Senator Biden. How am I going to turn this into a story? he would ask himself, and he probably wouldn’t bother to try too hard to do it. In fact, he might not even try too hard to understand the complicated, hours-long answer. He might not have the background to understand it. Journalists can’t be expected to have a good background in everything, and those assigned to the political beat generally have a good background in electoral politics and in writing journalism, and (I suspect) not much else. A detailed answer about macro-economics or geopolitics or climate change or even tax policy could be beyond their ken, and that isn’t assuming that they’re dim.

And you know some of them are dim. And some of them don’t like being made to feel dim by some policy wonk.

So Senator McCain gives them short, wacky quotes that they can understand, and that they know they can easily present to their readers and viewers and listeners, and that they know that their readers and viewers and listeners will understand, and that’s a good guy to have around.

I don’t happen to think that Sen. McCain is doing it on purpose. That is to say, I suspect he’s got a natural tendency to talk that way, and that he has, over the years, responded to the support of the press by becoming more like himself. If he comes out of a bull session on the campaign bus thinking the SOBs ate that up with spoons, I suspect it is with pride, rather than contempt. Or self-contempt. I don’t know, of course. The man could be simple like a fox. But I doubt it.

All that said, is there a good lesson for us Democratic students of applied rhetoric in the way John McCain has garnered the support of the press? I believe (on the whole) that our Party understands that it’s more complicated than that is always a correct answer to any question; I wonder sometimes if we understand that it’s not the only correct answer, and is rarely the best or most helpful answer. On the other hand, we can’t give up on that answer in order to win elections, or we lose the more important contest for the future of the country. I do think that we need to understand the dynamic, and if we can’t use it to our own advantage (and I suspect we can’t), we can at least try to play a better defense against it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


You make a good point about the press not able to know everything, but I don't want to let them off the hook. If you're a reporter assigned to the police beat for your local newspaper, you may not have encyclopedic knowledge of all aspects of law enforcement, but you should have some knowledge of the neighborhoods the police patrol, some grasp of what crimes are being investigated, and some basic knowledge of police procedure. I think our political press corps just knows personality.

Just think of the back-channel communications that took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which involved an American newspaper reporter and a Soviet Embassy official. Would you trust Maureen Dowd or Joe Klein to handle that level of communication when nuclear armageddon is on the line? Not me, bro.

An educated populace is the best thing for any democratic republic, which is a very good argument, I believe, for anyone committed to neocon talking points to fight tooth and claw against a successful education system.

Which, you'll note, they do.


also worth noting that modern news is headline-crawl driven, which is driving the nature of both reporting and reporters.

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