John McCain kind of stepped in it the other day, here in California, but luckily no one noticed. He was being driven from John Wayne airport to a fundraiser, and he took a quick call from Martin Wisckol of the Orange County Register. Wisckol asked him a series of softball questions so tedious McCain's driver had to crack the window so the breeze would keep him from passing out, but then this:
WISCKOL: I'd like to ask you a couple questions suggested by voters here. They're not reporter-type questions.
McCAIN: Sure. It'd be a pleasure.
WISCKOL: When was the last time you pumped your own gas and how much did it cost?
McCAIN: Oh, I don't remember. Now there's Secret Service protection. But I've done it for many, many years. I don't recall and frankly, I don't see how it matters. I've had hundreds and hundreds of town hall meetings, many as short a time ago as yesterday. I communicate with the people and they communicate with me very effectively.
... I'm going through a tunnel... ... bzzzzzzzztttttt bzzzzzztttttt...I'm gonna lose you... bzzzztttttt... bye!
No, I added that last part.
Okay. A few things here.
1) John McCain doesn't know what gas costs, because the Secret Service protects him from finding out, possibly because they're afraid the knowledge will kill him. Not a healthy man.
2) John McCain isn't an elitist or a big government bureaucrat. He's a maverick who has certainly pumped his own gas at some point in his life, perhaps during the single 18-month period when he wasn't in the navy or in congress, but was living off his wife.
3) It doesn't matter. How do we know it doesn't matter? Because John McCain says it doesn't matter.
4) John McCain may not know what gas costs or when he last pumped any, or performed any other act not connected to politics or outpatient care, but he's had hundreds of town hall meetings, many as short a time ago as yesterday. Which somehow answers questions about gas prices, but it's not clear exactly how.
5) John McCain communicates with people and they communicate with him very effectively.
6) John McCain is an excellent driver. Dad lets him drive slow down the driveway every Saturday.
7) Fifteen minutes to Wapner.
Asking a politician about groceries is a dusty old trick. Mitt Romney doesn't know what Saran Wrap costs, and why should he? Unless it's important to the image he's trying to build, as a regular guy, or at least someone who gives a shit.
But some gotcha questions do matter.
For instance, back in 1999, when Andy Hiller had this exchange with then-Governor George W. Bush:
HILLER: Can you name the president of Chechnya?"
BUSH: No, can you?
HILLER: Can you name the president of Taiwan?
BUSH: Yeah, Lee.
HILLER: Can you name the general who's in charge of Pakistan?
BUSH: Wait, wait, is this 50 questions? HILLER: No, it's four questions of four leaders in four hot spots.
BUSH: The new Pakistani general, he's just been elected -- not elected, this guy took over office. It appears this guy is going to bring stability to the country and I think that's good news for the subcontinent.
HILLER: Can you name him?
BUSH: General. I can name the general. General.
HILLER: And the prime minister of India?
BUSH: The new prime minister of India is -- no. Can you name the foreign minister of Mexico?
HILLER: No sir, but I would say to that, I'm not running for president.
BUSH: What I'm suggesting to you is, if you can't name the foreign minister of Mexico, therefore, you know, you're not capable about what you do. But the truth of the matter is you are, whether you can or not.
You'd think that the candidacy was over at "I can name the general. General," but it turns out it wasn't. These questions might not have mattered. (Pakistan? Come on! As if the president really needs to know about Pakistan!) What was important was the way the candidate answered.
Which was like a belligerent dick.
As opposed to John McCain on the question of pumping his own gas. Who comes off as a floundering panderer who's lost a step.
I'm not even sure Martin Wisckol was trying to play gotcha with John McCain. I think he was fishing for a colorful anecdote. If you read the rest of the interview, you'll see he certainly didn't ask any other questions that couldn't be answered by a press release.
John McCain has spent the last three months -- since he floated his gas tax holiday -- pretending to care about the cost of driving. He should have had a slightly better answer than "I've had hundreds of town halls."
He knows it, too. Which is why he panics after a few more questions, when Wisckol is trying to wind things up.
WISCKOL: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me.
McCAIN: Thank you. It's a pleasure.... Hang on just one second. I think the last time that I ... I've been on the campaign trail for so long I don't remember when I last filled up my own gas tank, but I certainly did for many, many, many years and I understand the difficulties and challenges that it poses for the people of California and my home state of Arizona. I thank you, my friend.
And the name of the general is General.