Observers of politics know they can count on at least one constant in presidential campaigns: Whenever the Republican candidate is down in the polls, he begins to complain about the media (Democrats do it sometimes too, but not nearly as often). But when that candidate is John McCain, one would be forgiven for believing the current race has descended into some parallel universe where everything is upside-down.
After all, for more than a decade, John McCain has been the media's favorite politician. Even conservatives have long acknowledged that McCain enjoys a special place in the hearts of the Washington press corps.
In a press release that elevated feigned outrage to high art, McCain's campaign distributed a letter it had written to the president of NBC News complaining that on last Sunday's "Meet the Press," chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell repeated a criticism from the Obama campaign without questioning its veracity. The fact that this happens a hundred times a day in newspapers and on television news with criticisms from both campaigns didn't much matter; the point was to put pressure on journalists to change their coverage in order to avoid further complaints.
No politician in Washington understands journalists better than McCain does. For years, he has courted, flattered, and cooperated with journalists in an attempt to win their affections. The results have been impressive. Literally thousands of times, reporters have written or said that McCain is a "maverick" who delivers "straight talk," the Arizona senator's campaign slogans infusing his coverage.
While some politicians seek legislative accomplishments to rise up the ladder, McCain's strategy for advancement was built on press relations. Were it not for his unique relationship with reporters, it is unlikely that McCain would be his party's nominee for president. It was the media's favorable treatment of McCain -- putting him on the front pages, penning fawning profiles of him, and inviting him on the network Sunday morning talk shows 154 times over the past 10 years (more than any other political figure) -- that made McCain a national figure.
And in this campaign, it is no exaggeration to say that the media saved McCain. Through much of 2007, his campaign was low in the polls and struggling to raise money. But when he began to show the barest signs of life, many in the media reacted as though their hero had returned, and put him back at the center of campaign coverage. "There's something genuine here, something selfless, even quietly grand in his campaign," gushed MSNBC's Chris Matthews. Jon Meacham of Newsweek declared a McCain comeback "good news for all of us, whatever our politics." When McCain came in fourth in Iowa with a mere 13 percent of the vote, the press treated it as a grand victory, propelling him into New Hampshire and beyond.
In the general election, the most important benefit McCain has reaped from his special relationship with the press is that for so many reporters and pundits, the conclusions about him are already made. When another candidate commits a series of foreign policy gaffes -- saying Iran is training al-Qaida in Iraq, saying the "Anbar Awakening" happened as a result of the surge when in fact it predated it, referring repeatedly to countries that no longer exist -- reporters say the mistakes "raise questions" about how much the candidate understands foreign affairs. When another candidate stocks his campaign with corporate lobbyists, pundits wonder whether he is too tied to special interests and too much a part of the corrupt Washington culture. When another candidate changes his positions on a whole series of issues in order to curry favor with his party's base, commentators use the dreaded "flip-flop" term and question his integrity.
Many journalists decided long ago that McCain is just different from other politicians. They declare McCain innocent of all the sins they associate with other members of his profession, no matter how often he commits them. They testify that McCain is too modest to mention his POW experience in Vietnam, but McCain now brings it up all the time. They ask whether his opponent's poor bowling skills make him an "elitist," but never wonder whether McCain's (at least) seven homes and $520 Italian loafers disconnect him from the average Joe. They seem to believe that McCain is the one politician who never does anything for political reasons, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
A few months ago, McCain's campaign manager was quoted in the New York Times calling him "the best earned-media candidate in history." For those unfamiliar with the lingo, "earned media" means press coverage. It's something people in Washington have known for a long time. This campaign has already had more than its share of absurdity, from flag pins to Paris Hilton. But the idea that the media aren't being nice enough to John McCain may be the most ridiculous thing we've heard yet.
This column was originally printed in Newsday.