Russert Watch: Where's the Real McCain?

Today's Meet the Press was a pretty dispiriting affair. And not just because it was, well, Meet the Press.

The marquee guest was John McCain. Or, should I say, "John McCain." The guy who showed up on Meet the Press this morning looked like McCain, but didn't sound like McCain. What made the experience all that much stranger for me is that right after watching Meet the Press, I had breakfast with McCain's campaign finance reform partner, Senator Russ Feingold. Feingold had been on a visit to Iraq with McCain, and his fearless assessment of the reality there made it all that much harder to stomach the equivocations and rationalizations of the new and definitely not improved McCain.

If today's show was any indication, the Straight Talk Express has gone seriously off the road.

And the weirdest part was Russert's refusal to acknowledge any of it. Sure, he got into specifics about the war, and torture, and congressional corruption, and he asked the mandatory last question, "Are you going to run for president?" But the whole show had a surreal, subdued, almost underwater quality.

You got the feeling that McCain knew the stuff coming out of his mouth -- "the president has done a good job" -- was absurd, but both he and Russert lacked the energy either to make it believable or to address its absurdity. I kept waiting for Russert to ask: "But wait a minute, aren't you John McCain? What's happened to you?"

To make sure I wasn't dreaming, I started browsing through enthusiastic past columns I had written about McCain, including one while I was on the Straight Talk Express traveling through New Hampshire during the 2000 primary. There was McCain at every stop challenging the status quo, "outraged enough about the old politics to lead the charge against it." And there were the passionate crowds everywhere -- independents and Democrats among them -- looking to him to restore trust in our leaders.

The big question now -- a question left unanswered on today's show -- is: which is the real McCain? The captain of the Straight Talk Express, or the one who showed up today trying to have it both ways -- expressing just enough gentle criticism to keep his "maverick" bona fides, while at the same time assuring Bush's right wing supporters they have nothing to worry about? It's probably no coincidence that today's Meet the Press appearance looked like a hostage videotape -- the party powers appear to have McCain securely squared away.

In a column I wrote about McCain after the 2000 election, I quoted Mark Salter, McCain's chief of staff, telling me in reference to the resistance to campaign finance reform: "The dam is starting to break." You could say the same thing today about support for the president's policies in Iraq. The difference is, McCain is on the other side of the dam, desperately trying to help George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld keep it together.

Here's what McCain's Straight Talk Express sounded like today: "Look, progress has been made in many parts of the country. In the north, it's relatively peaceful. Most of the areas in the south, there's significant progress... I believe that you can see continued progress... I do believe we've made progress."

Notice the buzzword of the day? "Progress" -- repeated four times.

And when, later on, Russert asked the right question (told you it was a weird day), "Isn't that the president's failure? He's the commander in chief," McCain brushed it off and went right back to the White House talking point about progress: "Well, I -- all of the responsibility lies in everybody in positions of responsibility. Serious mistakes are made in every war. Serious mistakes were made in this one, but I really believe that there is progress being made, that we can be guardedly optimistic..."

Yes, mistakes are made in every war. The question is, are we or are we not going to hold the leaders who make them accountable? The old McCain would have led the charge to do just that. But here is "McCain" a few moments later: "You will see significant progress made by the Iraqi military, and we are pretty much on the right track in many areas."

"Pretty much on the right track?" If this is the right track, what would the wrong one look like? Or is Iraq on the same track as the Straight Talk Express?

And then there was this spit-take moment:

McCAIN: ...I believe that the -- by the way, I do believe we were greeted as liberators in many respects in many parts of Iraq. We really were. I remember the statue coming down and people being freed from prisons, etc...

Gee, I remember the stories about that statue event being staged, and I also remember a few other prison stories that weren't so happy. Abu Ghraib ring a bell?

And then this:

McCAIN: I think the president has done a good job. I think he's tried to -- and particularly last week at the Naval Academy -- given a very articulate presentation on the challenges that we face.

The president has done "a good job"? Even sixty percent of the public disagrees with that. Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Not only has McCain gone AWOL but his replacement, "McCain," is now taking on those who bear any resemblance to the real McCain. "I think he has become emotional," he said of Jack Murtha. "He goes to funerals. He goes, as many of us do, out to Walter Reed and he sees the price of war."

So I guess Bush is right to avoid going to funerals or spending too much time at Walter Reed. According to "McCain" we should all avoid seeing the price of war lest we become "too emotional" and too "sentimental," like poor old Jack Murtha. What would the real McCain have said back in 2000 if someone had called Murtha too sentimental because he'd been spending too much time visiting wounded soldiers?

And what would the real McCain have said about "McCain" justifying as perhaps "standard procedure in Iraq" the Pentagon practice of paying Iraqi newspapers to publish articles favorable to the U.S. position?

So anything that was "standard procedure" in Iraq is now okay? Isn't Iraqi standard procedure what we've sacrificed thousands of lives and squandered hundreds of billions of dollars trying to get rid of? And making such great "progress" at?

In fact, the transmogrification of McCain into "McCain" has been progressing unabated all year. Had Russert bothered, he could, for example, have asked McCain about his recent endorsement of a constitutional amendment in Arizona to ban gay marriage and deny benefits to unmarried couples of any kind. Or his new-found support of teaching "intelligent design" in schools. Or his 100 percent approval rating from Phyllis Schlafly's "Eagle Forum." Or his recent meeting with Jerry Falwell, the man McCain called in 2000 "a peddler of intolerance." Or his support for Senator Lindsay Graham's bill to limit the right to habeas corpus. Or his recent appearance at a fundraiser for Alabama Lt. Governor candidate George Wallace, Jr. who has given four speeches to the white supremacist group the Council of Conservative Citizens.

As John Dickerson wrote recently in Slate:

This support for Bush is yielding support for McCain in turn. Just three weeks ago, McCain's political action committee took in $1 million in just one week. Many of the professional Republicans who helped to kill his candidacy when he ran against Bush in 2000 now write him $5,000 checks—the full amount allowed by law.

But none of these facts were brought up by Russert on this morning's Meet the Press. Perhaps it's too early to say whether "McCain" will triumph over McCain. Maybe the real McCain will return. But the only way I see that happening is if what's happened to him is at least acknowledged. If he's allowed to shill for Bush and kowtow to the religious right without paying any price, without Russert and others in the mainstream media even challenging him, you can bet we've seen the last of the real McCain.

It's a shame that he seems to want to be the captain of the new Bullshit Express, but that doesn't mean we have to go along for the ride.