Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Free Ride

Neal Gabler looks at why John McCain is able to get away with his goofs, gaffes, and — as Britt Hume called it — “senior moments.”

Though Mr. McCain can be the most self-deprecating of candidates (yet another reason the news media love him), his vision of the process also betrays an obvious superiority — one the mainstream political news media, a group of liberal cosmologists, have long shared. If in the past he flattered the press by posing as its friend, he is now flattering it by posing as its conspirator, a secret sharer of its cynicism. He is the guy who “gets it.” He sees what the press sees. Michael Scherer, a blogger for Time, called him the “coolest kid in school.”

The candidates who are dead serious about politics, even wonkish, get abused by the press for it. Mr. McCain the ironist gets heaps of affection. In this race, though, it has forced some press contortions. While John McCain 2000 was praised for being the same straight talker off the bus as he was on it, John McCain 2008 is praised precisely because he isn’t the same man. Off the bus he plays to the rubes (us) by reciting the conservative catechism; on the bus he plays to the press by giving the impression that his talk is all just a ploy to capture the Republican nomination.

I guess it’s part of the deal that the press has to fawn over one of the candidates in every cycle and give him a free pass because, well, he’s just so gosh-darn fun to hang with. That’s fine if you’re covering an Elks Lodge picnic, but we’re talking about a man running for president, not the barbecue champ of Maumee, Ohio. A year from now this bonhomie and self-deprecating irony won’t mean a whole lot if John McCain is choosing justices for the Supreme Court or promoting a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, or pushing to make the corporate welfare tax cuts permanent.

Besides, the last time the kids on the press bus found a candidate disarmingly charming and chastised others in the media for asking “gotcha” questions like who’s the leader of Pakistan, we ended up with the current administration.