McCainia in the New York Times and Beyond: How to Win Press and Influence Voters

I awoke this morning to a message from my friend Nirav, complaining that his copy of the New York Times had been "bedraggled" with the reproductive fluids of Senator and presidential candidate John McCain. Nirav was speaking figuratively, of course, (the Weekly has no intention of going South Carolina on the Senator) but a survey of today's Newspaper of Record indeed confirms that the distinguished gentleman from Arizona received a bevy of favorable coverage.

First and foremost, the opinion page features dueling pieces by the Economist's Adrian Woolridge and Times columnist Roger Cohen. Woolridge argues that, while McCain may be perceived as a maverick and moderate, he is really a bedrock conservative--hard to dispute, if you look at his voting record--and as such should be the choice of conservatives looking to bring the movement back to its small government/robust military roots. (contradiction?) Woolridge complies with the McCain campaign's revisionism on the Senator's opposition to the initial Bush tax cuts (a check of the record indicates that McCain opposed them because he felt they were too regressive, not because they were unaccompanied by spending cuts), then notes that the candidate has more centrist appeal than perhaps he should, which he argues is a good thing.

Cohen, in his measured op-ed, argues that while he finds McCain too conservative, the Senator is rightly admired for his centrism and is too honorable to dismiss as a candidate. In particular, Cohen praises McCain for his consistency and accuracy on Iraq. The consistency part is fair: hawks don't change their stripes. (In fact, hawks don't even have stripes). The accuracy claim has to do with McCain's assessment of the costs and benefits of invasion and increased troop levels: I'll leave that matter to your judgment, fair Readers, as I suspect little I'd say would sway you.

Praise from all corners, Johnny Boy. Not a bad day on the op-ed pages. So let's move on to the news. You know they say all publicity is good publicity, meaning no news is bad news (in both meanings of the phrase), meaning that bad news is good news. Today, all these maxims held true for the Straight Talk Express, as the Times assiduously documents the smear campaigns to which the candidate is being subjected in the Palmetto State, as well as his response machinery, beefed up significantly since Bush knocked him off with the help of similar smears in 2000.

The above shouldn't be read as a critique of the New York Times--I wouldn't argue that their publishing decisions were irresponsible or favoritist. But McCain's ability to generate favorable coverage is remarkable, as is his evasion of political classification--particularly when you consider the fact that he has a 20+ year record as a Senator. How does someone who's cast so many votes remain such a chimera? How does a career hawk and Iraq War cheerleader do so well among voters who disapprove of the Iraq War? How does a guy who changes his rationale for opposing Bush's tax cuts and then supports making those cuts permanent, who calls Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell "agents of intolerance" and refers to their movement as "the evil empire," and then delivers the commencement speech at Liberty University avoid the easy charge of "flip-flopping"?

McCain's personal charm is well documented, as is his accessibility to the media. Are these the keys to favorable coverage? Salon's Glenn Greenwald recently received an angry e-mail from CNN's John King after Greenwald documented and derided King's softball interview of the candidate. In his e-mail, King acknowledged McCain's accessibility and argued that it allowed him to be selective as to when he grilled the candidate. Another McCain staple is sense of humor, one of the themes of David Foster Wallace's oft-cited Rolling Stone profile of his campaign in 2000. (Mike Huckabee's gotten similarly favorable coverage for being funny, though the political press corps isn't always so enamored of humor.) Conversely, McCain's famous temper seems to have done little to lessen his appeal, and in fact may only heighten the perception that he's a no-nonsense straight talker.

In a campaign in which race and gender are being discussed to no end, this obviously raises the question of whether a female or a black candidate could reap similar benefits from an always accessible, wisecracking, short-tempered, convention-bucking persona. While the number of women holding elected office is increasing (at least so it seems, anecdotally), few, if any, rise to power on media portrayals of their charisma. In her New York Times op-ed, Kerry Howley argues that female leaders are viewed either as likable and incompetent or unlikable and competent. (Kerry Howley's not to be confused with Candy Crowley, who was immortalized by Matt Taibbi in an anecdote he saw as the essence of the 2004 election press corps' shallowness.)

Likewise, it's hard to picture a black candidate with a short fuse selling nationally--"angry black man" is a tough label with which to win. One could argue, however, that Obama's managed to use a particularly sunny persona to milk positive coverage out of the exceptionalist perception of him made possible by racial stereotypes (see Joe Biden's statements for a disastrous articulation of this phenomenon).) It doesn't seem unilkely that Mormonism would be similarly constraining, though it's less obvious what personality stereotypes Romney would have to avoid. None of these thoughts is new, but they're worth keeping in mind as we examine coverage of the candidates and, in particular, the more slippery and particularly influential construction of their personas.

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