What Happens When You Burn The Press
The press used to love John McCain. Maybe it wasn't quite an Obama-level infatuation, but in 2000 his "straight talk" had the press corps swooning – at least according to supporters of his then-opponent, George W. Bush, who complained bitterly about the McCain coverage.
McCain charmed journalists in large part by providing them with the kind of access reporters rarely get from serious candidates. In Feb. 2000, ABC News' Linda Douglass said this on "Reliable Sources": "Whenever there is an issue that is somewhat controversial, the reporters will go after McCain on the bus in the morning, and he will take about 20 minutes worth of questions and diffuse the tension."
He was also a good story – the relative outsider who took on the establishment candidate. Here's Bob Schieffer on that same program: "It has all the elements of a good drama. You know, this is the little guy taking on the establishment. This is a candidate that didn't have a lot of money. This is a candidate that said, well, what I'll do is just get out on this bus and drive around and talk to people."
Unfortunately for McCain, things have changed. As Howard Kurtz pointed out in his Web chat today, "[t]here has been a steady drumbeat of stories for months now about McCain abandoning his maverick ways, McCain flip-flopping on the likes of Falwell, McCain hiring political gunslingers he had once denounced, and how McCain's pro-war position is hurting his candidacy." So why has McCain fallen out of the press' good graces? The simplest reason is that the press isn't going to maintain the same narrative about a candidate for a decade. In the interest of a good storyline, they had to turn on McCain at some point. But it's more than that.
In 2000, McCain sold himself as a straight talker who didn't play the double-talk games most politicians are known for. This time around, he's taken the more-traditional approach – reaching out to extremists like Falwell, for example, whom he once called an "agent of intolerance." It made his earlier "straight talk" look like a political ploy, a cynical strategy by a politician who fooled the press into thinking he was different. Bitter about having fallen for McCain back in 2000, journalists are now quick to hammer the candidate for the kind of political maneuvering most politicians can easily get away with.
There is a lesson here for another 2008 candidate: John Edwards. Edwards has been selling himself as the 2008 version of the straight talk politician. He has said he was wrong to vote for the war and stressed his willingness to level with the public. Some media outlets, like the New Republic, have already greeted Edwards' rhetoric with skepticism, but many have mostly taken Edwards at his word. The challenge now for Edwards is to maintain his reputation for straight talk while also doing what it takes to win the presidency – and that's not easy, as McCain's experience has shown. By selling himself as the only honest politician around, he has invited the press' wrath if and when his Falwell moment comes down the pike.