How McCain Reconciles Lies With Honor

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., delivers a speech at the Navy and Marine Corps Stadium during his Service to America tour, Wednesday, April 2, 2008, in Annapolis, Md. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
This column was written by Jonathan Chait.

About a week after John McCain's campaign unveiled a vice-presidential nominee who incessantly boasted about her decision to turn down federal funding for a notoriously pointless bridge ("I told Congress 'thanks, but no thanks' on that Bridge to Nowhere"), the press corps began to notice that Sarah Palin had, in fact, vigorously championed the project until it was no longer tenable. Political fibs, even brazen ones such as this, are hardly unprecedented. What happened next, though, was somewhat unusual. Despite having its claim exposed in nearly every media outlet, the McCain campaign continued to assert it anyway, day after day, dozens of times in all. It was as if Bill Clinton had persisted in his claim that he did not have sexual relations with that woman even after the appearance of the semen-stained dress.

But what happened after that was even more unusual, and possibly without precedent: McCain's supporters simply suggested that the truth or falsity of their statements didn't matter. McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said this to Politico about the increased media scrutiny of the campaign's factual claims: "We're running a campaign to win. And we're not too concerned about what the media filter tries to say about it." Republican strategist John Feehery made the point even more bluntly, telling The Washington Post: "The more The New York Times and The Washington Post go after Sarah Palin, the better off she is, because there's a bigger truth out there, and the bigger truths are: She's new, she's popular in Alaska, and she is an insurgent." Then, he added, "As long as those are out there, these little facts don't really matter."

Here we have the distilled essence of the McCain campaign's ethos: Perception is reality. Facts don't matter. McCain has presented himself as the grizzled champion of timeworn values. But the defining trait of his candidacy turns out to be a postmodern disdain for truth. How could McCain--a man widely regarded, not so long ago, as one of the country's most honor-bound politicians, and therefore an unusually honest one--have descended to this ignominious low? Part of the answer is that McCain is simply doing what works--and there is good reason to believe that his campaign's strategy of persistent dishonesty will pay dividends come November 4. But part of the explanation for all this recent dishonesty may lie, oddly enough, in McCain's legendary sense of honor.

No presidential candidate has ever gone through an entire election without stretching the truth. Certainly, Barack Obama is not totally innocent. Last March, Obama said that McCain "wants to continue a war in Iraq perhaps as long as one hundred years," when in fact McCain said that he would favor an indefinite peaceful military presence. (Obama was repeatedly called on this distortion by the press, and subsequently stopped saying it.) He has accused McCain of helping to permit a corporate takeover in Ohio that has led to the threat of layoffs--a literally true claim that inaccurately implies that the takeover caused the problem. He has also accused McCain of favoring nearly $4 billion in new tax breaks for Big Oil--literally true, but misleading, insofar as McCain is offering tax cuts to corporations in general, not Big Oil in particular.

But McCain's untruths, in their frequency and their audacity, defy any modern historical precedent. He has been concocting falsehoods for months on end, all of which serve a clear political purpose. Last summer, Obama--on the heels of a New York Times report that the Bush administration in 2005 had canceled at the last minute a snatch-and-grab operation targeting Osama bin Laden's lieutenants in Pakistan--pledged to follow through on any actionable intelligence against Al Qaeda. After Obama's nomination became likely, McCain--then trying to portray Obama as dangerously naïve and uninformed--accused him of having "once suggested bombing our ally, Pakistan." Obama had not said anything about bombing. His speech merely conveyed his support for small, special operations missions--the types of missions, incidentally, that the Bush administration has since undertaken.

During Obama's overseas trip this summer, he called off a meeting with wounded troops at a military hospital after the Pentagon told him that the trip might run afoul of a policy against visiting soldiers in the course of campaigning. A McCain ad accused him of canceling the meeting because he learned that cameras couldn't accompany him. (In fact, the press had never been scheduled to come along.)

Just last week, McCain attacked Obama for proposing to cut defense spending. "During the primary, he told a liberal advocacy group that he'd cut defense spending by tens of billions of dollars," charged the GOP nominee. "He promised them he would, quote, 'slow our development of future combat systems.'" Actually, Obama had pledged to cut tens of billions of dollars in wasteful military spending (he also favored increasing the size of the military). Worse, almost any listener hearing this claim would come away thinking Obama was proposing to cut funding for weapons systems in development. In reality, Obama had promised to slow the development of a specific project called "Future Combat Systems," a controversial program. Indeed, McCain himself had proposed eliminating this very program in July.