Media Takes Aim At McCain

Arizon Senator John McCain, left, speaking to 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley in Baghdad, Iraq, for a report to air on 4/8/07.
This column was written by Fred Barnes.
The press has erupted in full riot mode, making wild and angry charges, running down the street smashing windows, and exuding intolerance and vengefulness and ideological bias. Or so it seems. The target of the media riot is Senator John McCain, once the hero of mainstream press. But McCain has now firmly split with media types on Iraq and supports President Bush's new strategy and troop buildup in Baghdad. So they have turned on him with the fury of a spurned spouse.

What's happened to McCain as he runs for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination is a "tragedy," E.J. Dionne wrote in the Washington Post. Newsweek headlined that a "McCain Meltdown" had occurred. In The New York Times, Frank Rich was beside himself. On , Scott Pelley got McCain to zing Bush and his administration but couldn't get him to agree that the public's disapproval of the war in Iraq should prevail today. "I think you have to stick with what you believe in," McCain said.

That attitude used to thrill the press. Reporters and commentators gushed about McCain the political maverick and straight talker who was willing to take on his own party and president. McCain, in truth, has continued to do this, saying in the interview that Bush should talk to Syria and Iran and shut down the Guantanamo prison. He's persisted as well in criticizing Bush's management of the war.

But all of that is no longer enough to satisfy the press. Why? Because McCain hasn't bought into the verdict, rampant in the media, that the war in Iraq is lost and victory cannot be salvaged. Instead, he backs the president's new strategy of counterinsurgency in Baghdad, bolstered by 21,500 additional troops, and insists that progress is already being made.

It would be hypocritical if McCain didn't take this position. He's always backed the war, just not the way it's been carried out. Now, however, Bush has adopted what McCain has been urging for years, counterinsurgency and more troops. How could McCain not support Bush at this point? McCain has taken a position unpopular with the public, but the press gives McCain no credit for that profile in courage. Going against the flow of the Bush administration is one thing. It brings media praise. Going against the flow of media (and liberal) opinion is quite another. It generates contempt and scorn.

Dionne said the tragedy is that McCain is "being dragged down by his loyalty to the very same Bush [who savaged McCain in the 2000 campaign] and his policies in Iraq." But Dionne misstated what McCain is primarily loyal to. It's not to Bush, but to a strategy that may finally produce success in Iraq. As McCain has said repeatedly, he wants to "give victory a chance." Even if it ties him to a president the press loathes.

Both Jonathan Alter in Newsweek and Rich in the Times dwelled on McCain's unfortunate moment last week when he was in Baghdad. He had said there are now neighborhoods in Baghdad safe to walk around in. But when he appeared in one, he wore a bulletproof vest and was heavily guarded by troops and helicopters.

That "embarrassing photo op" plus weaker-than-expected campaign fundraising "has sent his presidential campaign spiraling downward," Alter wrote. He went on to unload on McCain about his age ("there's the question of whether his time has passed") and to suggest he's "out of touch" on "critical global issues."

Rich was downright apoplectic, blaming McCain for "defending the indefensible," namely a war that is already lost. The photo op will bedevil McCain forever, Rich suggested. "This incident has the staying power of the Howard Dean scream." Not quite. But it's clear the media won't forget it soon.

There's a potential silver lining in the media's turning on McCain so vehemently. With the press on his side, McCain lost the Republican nomination in 2000. With the press against him, who knows what might happen in 2008?

By Fred Barnes