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Defending McCain

I’m not usually in the habit of defending Republicans. But when Sen. John McCain, R.-AZ, takes to the Senate floor to denounce as “ugly and unfortunate” personal attacks made on a Democratic State department aide by his fellow Republicans—one of them (Michele Bachmann) a recent presidential candidate—I don’t see how the New York Times can justify, a mere ten days later, slapping onto Page One the headline, “Once A Rebel, McCain Now Walks The Party Line.” The story itself, by Jennifer Steinhauer, reads like it once matched the headline, but underwent radical surgery after McCain’s gutsy floor speech. Now it is merely incoherent. It posits three McCains. Once he was a maverick. (Correct.) Then he tacked far to the right to win re-election in 2010. (Correct.) Now he is a “partisan warrior and party stalwart.” Huh? 

Sensing that this narrative doesn’t really work, Steinhauer changes it after the jump. After his defeat in the 2008 presidential election, McCain spent three years sulking, much as Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., did after his 2004 presidential defeat. “It took me three years of feeling sorry for myself,” McCain is quoted saying to a group of reporters. Now he has re-emerged as “a polestar on nearly every major issue consuming the Senate.” If you say so. Exhibit A is McCain, “in all of his McCain-ness,” deriding Bachmann and Co. So ... he is a maverick again? Actually, he doesn’t know what he is! Here I begin to picture Times editors as emergency room doctors, jumping onto this story and pounding on its chest in an attempt to bring its point—any point—to life.

“In some ways,” Steinhauer writes, “it seems as if Mr. McCain remains unable to reconcile the rightward lurch he took two years ago with his clear desire to continue to put his stamp on myriad issues—at times bridging partisan divides—to burnish his legacy.” Campaign finance was once his signature issue, but now he won’t work with Sen. Dick Durbin, D.-Ill., on new legislation to force more disclosure of political donors. Actually, that suggests the opposite. A better way to illustrate the point would be to say that just last month McCain denounced the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision as “arrogant, uninformed, naive” (he wants to be a maverick!) but that he still won’t support legislation to combat its effects (he doesn’t want to be a maverick!). Perhaps the story, then, is that McCain’s maverick-ness has become all talk and no action. That’s a hypothesis worth exploring. Except that doesn’t quite square with what Sen. Carl Levin, D.-MI and chairman of the Armed Services committee, says about him. “It’s all relative around here in terms of partisanship,” Levin tells the Times. “Inside his party, he stands shoulders above in terms of being willing to deviate from the grip of an antitax pledge.” Maybe the story is that McCain the Maverick is all talk and only a little bit of action.

Whatever the story is, it isn’t “Once A Rebel, McCain Now Walks The Party Line,” and it isn’t that McCain has morphed into a “partisan warrior and party stalwart.” Nor is he entirely done sulking over his 2008 loss. As the story notes, McCain got so pissed off at the coverage he received from the Times in 2008 that he refuses, still, to be interviewed by its reporters. In fact, my recollection is that the Times in 2008 covered McCain fairly. Today’s piece, however, starts out unfair and attempts to correct that further down by becoming flat-out incoherent. This is what happens in newsrooms when it’s summer and all the smart editors go off on vacation.

Update, 3 p.m.: A reader reminds me that the New York Times ran a smarmy piece during the 2008 race that coyly suggested (but did not state and came nowhere near to establishing) that McCain had had an affair with a female lobbyist. The New Republic played a minor role in this fiasco, which I'd also managed to forget. Obviously McCain has not forgotten. Still, I think it's time for him to let it go.