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McCain's 'Maverick' Myth Is the Media's Creation

The bizarre tale of how the media turned a crooked Republican into the mirage of a principled politician.
 
 
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The following is an excerpt from " Free Ride: The Media and John McCain" (Anchor Books, 2008) by David Brock and Paul Waldman.

Perhaps no word better defines John McCain in the public imagination than "maverick." It's a word that, more than "straight talk" or "moderate" or "reformer," has come to occupy a seemingly permanent place next to the senator's name in the media. It is also distinct from those other modifiers that have come to identify McCain. As critical as the idea of ideological moderation is to the Myth of McCain, his status as a maverick is not about what he believes but about who he is-something far more important in the personality-driven world of today's politics.

In later years, when asked to name his proudest moment in Congress, John McCain would go all the way back to his first year in the House of Representatives to point to a case in which he stood against a Republican president. In 1983, McCain voted against Ronald Reagan's decision to deploy U.S. troops to Lebanon. "I do not see any obtainable objectives in Lebanon," he said at the time, "and the longer we stay there, the harder it will be to leave."43 McCain sees the act as a defining moment: the neophyte lawmaker breaking ranks with his party and his political hero. (The actual vote was 270-161 in favor of deployment; McCain was joined by twenty-seven Republicans in opposition.) The dissenters would later be vindicated when a truck bomber slammed into the Marine barracks in Lebanon, killing 241 U.S. servicemen and precipitating a U.S. withdrawal. "It demonstrated to me that you really have to do, at the end of the day, what you fundamentally know is right," McCain told the National Journal years later.

At the time, McCain's decision to object was barely noted (a New York Times story on the House vote buried a quote from him at the bottom of its story). McCain evidently sees his 1983 vote as the moment where his political identity as a maverick began to form, but that reputation did not really take hold until much later. In fact, McCain's early years in Congress did not attract much national attention, nor did they evince much evidence of what would become the Myth of McCain. It wasn't until the late 1980s that the press even began to take notice of his self-proclaimed penchant for breaking with party orthodoxy. Early in his career, McCain was seldom described as someone too principled to be bound by party loyalty or the momentary dictates of partisanship. The first time anyone referred to him as a "maverick" in the press appears to be a February 1989 States News Service story, which quoted Dan Casey, then-executive director of the American Conservative Union, saying about McCain, "He is a good conservative but somewhat of a maverick."There was no explanation of what made him a maverick, other than the fact that the group had given him a rating of merely 80 out of 100. Other such descriptions are few and far between. Another story from 1989, in Newsday, described him as a Republican expected to "break ranks" on Dick Cheney's proposed budget cuts to the F-14D aircraft program. But apart from these faint glimmers, there was little indication of the McCain image that would eventually form in the press.

In 1992, McCain was one of three Republican senators to vote for Democratic campaign finance reform legislation (all the Senate Democrats except two voted in favor). The bill called for the provision of taxpayer funds and other incentives to urge candidates to abide by voluntary spending limits; it was vetoed by then-president George H. W. Bush, a veto that the Senate failed to override. In 1993, McCain again cast himself in the role of party rebel in the campaign finance debate. In deliberations over an identical measure to the one Bush had vetoed in 1992, McCain proposed amendments that caught the attention of the media. McCain offered one amendment that barred candidates from using campaign money for personal expenses such as vacations, mortgage payments, and clothing purchases, among others. Another amendment pushed for the campaign reforms, if enacted, to go into effect in 1994 instead of 1996, as originally proposed. Little noted was that McCain's amendment was identical to one that his Arizona colleague, Senator Dennis DeConcini (D), was set to introduce to the Senate, before McCain beat him to the punch by a day-a move that won McCain credit for the amendment.

The early returns to these maneuvers were encouraging. In 1993, the Washington Post noted that McCain was one of five "maverick" Republicans for his work on campaign finance reform legislation. Another Post reference two months later offered a continuation of the theme, describing McCain as a "conservative with maverick instincts."But if the media had taken a closer look, talk of McCain as a maverick may have been a little premature. As news stories at the time made clear, the 1992 campaign finance bill was preordained to be vetoed by Bush, making it easier for McCain and his fellow Republican rebels to back it. That motive became starker in 1993 when the Clinton administration, pushing a nearly identical bill, was told by McCain and his fellow "renegades" that they would support a Republican filibuster of the legislation. Predictably, Clinton expressed his dismay at the "rebels" who changed their tune when faced with a bill that might actually become law. "The thing that particularly troubles me about this one is that several Republicans voted for a bill not unlike this last year which contained public financing," Clinton said. The Associated Press reported that Republican moderates admitted to voting for the original bill only because they knew it would be vetoed. Eventually, McCain and his band of mavericks broke with their GOP colleagues on the filibuster, but only after the bill was gutted to remove most of the public financing features of the measure. The compromise legislation "left almost no one happy" and was derided by advocacy groups like Public Citizen and US PIRG as watered down. The bill eventually died a quiet death in the House. McCain's maverick gestures, though revealed to be less than substantial under scrutiny, nonetheless left their imprint on the media.

In addition to his campaign finance stance, McCain also made some moves during the period that helped gain the attention of political observers and move the maverick theme forward. In 1993, McCain publicly offered to accompany President Bill Clinton to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Memorial Day, providing cover for the president, who had been warned by veterans' groups angry with his failure to serve in the war to stay away from the monument. Later that year, McCain, working with Senate Democrat (and fellow Vietnam veteran) John Kerry, urged Clinton to lift U.S. trade sanctions against Vietnam. In 1994, McCain and Kerry sponsored a resolution to lift the embargo, against the opposition of veterans' groups and prominent Republican senators like Bob Dole and Phil Gramm. The two would continue to work with the president to accelerate the normalization of trade relations with the country.

In 1995, the National Journal , the Washington insider's bible, published a profile of McCain simply titled "The Maverick." It was the first of what would be a cascade of glowing profiles to come, many of which would center on McCain's penchant for unpredictability and rebelliousness. The article, by James Kitfield, led with an anecdote of a McCain outburst in front of the reporter about the way the GOP's conservative wing had spoken out against Colin Powell as a possible presidential candidate. Conservative activists within the GOP deemed Powell insufficiently ideological for the Republican revolution then sweeping Washington. Talking to Kitfield, McCain assailed the hard-liners in the GOP who targeted Powell. "Politics can be a very cruel business because there are people out there like [conservative activist] Paul Weyrich, who has never stood up for public office and thus has never had to answer to the public, yet who feels free to indulge in character assassination," McCain said. He also expressed doubts about the health of his party: "Certainly for conservatives to attack [Powell's] character in the ad hominem fashion they did makes me believe we do have some problems within our party."

Such a demonstrative display against members of his own party seemed to confirm what a handful of other examples had hinted at: that McCain was that rare thing, a true independent. The Journal profile fixed on his support for normalizing Vietnam relations, outreach to Bill Clinton over the Vietnam Memorial brouhaha, and opposition to pork in defense budgets as examples of the maverick at work. Kitfield also found a Democratic Senate aide to bolster the impression: "[McCain is] also interesting in that even when you wage battle with him, you usually find some middle ground. In that sense, he's put himself somewhat in the role of an honest broker in the Republican Caucus." For his part, McCain went to his old standby-his POW experience-to build on the emerging theme. "My refusal of early release [in Vietnam] gave me a confidence in my own judgment," he said, adding, "That event gave me confidence that once I've examined something, I know what's right, and I'm willing to hold that position even when it doesn't receive the approval of my colleagues in the short run."

The mid-'90s saw McCain edging closer to the national spotlight. In 1995, Robert Timberg's A Nightingale's Song, an unabashed valentine to the Arizona senator, was published. The book traced the trajectories of five U.S. Naval Academy graduates -- McCain, Oliver North, Robert McFarlane, John Poindexter, and James Webb -- whose experiences summed up the nation's own painful experience in Vietnam. In 1996, McCain received some attention as a potential vice presidential candidate for Dole, who at the time was the American politician most known for being a military veteran. Aware of the buzz beginning to grow for McCain, the party chose him as the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention. The performance, in which he discussed his captivity in Vietnam, was a hit. William Safire, writing in the New York Times , called it a "brief gem from a brave man," a speech "delivered with quiet modesty and grace." Other plaudits soon followed. In 1997, Time magazine named McCain one of America's 25 most influential people, citing his campaign finance reform work and willingness to anger party colleagues.

Before running for president, McCain found one more issue on which to make a public break with his party -- if only briefly -- and win praise from the press. In November 1997, McCain introduced a bill to provide the Food and Drug Administration with a number of new regulatory powers over tobacco products, in order to "reform and restructure the processes by which tobacco products are manufactured, marketed, and distributed." Giving the FDA the power to regulate tobacco would have been a significant change in policy-one that his Republican colleagues, who receive millions in contributions from tobacco companies, were none too eager to see enacted. After a long process of amendments to the bill, it was eventually killed by Senate Republicans in June 1998.

Reporters quickly wedded the tobacco bill to the campaign finance issue, often mentioning the two issues as a pair proving McCain's maverick tendencies. Meanwhile, some commentators began to notice. "The Senator is cherished by journalists for his quixotic fights on campaign finance reform and tobacco, his scorn for pols driven by polls or pork, and his loose tongue," wrote New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd in 1999. "Many reporters loved his Senate crusade against the tobacco companies and publicly cheered on his campaign finance reform efforts. They are addicted to the McCain phenomenon," wrote Charlie Cook of the National Journal after McCain's campaign ended in 2000. Again and again, even years later, the tobacco legislation is brought up as an example of how McCain goes his own way, whatever the political consequences.

That continues to be the case, despite the fact that in the decade since McCain's bill died in 1998, he has done nothing to press the issue further. He did not reintroduce the bill, nor did he attempt to introduce a modified version. If you believe that tobacco should be regulated by the FDA, McCain's effort in 1997 was ineffectual, and he has been absent from the issue ever since. But it did accomplish something significant-for McCain's image.

The maverick goes national

On December 30, 1998, John McCain filed his candidacy papers for his presidential campaign. Within a matter of months, McCain the maverick would explode out of the Beltway and become a national brand.

The January 14, 1999, edition of the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call featured an article laying out the utility of McCain's image to a bid for higher office: "Reputation as Maverick Could Benefit McCain in 2000 Presidential Bid." The Associated Press picked up on the theme four days later, juxtaposing his "Ronald Reagan conservatism" with his "maverick image." The story cited McCain's "largely scandal-free past," as though the Keating Five scandal had never happened.

The "invisible primary" -- the period when few other than political junkies are paying attention to the nascent campaign -- was barely under way before the arbiters of conventional wisdom followed suit. The "maverick" label appeared in story after story. Time's Margaret Carlson wrote of the "maverick McCain." Mary McGrory of the Washington Post hailed him as the "Arizona maverick." William Safire, in his New York Times column, called McCain a "genuine maverick" with appeal to independent voters. What's noteworthy about these stories is that they referred to McCain as a maverick without providing a single example or citation to explain exactly what made him so --not even bothering to mention campaign finance reform or tobacco. McCain's maverick standing was simply noted, with the assumption that readers would know what the commentator was talking about.

CNN in particular was an instrumental contributor to building the maverick image. In 1999, CNN aired more stories describing McCain as a "maverick" than any other broadcast or cable news network. CNN in all aired thirty-seven stories that featured McCain as a maverick, compared with Fox's nine and MSNBC's three. CNN also topped CBS, NBC, and ABC, which had eight, three, and one stories respectively that defined McCain as a maverick. On an April 1999 episode of Inside Politics, political analyst William Schneider said, "McCain's been called a moderate by some for his stands on tobacco and campaign finance reform. Is he a moderate, a curse word for many conservatives? No, he's a maverick." In a broadcast a few months later, Wolf Blitzer said that McCain had "gained the reputation as a maverick within the Republican Party." By the second half of 1999, McCain the maverick was an established theme. In September, CNN's Candy Crowley noted the trend: "The word used most often to describe the politics of John McCain is 'maverick.' " In November, Bob Garfield stated that McCain was "unafraid" to be "kind of a maverick." On Crossfire, liberal cohost Bill Press joined in the chorus, claiming that McCain had "a well-deserved reputation as a maverick."

By the time the battle for the New Hampshire primaries heated up in December 1999, McCain's insurgent campaign had become established as the favorite -- not among Republican primary voters, but among the national media. The New York Times , in a December 30, 1999, profile, dubbed McCain an "anti-politician."On the day of the New Hampshire primary, the Times affixed the subhead "The Maverick" to its story on the McCain campaign.

On this wave of positive coverage, it was unsurprising that national polls showed McCain gaining traction with the public at large. In a June 1999 Washington Post poll of Republicans and Republican leaners nationwide, 49 percent said they would vote for Bush as their nominee, while 20 percent said they would choose Elizabeth Dole. McCain came in a distant third, tied at 5 percent with Pat Buchanan. McCain's status would improve dramatically in the coming months, however. In an ABC News/ Washington Post poll released February 28, 2000, McCain towered over the Republican and Democratic fields with a 60 percent favorability rating (Gore was second with 50 percent). Perhaps reflective of the fawning media coverage, McCain also topped Bush and Gore on another question: "The more I hear about (Gore/Bush/McCain) the more I like him ...." By that likeability measure, McCain got 54 percent, compared with 44 percent and 41 percent for Bush and Gore, respectively. The responses to another question, which asked respondents whether they believed a candidate "says what he really thinks, even if it's not politically popular," suggested that the maverick image was beginning to stick. McCain easily won that question too, with 67 percent of respondents saying "yes," compared with Bush and Gore's 53 percent and 41 percent, respectively. That marked a sharp increase for McCain from a December 1999 ABC News/Washington Post poll, when only 52 percent of respondents said "yes" for McCain, while Bush and Gore received 57 percent and 43 percent, respectively.

Despite the Bush campaign's overwhelming financial and organizational strength, McCain went on to win New Hampshire, upsetting the presumptive favorite. It was in the wake of his surprising success in New Hampshire that McCain became the top political story in the country. Time magazine hailed "The McCain Mutiny" on its cover, portraying McCain as an anti-establishment rebel (two months earlier, their cover featured "The Real McCain," with the subtitle, "His heroic life story and passion for reform could give Bush a run for his money"). One scholarly study examining the effects of media coverage during the 2000 primaries found that the more Republican primary voters paid attention to the news, the more likely they were to support McCain, particularly after New Hampshire: When media favoritism was moderately favorable (before New Hampshire), we see marginal effects.

But after media coverage toward McCain's candidacy became overwhelmingly favorable at the expense of Bush, respondents who paid attention to this coverage were substantially influenced as a result. In other words, these results suggest that media favoritism played an instrumental role in creating the surge of momentum from which the McCain campaign benefited. Meanwhile, on the other side of the political spectrum, media reception appears to have played no meaningful role in shaping Democratic candidate evaluations, either before or after New Hampshire. In other words, the amount of news voters paid attention to had no impact on their feelings toward Al Gore and Bill Bradley. But the more news they got about the campaign, the more they liked John McCain. While such clear, short-term effects are unusual in media studies, this study seems to show that the positive press coverage McCain received led directly to more votes.

Looking at the surge of McCain stories from 1999 through the first months of 2000, it's not unfair to suggest that the "maverick" label was as much a creation of the peculiar groupthink that grips journalists during campaign season as it was a product of original reporting. For the political press corps, a snowball effect set in. While many stories routinely talked of McCain as a maverick, only a fraction of them offered any context or justification for the characterization, such as a list of votes or other factors to explain what exactly it was that made him a maverick. Those that did were more likely to drop in a reference to campaign finance reform without exploring it in any detail. Many stories were content simply to refer to McCain as a maverick-and leave it at that.

As E. R. Shipp, who was the Washington Post 's ombudsman, wrote at the time, her paper seemed to have assigned each of the major candidates a role and found itself unable or unwilling to look beyond the conclusions it had made: "Gore is the guy in search of an identity; Bradley is the Zen-like intellectual in search of a political strategy; McCain is the war hero who speaks off the cuff and is, thus, a 'maverick'; and Bush is a lightweight with a famous name, and has the blessings of the party establishment and lots of money in his war chest. As a result of this approach, some candidates are whipping boys; others seem to get a free pass." Her description applied not just to the Post but to virtually the entire political press corps.

Although it emerged full-blown during the 2000 campaign, the maverick theme has remained a staple of McCain's coverage. Virtually every day -- sometimes many times a day-a reporter or commentator somewhere in the American media is calling John McCain a maverick. Sometimes a reporter almost forgets to mention that McCain is a maverick, then catches him or herself, as NBC's Norah O'Donnell did when guest-hosting Hardball in June 2006. "All right, Senator John McCain -- the maverick McCain," she said, ending their interview. Both laughed knowingly.

Free Ride: The Media and John McCain (Anchor Books, 2008) © 2008 by David Brock and Paul Waldman. Reprinted with permission by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

David Brock is the President and CEO of Media Matters for America . Paul Waldman is a Media Matters senior fellow.

 
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