One of the curiosities of American politics is the media’s ongoing infatuation with John McCain. A bit of this is based on things such as McCain’s opposition to torture (unfortunately, we can no longer treat opposing torture like opposing child molestation, i.e., something one assumes is standard equipment in a presidential candidate rather than a luxury upgrade). Yet most of the journalistic love affair with the Republican senator from Arizona is based on other factors.
Consider this typical endorsement from the Orlando Sentinel: While McCain “has stuck to his principles at the risk of sinking his campaign,” Mitt Romney “has abandoned positions that would have alienated his party’s conservative base.” (Indeed, I checked a computer database and discovered that, in the national media, Romney is at least six times more likely to be described as a flip-flopper than McCain.)
This does not merely ignore but actually inverts the truth. The fact is that no presidential candidate in either party has flip-flopped as egregiously as McCain on such a wide range of issues. Here’s just a small sample of Sen. Straight Talk’s recent series of remarkable conversions to politically convenient stances:
— On abortion rights, McCain has done a 180-degree turn, from favoring only the most minor restrictions and opposing the overturning of Roe v. Wade, to supporting an almost total ban, while advocating that the Supreme Court reverse Roe immediately.
— McCain has transformed himself from a deficit hawk who mocked supply-side economics into someone who sounds like he’s drunk deeply from the wackiest vats of supply-side Kool-Aid, to the point where he now claims raising taxes decreases revenues (a claim so wildly in conflict with the facts — for example, federal tax revenues almost doubled in real terms after the Clinton tax increases — that it’s either a shameless lie or a product of astounding ignorance).
— In regard to ethanol subsidies, McCain has gone from treating them as the worst sort of pork to becoming a strong supporter of a program despised by economists, but beloved of Iowa farmers and the good people at Archer Daniels Midland.
— Six years ago, McCain sternly condemned Jerry Falwell as “an agent of intolerance.” Eighteen months ago, he gave the commencement address at Falwell’s university, while openly embracing one of the most noxious figures of the religious right.
These are just a few examples from a far longer list. On topics ranging from immigration, to campaign finance reform, to gay marriage, to accepting support from various sleazy characters he previously shunned, McCain has either completely reversed his views or seriously equivocated regarding what they are this week.
Yet the media continue to lavish him with worshipful paeans to his supposedly uncompromising commitment to principled leadership no matter what the political cost etc., etc.
Part of this is accounted for by lazy autopilot journalism, which stops people from bothering to check whether the story line they’ve repeated for years still has any relationship to reality.
But part of it is something worse. When it comes to McCain, many of the sophisticates at the top of the media pyramid are like a masochistic spouse who treats open infidelity as a twisted sort of faithfulness. They love McCain because when he lies to their face he doesn’t even pretend to be doing otherwise. According to the pretzel logic of a certain kind of journalism, that counts as candor.
All this would be merely amusing if McCain were not a genuinely tragic figure. The young man who showed such exemplary courage in the face of his North Vietnamese tormenters has become an old man whose courage abandoned him when subjected to the more subtle tortures of worldly ambition.
“Count no man happy,” noted the Athenian statesman, “until he is dead.”
(Paul F. Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)