The noise over the so-called "cone of silence" — and whether John McCain was really hermetically sealed in it during last week’s evangelical civility summit — grew in intensity and idiocy.
It whooshed through the blogosphere and of course the nonstop cable news-chatter shows, faster than old-fashioned journalists could pedal their old-time news cycles. First it was just a bit shrill, but soon the Great Magnifiers made it sound downright sinister. Which may be suitable for politics, but surely not for church.
After all, hadn’t the Rev. Rick Warren repeatedly assured his evangelical Saddleback Church’s congregation in Orange County, California and his CNN audience everywhere on Saturday night that McCain was in a "cone of silence" and couldn’t hear Barack Obama’s answers to a series of faith-based questions — questions McCain would soon be asked? Yes, the preacher had said just that.
But within hours, news-sounding reports were spreading the word that McCain was never in a cone. He was in a motorcade. Then in the green room awaiting his turn. So: Did he listen to Obama’s answers on his limo’s radio? Did he watch the TV in the green room? Have we unearthed a neo-Nixonian dirty trick here?
Apparently somebody called in the cone police of the mainstream media. On Sunday, NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell reported that some Obama’s staffers thought McCain "may have had some ability to overhear what the questions were to Obama." (Note to Journalism 101 students: News scoops are not written in the subjunctive tense. "May have had" doesn’t rule out "may not have had." And who cares what someone thought but couldn’t prove?)
"Despite Assurances, McCain Wasn’t in a ‘Cone of Silence,’" the headline said, solemnly and importantly, because it was in The New York Times. A day later, a Washington Post headline reported: "Candidates Got Advance Look at Questions" — and the subhead elaborated: "Spokesman for Minister Says McCain, Obama Were Told of Some Topics."
Next you heard the sound of media minds boggling. Here’s why:
The Rev. Warren had been operating in an interview mindset unfamiliar to my colleagues. He wasn’t about gotcha interviews. He wasn’t about setting traps, then springing them. He was about trying to get his guests to discuss in some depth their feelings and their faith.
There is no reason why mainstream journalists shouldn’t consider the same sort of approach to the major policy issues that face the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. Imagine a series of interviews on the issues in which we give each candidate the general themes of the questions in advance, then ask them to discuss in depth their solutions and approaches to each problem. And then follow up as often as necessary to assure that all facets have been covered and all possible holes in their answers have been filled or at least highlighted for all to see.
Now, about that cone: The "cone of silence" was a satirical, not scientific creation. It was employed by that secret agent of early TV comedy, Maxwell Smart. This week, our satirical senses were finely honed as we watched spokespeople for McCain and the preacher intone seriously that the Arizona Republican hadn’t heard broadcasts or telecasts of Obama’s answers, nor gotten any manner of telepathic crib notes.
And then, even as the spokespeople were extolling the high road, the real satire of 2008 was put on display. Apparently as soon as McCain and Obama left their Christian summit of compassion and civility, they returned to their ungodly campaign ways — their respective uncivilly exaggerating, opponent-distorting ways. Especially distorting each others’ war, economy and energy policies.
So this brings us to the one thing that the Rev. Warren failed to do. At the end of his rather instructive two hours, he should have had his two guests, who, despite their occupational habits, are known to be decent men, do one more thing. Place their left hands on Bibles, raise their right hands and repeat an Oath of Running-for-President:
"I pledge to campaign for our nation’s highest office by adhering to out highest standards. I pledge that I will not distort or exaggerate my record nor my opponent’s record — and I will repudiate all who do so, acting in my name."
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)