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Maverick? Author Paul Waldman on “Free Ride: John McCain and the Media”

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Media Matters fellow and American Prospect columnist Paul Waldman says Sen. McCain’s image as an independent maverick able to take on powerful interests is enabled by a complacent media that overlooks the facts. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m joined now on the phone from Washington, D.C. by Paul Waldman, senior fellow at Media Matters for America, a columnist for American Prospect and the author of a number of books on media and politics. His latest book, co-authored with David Brock, is called Free Ride: John McCain and the Media.

Paul Waldman, welcome to Democracy Now!

PAUL WALDMAN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Why don’t you start off by talking about the media coverage of this convention culminating in the nomination of John McCain for president?

PAUL WALDMAN: Well, obviously, the coverage was dominated by discussion of Sarah Palin. What really struck me after her speech was just how glowing so much of the coverage was of her speech. “It was a home run.” “It was so spectacular.” And I think that a lot of that had to do with the fact that the reporters who were covering it were actually there at the Republican convention, and who were they getting reactions from? Well, they’re getting reactions from the Republican delegates, who are themselves not just the base of the Republican Party, but kind of the base of the base. Those are the social conservatives who want — who wanted Sarah Palin on the ticket, and they’re so excited about her. But I haven’t seen any evidence, actually, that her speech or her pick was such a gigantic hit with the public at large. I think that oftentimes in a situation like this, the press can get kind of — have blinders on because of the situation that they’re in.

So far, it seems like the reviews of the people who were watching the speech, John McCain’s speech last night, were mostly negative. I mean, anyone who watched it, I think, would know that it was kind of a dud in any number of ways. But they do keep falling back on the same old narrative that they’ve been telling for so long about McCain. I mean, I can read you the lede of the Associated Press report on McCain’s speech. It says, “John McCain, a POW turned political rebel, vowed tonight to vanquish the ‘constant partisan rancor’ that grips Washington as he launched his fall campaign for the White House.” Now, if you’ve been watching the coverage of McCain over the last ten years, you know that almost every story about McCain seems to start with some version of that, that he’s the rebel, he’s the maverick, he was a prisoner of war.

Now, people may have heard this a few or maybe a few hundred times over the last week. That’s one of the most extraordinary things I’ve always found about the coverage of McCain, is that they always say how reluctant he is to talk about the fact that he was a prisoner of war, despite the fact that every single campaign he’s ever run since he first ran for Congress in 1982 has been based on the fact that he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Even last night, on the floor of the convention, after this week of just endless retellings and retellings of the story of his captivity, one of the network reporters said, “Well, you know, his aides must have convinced him finally to talk about the fact that he was a prisoner of war, because he’s so reluctant to talk about it.” He’s not reluctant; he talks about it all the time. But yet, that narrative, like so many of the narratives about John McCain, has managed to persist, just as he and his advisers want it to.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, one of the things he did also talk about last night was the fact that he is a maverick. It’s certainly the word that perhaps is most thrown around about him. Your response?

PAUL WALDMAN: Absolutely. And, you know, I think any reporter who started off a story by saying, “Barack Obama, who’s offering change we can believe in, today gave a speech on the economy,” they’d get laughed out of the newsroom. But all the time, reporters start their stories about John McCain by saying, “John McCain, the maverick Arizona senator, today gave a speech on the economy.” It’s a campaign slogan. But nonetheless, he has managed to convince reporters, through this extraordinary sort of campaign of courtship that has really gone on for about fifteen years now, that he is a maverick, that he alone stands up to the special interests and doesn’t do anything for political reasons, that he alone operates on principle.

Well, you know, after a whole week of them at the convention saying over and over again that John McCain loves his country — and by implication, I guess everybody else doesn’t — it makes you wonder about, you know, for instance, all the things that he has done that are the standard things that we criticize politicians for. You know, John McCain has flip-flopped on many issues. He has pandered on many issues. But somehow that idea that he is the guy who’s really going his own way has managed to persist, because reporters repeat it so often.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk specifically, when you’re talking about the fact that you feel he is not a maverick — what are the most important issues that you feel he has not broken with the party or with convention on?

PAUL WALDMAN: Well, obviously, as the Democrats have said many times, you know, in the last couple of years particularly, he hasn’t voted against the Bush administration once in 2008. He voted 95 percent of the time with the Bush administration in 2007. And if you look over the course of his career, he gets ratings from the conservative groups kind of in the mid-80s. A hundred would be absolutely perfect, and a zero would be what a conservative group would give to a real liberal. And that puts him at the — maybe not at the actual outer limit, but at the conservative end among his colleagues.

The reason that everybody thinks that he — that he’s different, that he bucks convention more often, is that, not because he actually does it more often — he doesn’t. There are a number of Republican senators who vote with the Democrats far more often than he does. But when somebody like, say, Susan Collins of Maine, when she votes with the Democrats, it doesn’t change the story that the reporters write about whatever that piece of legislation is. It’s still written as a conflict between Democrats and Republicans, maybe with a couple of defectors here and there. But when John McCain is the one who decides that he’s going to go against his party, that changes the story that reporters write. Instead of a story about a conflict between Democrats and Republicans, now they write a story about John McCain and his courageous rebellion. He’s the one who goes on Meet the Press to talk about the issue. He’s the one who is in the headlines, who gets quoted in the stories, and it becomes a story about him. So he actually votes against his party less often than many other people in the Republican Party do, but when he does it, the reporters, who have so much affection for him, they write it as though it’s — they write a different story that puts him at the forefront, making it seem as though it happens much more often.

AMY GOODMAN: John McCain, seen as a lobbyists’ biggest enemy?

PAUL WALDMAN: Yeah, that was a line that really had to make me laugh when I heard it in Sarah Palin’s speech, that the lobbyists aren’t supporting his campaign. Well, the truth is, it’s not just that the lobbyists are supporting his campaign; the lobbyists are running his campaign. His campaign manager is a corporate lobbyist. His chief fundraiser is a corporate lobbyist. His chief political adviser is a corporate lobbyist. There are, by some counts, around 150 different corporate lobbyists who are either on the campaign staff or are major fundraisers for the McCain campaign. And, you know, the idea that somehow he’s the guy who’s standing up to the special interests is just laughable.

But again, it’s because we’ve been told that story so often that we believe it. Just to give you one example, people may remember the Keating Five scandal that John McCain got caught up in. These days, when Keating Five gets mentioned, it’s kind of a redemption story, sort of like George W. Bush’s drinking. The story the press tells us: well, you know, he had this sort of youthful indiscretion with Charles Keating, where he put pressure on federal regulators to ease off of their investigation of this crooked S&L operator, but then he was reborn as a reformer, and he would sin no more. Well, the truth is that what he did for Charles Keating, he has done in more recent cases, for instance, the Paxson Communications case, which was almost exactly the same thing as he did with Charles Keating, putting pressure on federal regulators on behalf of a big donor and flying around the country on that donor’s corporate jet. But that story doesn’t get told, because the underlying narrative that reporters tell about McCain is that he is that one who’s operating on principle and standing up to the special interests.

AMY GOODMAN: And Charles Keating, just explain for listeners and viewers who that’s ancient history for.

PAUL WALDMAN: Right. Well, the savings and loan scandal cost the American taxpayers a few hundred billion dollars. The worst offender was a guy named Charles Keating in Arizona. He was a longtime friend of McCain’s. He had flown McCain and his family down to Keating’s house in the Bahamas. He had donated lots and lots of money to McCain. He, Keating, and Cindy McCain and her father went in on some real estate investments together. And when the federal regulators began to circle, what Keating did was he asked McCain and four other senators to put pressure on the regulators to ease off of their investigation. Those senators did that, and as a result, they got reprimanded by the Senate Ethics Committee.

And so, at the time, John McCain really wasn’t very well known, but the Keating Five scandal really kind of was the start of his relation — his new relationship with the press, where he really kind of figured out that if he could get them on his side, then he could weather future storms like that one.

But again, we’ve seen so many times since then — you know, he was the chairman of the Commerce Committee for many, many years. He still sits on it. And lots and lots of corporations that have interest in legislation that goes before the Commerce Committee, particularly in the telecommunications industry, they have been major, major benefactors of McCain over the years, and he has done favors for them. And so, this idea that he is somehow removed from that cozy lobbyist special interest culture in Washington is — it’s just ridiculous. And to hear him get up in front of the convention and say that, you know, those days are done because now he is going to be coming to Washington, where he’s been for twenty-six years, is just strange credulity.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on that note, we’re going to wrap up this part of the discussion. Of course, we’ll be talking about the biography of John McCain and Barack Obama in these next many weeks. Paul Waldman has been our guest. His book is Free Ride: John McCain and the Media. He wrote it with David Brock. But we’re going to go on now to talk about the money train from the Republicans to the Democrats.

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