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Hagel-McCain ‘rift’: what it tells us about journalism

A former top aide to John McCain has written thought-provoking article about one of the less appealing aspects of journalism.

Former Sen. Chuck Hagel taking the podium after President Barack Obama announced his nomination to be his new secretary of defense.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Mark Salter, a former top aide to Sen. John McCain, has written a thought-provoking piece for Real Clear Politics about one of the less appealing aspects of journalism – the felt need to write a piece when you have nothing reliable to say.

Salter’s piece is headlined: “Hagel and McCain: The Truth About Their ‘Rift.’”

Salter actually doesn’t know the truth about their rift, nor even if there really is much of a rift. McCain and cabinet nominee Chuck Hagel used to be quite close. The two men shared searing combat experience in Vietnam and reputations as maverick Republicans who spoke their minds.

Now they are not so close. McCain has indicated that he has “serious concerns about positions Senator Hagel has taken on a range of critical national security issues in recent years.” As the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, which will hold hearings on Hagel’s nomination to be defense secretary, and as a leading Republican voice on foreign and military policy, McCain’s attitude toward Hagel’s nomination is of some import.

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In 2000, when McCain made his first run for president, Hagel was a national campaign co-chair. By 2008, when McCain tried again, Hagel didn’t even endorse him during the primaries.

In a piece for the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza, a top political reporter, explored what happened to the friendship which, he says, has “collapsed” and “dissolved entirely.” Cillizza quotes several people, although he doesn’t identify any of them. Political and policy differences are enumerated. Both men voted to authorize the Iraq war, but Hagel became a skeptic. When McCain pushed for additional troops, Hagel said the so-called “surge” would be “the biggest foreign policy blunder since Vietnam.” One of Cillizza’s unnamed sources says McCain took Hagel’s position on the surge as a “personal insult.”

Maybe that’s all true. Salter, a long-time McCain staffer, is skeptical. He decided to write his own piece in which he divulged that Cillizza called him for input and:

I told him I don’t know why they no longer socialized; there had never been any private or public rupture in their friendship. They had never fallen out after an argument over a personal or political matter. Neither of them had knowingly offended the other.

The two men were close before, during and briefly after McCain’s presidential campaign in 2000. Then, over a period of a year or so, they stopped traveling overseas together and socializing much outside the Senate. By the end of 2002, they remained on friendly terms, and still do, but their friendship could no longer be accurately described as close. They had drifted apart for no obvious reason.

Remarks along those lines were not really helpful to Cillizza and were left out of the story. Instead, Cillizza went with sources who claimed to know the reasons for the rift. Salter said, rather high-handedly, that “those sources weren’t telling him the truth, but they were being helpful.”

So Salter wrote his own no-apparent-reason piece, but he spent the first several paragraphs philosophizing about what causes a piece like Cillizza’s to be published, even though Salter is convinced it’s wrong. It’s possible that Salter is wrong and the more “helpful” sources are right. But I loved Salter’s philosophizing because, after a lifetime in journalism, I know that it’s possible to get it wrong without misquoting anyone. Here’s how Salter laid it out:

In Washington, personal relationships between politicians are almost always scrutinized for their transactional significance. It is inconceivable to most folks here that political people could like or dislike, associate with or avoid each other for reasons that aren’t political or self-serving. It’s an inane but persistent presumption.

We fit every human interaction into a few pat narratives and reduce most of humanity to well-worn stereotypes. As in Hollywood, there are stacks of dog-eared scripts around this town for every occasion. It’s convenient for reporters and useful for the people they cover. Too often, the stories we tell each other are meant to serve something other than the truth.

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It’s not as nefarious as it sounds. Washington’s reliance on short-hand, if flawed, narratives is an illustration that necessity is still the mother of invention. To respond to the competitive pressure of the 24/7 news cycle, reporters ascribe great significance to the most ordinary of things. This happens most easily in cable TV and online journalism. To justify all the posts and breaking-news chyrons scrolling across the bottom of the screen, you need to pretend that something momentous or fascinating is always happening in the nation’s capital.

The sources who supply the quotes necessary to sustain the illusion might do so to advance a political agenda or career or to misdirect a reporter in an attempt to protect some interest. But more often they do so only for that most human of reasons: to prove their own significance; to show they’re in the know, on the inside.