While Sen. John McCain will reap strategic rewards of early Republican decision-making, he certainly had bad luck on the media-spotlight front this week. Since Tuesday’s results clinched his nomination, virtually all attention has been on the Democrats, with pundits analyzing everything from whether Rush helped Hillary in Texas to who said what to the Canadians about NAFTA.
McCain did get a White House moment — actually many moments, including lunch — with President Bush, though as an account by the Times (of London) Online indicates, the photo op began only after a nervous presidential wait for the candidate:
“… The president grinned uneasily at the waiting press pack. He shuffled his feet, then did a little jig. ‘I’m just going to tap dance a little,’ the leader of the free world explained.
“Another uncomfortable silence descended. The president peered about him, then looked at his staff with eyes pleading for rescue.
” ‘Who should be his VP?’ ” a reporter yelled.
” ‘There will be ample time for questions,’ Mr. Bush repeated.
” ‘There’s ample time now,’ a second reporter piped up. But the nominee was still nowhere to be seen.
” ‘Let’s start over,’ Mr Bush chortled, fleeing back into the safety of the White House. ‘Pretend like it never happened.’ ”
‘A marriage of convenience’
Things got better once McCain arrived, but the media didn’t cooperate by taking the event at face value. Massimo Calabresi, wrote in Time magazine, for example, “The meeting was supposed to project a unified Republican front, a burying of past hatchets with smiles all around. But from the moment a fashionably late John McCain made President Bush awkwardly wait for him (and tap dance for the assembled media) at the North Portico of the White House, it was clear that this public endorsement of the freshly crowned Republican nominee was largely a marriage of convenience.”
As evidence, Calabresi noted the following: “In his opening statement, he said he’d welcome the president on the campaign trail as his schedule allows, and he repeated that theme five times in ten minutes. He’d hold joint campaign events ‘in keeping with the president’s schedule,’ he said. He hopes the president will ‘find time from his busy schedule’ to campaign with him, he said. McCain apparently hasn’t seen the ‘Week Ahead’ memos the White House has been sending out that show Bush’s lame duck agenda sparsely dotted with feel-good meet-and-greets.
“McCain’s excessive concern for Bush’s day job simply underlined the fact that these two were never going to be the prettiest pair.” Bad blood dates at least to the primaries of 2000, but a newer consideration is whether Bush’s visible support will be useful. The obvious problem of his low popularity ratings wasn’t lost on the president. As the Wall Street Journal reported, “Whether Bush can actually help McCain much is in doubt, as even Bush seemed to concede. ‘Look. … If my showing up and endorsing him helps him, or if I’m against him and it helps, either way, I want him to win,’ Bush said, in response to one of several questions on the issue.”
As for the substance of McCain’s credentials and how they’ll play in the campaign, don’t hold your breath for lengthy analysis; the “who’s up, who’s down” of the close Democratic contest will occupy most of the media as McCain gears up for his one-on-one with the winner.
A couple of topics have been getting some attention, however. While many see McCain’s national-security bona fides and his firm stance on the war in Iraq as his natural strength, he can’t take voter kudos on those subjects for granted if two articles this week are any indication.
The phone-call question
Mark Benjamin, in Salon.com, picked up on the 3 a.m. phone-call issue brought up in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s ads against Barack Obama.
“In essence, Clinton has now turned the debate about commander-in-chief readiness into a contest of résumés. And the conventional wisdom is that John McCain — ex-fighter pilot, former POW and war hero — wins. But that’s not necessarily the case, say senior military officials and political analysts. In interviews with Salon this week, several experienced military officers said McCain draws mixed reviews among military leaders, and they expressed serious doubts about whether McCain has the right temperament to be the next president and commander in chief. …
“It is not difficult in Washington to find high-level military officials who have had close encounters with John McCain’s temper, and who find it worrisome. Politicians sometimes scream for effect, but the concern is that McCain has, at times, come across as out of control. It is difficult to find current or former officers willing to describe those encounters in detail on the record. That’s because, by and large, those officers admire McCain. But that doesn’t mean they want his finger on the proverbial button, and they are supporting Clinton or Obama instead.”
One of several military men told Benjamin, “I like McCain. I respect McCain. But I am a little worried by his knee-jerk response factor.” Retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who was in charge of training the Iraqi military from 2003 to 2004 and is now campaigning for Clinton, added, “I think it is a little scary. I think this guy’s first reactions are not necessarily the best reactions. I believe that he acts on impulse.”
Calling Obama a “kind of a steady Eddie,” Merrill McPeak, a retired general, said, “McCain has got a reputation for being a little volatile.” However, Benjamin also quotes former Navy Secretary John Lehman, a McCain supporter who downplays this as an issue: “Lehman said that in comparison with some of the people he has worked for, such as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, ‘John McCain is a pussycat.’ “
“I have never seen him really lose it and really be just passionately furious,” Lehman said. “When I have seen him lose his temper, it is for effect.”
Will Iraq stance help or hurt?
All that may turn out to be a side issue to McCain’s pro-Bush views and actions on Iraq. Will they turn out to be beneficial against Clinton or Obama? For libertarian columnist Steve Chapman, prevailing thought on the issue is off-base:
“On the campaign trail, John McCain has retreated on immigration, changed his mind on tax cuts and admitted economics is not his strong suit. But all that’s unimportant, we are told, because he was Right On Iraq — back at the beginning, when he endorsed the invasion, and again over the past year, when he has stoutly supported the surge. So, whichever Democrat he faces, the November election could be a referendum on the Iraq war and his support for it.
“If so, that may not be a plus for McCain. McCain has been consistent about Iraq, in the sense of being consistently wrong. If the American people get a long look at what he’s said and a clear picture of our fortunes in Iraq, he may yearn for the days when he was being pilloried for offering ‘amnesty’ to illegal immigrants.”
Or not. The twists and turns of this presidential campaign season are likely to twist and turn a good while longer. Remember, not so many months ago McCain’s candidacy was thought to be dead.
Susan Albright, a MinnPost managing editor, writes about national and foreign developments. She can be reached at salbright [at] minnpost [dot] com.