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Welcome to McCain's flip-flop express

Dick Polman
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Join me for a trip down memory lane, aboard "maverick" John McCain's Straight Talk Express.

This was seven winters ago, long before the Washington press corps finally got hip to the fact that McCain was just another pandering politician. This was during the 2000 Republican primary season, when, at McCain's invitation, a steady procession of besotted journalists rode with him on his bus (right up front, no less) for days and weeks at a time, laughing at his jokes and reveling in the illusion that they were insiders.

I remember one frigid New Hampshire night, somewhere along Interstate 93. McCain held court, and we crowded around. He ruminated a bit about health care (he confessed that the issue bored him), gossiped about some people he didn't like (signaling his distaste by rolling his eyes), reminisced about his days as a carousing Navy flyboy (he said he dated an exotic dancer named "Marie the Flame Thrower of Florida"), and there were rollicking good vibes as we rolled along.

But I never rode again, having no desire to be part of McCain's laugh track. Somehow, a bit of professional distance seemed more appropriate. And it was obvious McCain knew exactly what he was doing. He had very little money at the time - all the big donors were backing his rival, George W. Bush - so he needed free and favorable exposure. And flattering the press was the best way to get it.

He has reaped the benefits ever since. Over the last seven years, he has been constantly depicted in the press as a "straight-talking, independent maverick," despite the fact that, with the exception of a few high-profile issues, he has long voted in the Senate as a conventional conservative Republican. By all accounts, he's still talking with the media about Marie the Flame Thrower. So one might assume McCain will simply gas up the bus for 2008, and conjure the old camaraderie.

But that's not likely to happen, not at a time when the media feel so betrayed.

They fell hard for McCain in 2000, not just because he granted so much access but because he sold himself as a rebel, an antiestablishment reformer with no patience for political orthodoxy. Reporters bought the McCain persona, because they (like many of their fellow citizens) are frustrated romantics who yearn for authenticity in public life. So when an alleged rebel turns out to be a calculating opportunist, that's an open invitation for the Fourth Estate to lose the love and rediscover its adversarial impulses.

It's impossible to pinpoint when the long media honeymoon finally ended; perhaps it was last April, when the Associated Press sent out a story headlined "McCain's straight-talking image called into question." Suffice it to say that reporters generally don't abide politicians - not even the friendly ones - who say one thing and do another. And at this point, it's impossible to ignore the fact that McCain has been riding the Double Talk Express for the better part of a year, flip-flopping with an alacrity that would humble Hamlet.

Reporters, outsiders by nature, liked the 2000 version of McCain because he was an outsider battling the GOP establishment; but the 2007 version of McCain is an insider who craves acceptance by the establishment. And he cannot join that establishment unless he wins over the Bush moneymen, and the social and religious conservatives, whom he scorned seven years ago. Hence his apparent willingness to throw his old self under the bus.

Space does not permit a full recitation of his flip-flops, so here's a modest sampling:

McCain used to dismiss Jerry Falwell as an "agent of intolerance," but tomorrow he will trek to a Florida religious convention to woo the guy.

McCain, until recently, was pushing for a reform law that would require conservative groups to reveal their financial donors. But, after fielding protests from evangelical Christians and antiabortion activists, McCain decided last month to strip out the provision.

McCain in 2000 assailed Bush's proposed tax cuts as a sop to the rich, and a year later, with Bush in office, he voted against those cuts, declaring that "the benefits go to the most fortunate among us, at the expense of middle-class Americans." But a year ago, he switched sides and voted to extend tax cuts for the wealthy.

McCain in 1999 said that, "even in the long term," he would not support the repeal of Roe v. Wade because "thousands of young American women would be performing illegal and dangerous operations." But last November he said that he now favored repeal because "I don't believe the Supreme Court should be legislating in the way that they did on Roe v. Wade."

McCain in 2000 was incensed when a pair of Texas businessmen, Sam and Charley Wyly, bankrolled some Bush-friendly TV ads that distorted McCain's record. McCain declared at the time that their "dirty money" did not belong in national politics. But last year, McCain decided that their dirty money belonged in his campaign; he took $20,000 and allowed them to chair a McCain fund-raiser. (McCain later had to give back the money, because, it turns out, his new friends are reportedly under federal investigation.)

McCain, who has long deplored negative politics, defended John Kerry in 2004 when the Democratic candidate's war record was being impugned by the Swift Boaters. But today, one of McCain's top advisers is GOP hardball specialist Terry Nelson, who has worked as a consultant with one of the principal Swift Boaters. Nelson also produced the notorious `06 TV ad that implied, in the Tennessee Senate race, that the black Democratic candidate cavorted with white women.

McCain has voted against a federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, but last fall, regarding his own state, he supported an Arizona referendum that would have banned gay marriage.

McCain in 2006 suggested that creationism was not a fit topic for the schoolroom: "I respect those who think the world was created in seven days. Should it be taught as a science class? Probably not." But he suggested the opposite in 2005 ("all points of view should be presented"), and next Friday he is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at a confab sponsored by the Discovery Institute, a prominent creationism advocacy group.

This is all raw meat for even the most somnolent watchdogs. Few facets of the old McCain appeal - including his military heroism (which wowed the reporters, few of whom have served), and his willingness to admit error (reporters love candidates who cop to flaws) - will shield him from rigorous questioning in the months ahead. A new mainstream media Web site, Politico.com, even referred to McCain the other day as "the onetime maverick," which is probably some kind of milestone.

Nor does McCain need to woo reporters as he once did; he has lots of money and universal name ID, so their usefulness is over. More important, his top priority right now is to assure the media-wary GOP establishment that he's not in bed with his old buds. Indeed, he knows that there can never be another love bus; by opting to pander for the nomination, he understands that, this time, there will be no free ride. It's the price he is willing to pay.

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