21pohe5xohl_aa180_.jpg(Please welcome David Brock and Paul Waldman in the comments, authors of Free Ride: John McCain and the Media — jh)

If you read one book this election season, as the saying goes…this should be it.

It’s the story of how John McCain "cracked the media code," which Waldman and Brock vividly demonstrate. How he went from the corrupt, foul-mouthed hothead at odds with the Arizona press to the darling of the national media, who cover for his shortcomings in exchange for access.

Barbecue McCain and his history as a member of the Keating 5 scandal is narily mentioned:

Between 1982 and 1987, the five senators received a total of $1.4 million in campaign contributions and gifts from Keating Asked at a press conference if his contributions had bought him influence, Keating replied, ‘I want to say in the most forceful way I can: I certainly hope so."

[]

But campaign contributions were not all of it. After his 1982 victory, McCain and his family made at least nine trips on Keating’s dime, three of which were to Keating’s own home in the Bahamas. McCain never disclosed the trips, as House rules required, until the scandal came out in the open in 1989. After the three trips were publicized, McCain paid Keating $13,433 for travel expenses. In addition, McCain’s wife and father-in-law were discovered to have invested $359,100 in a stripmall owned by Keating a year before McCain’s meeting with regulators. Cindy McCain and Jim Hensley would eventually reap $100,000 and $1 million from the deal. McCain was adamant that he "in no way abused" his office.

Is this the "maverick" who is going to clean up Washington D.C.? Apparently, because as Waldman and Brock point out, there really doesn’t seem to be any other narrative that a compliant press is capable of following:

When McCain said he had no choice but to do what’s right, correspondent Terry Moran commented, "No other choice. That’s pure John McCain. Blunt, unyielding, deploying his principles…What he does do is what he’s always done, play it as straight as possible…The maverick candidate still. John McCain."

McCain has been infamous from the start for his hair-trigger temper and angry outbursts. But he consistently gets the benefit of the doubt. In an article from 1997 entitled "Senator Hothead," the Washingtonian described him thusly:

"In a Senate that still tries to present itself as a polite debating club, McCain stands out for his willingness to take on ‘distinguished colleages,’" reporter Harry Jaffe wrote. "McCain has fired back at some of the Sente’s most treasured domains — campaign cash an pork-barrel spending — and damn the party affiliation." In other words, McCain isn’t angry: he’s passionate. When he blows his lid, it’s only because he’s standing up for his principles….And so it is that John McCain’s short fuse is viewed not as a character flaw but a redemptive trait."

Because of this ubiquitous media fluffery, it’s extraordinarily hard to get a foothold in jacking up McCain’s negatives. Per the latest NBC/WSJ Survey, March 2008:

Among All Voters Somewhat Negative Very Negative Total Negative
George W. Bush 13 41 54
Hillary Clinton 21 27 48
Barack Obama 16 16 32
John McCain 15 10 25

This is the guy who wants to "Bomb Iran" and be in Iraq for the next hundred years. In the junior high popularity contest that this election has become, McCain is the Once and Future Prom King. On the other hand, the media have locked their sights on Obama, and he can look forward to more and more constant video repetition shitstorms of the Jeremiah Wright variety.

Unless someone starts pushing the media to apply some equivalent skepticism to McCain, the slog to November will be one long foot massages for St. John the Divine.

Please welcome David Brock and Paul Waldman to the FDL Book Salon.