The Pampered Politician

Arizona Senator John McCain is ready for a presidential run — if the national press corps has anything to say about it

The discerning Maureen Dowd, David Broder and Mary McGrory all weighed in approvingly, and William Safire sent Americans racing for their dictionaries when he raved:

"Best speech by far of the convention was Senator John McCain's nomination of Bob Dole. This brief gem from a brave man--telling a dramatic story in simple words, building to a throat-catching climax--was delivered with quiet modesty and grace. Lesson: Great oratory need not be bombastic, nor splendid speechwriting festooned with anaphora or chiasmus."

In October, The New Yorker published "A Friendship That Ended the War," a feature by James Carroll, in which the author details the friendship that developed between McCain and Senator John Kerry--a Vietnam veteran who became a war protester--during their work to normalize U.S. relations with Vietnam.

Subsequently, the Boston Globe and Baltimore Sun have profiled McCain as a presidential contender. In an April 12 cover story, the National Journal called him "The Lone Ranger," and even noted, "McCain is direct, forthright and even blunt at times--traits that have not always played well with Capitol Hill colleagues but have won him favorable press coverage."

In February, Washingtonian magazine dubbed McCain "Senator Hothead," a misleading headline, since the piece celebrated his temper as a virtue.

"In a Senate that still tries to present itself as a polite debating club, McCain stands out for his willingness to take on 'distinguished colleagues,'" writes Harry Jaffe, one of Washingtonian's national editors.

The ultimate triumph, no doubt, came with Time's proclamation of McCain as one of the "25 Most Influential People in America." His picture appears just to the left of radio talk show host and Clinton nemesis Don Imus. "McCain," the magazine intones, "is the most conscientious of objectors to business as usual."

Boil it down, and there are five reasons the members of the national press, by their own admission, love John McCain: He's a war hero; he's a neopopulist; he reminds them of themselves; he's accessible; and, finally, they say, his image is genuine, not manufactured.

McCain's appeal begins with one simple, irrefutable fact: He's a hero. He survived five-and-a-half unimaginably grueling years in Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camps, enduring unspeakable torture.

Every journalist interviewed for this story mentions it right off the bat.

"You can't deny the fact that he is a bona fide, walkin', talkin' John Wayne character," says Washingtonian's Harry Jaffe. "That lays a foundation of respect."

Even the Democrats agree that McCain is impenetrable when it comes to his war record.

In an opposition research report prepared in 1991 by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the researcher notes:

"He [McCain] is not vulnerable on this issue, and it would be extremely difficult to appear more patriotic. If you try, the best an opponent could do is a draw, which probably would not convince voters to support you over McCain. It would be better to focus your efforts elsewhere."

Early in his career, McCain swore repeatedly he would never stoop to speak of that torture, wouldn't use his status as a POW to score political points. And, yet, it is clearly his war record--and the frequency with which he is able to work in a mention of it--that most accounts for his elevation to the status of national political figure.

He hasn't actively sought out all of the war-related attention. Baltimore Sun editor and Naval Academy graduate Robert Timberg resurrected McCain's status as a war hero in his 1995 book The Nightingale's Song, in which he profiled McCain and four other famous Annapolis graduates. Timberg admires McCain, but he does not ignore the uglier moments of the senator's life--including his poor school record, philandering and political opportunism. Timberg's hilarious description of McCain's brash power grab in his 1982 race for Congress in Arizona is a refreshing departure from the current beatification of McCain.

Despite his senior membership in the majority party in the nation's most exclusive club, the Senate, McCain has managed to paint himself as an outsider, a neopopulist willing to rear up against his colleagues. In 1994, McCain pushed legislation that would have eliminated free parking for U.S. senators and representatives at Washington's National Airport; he was defeated, but received a great deal of credit for his effort.

McCain is widely praised for his willingness to push campaign-reform legislation by sponsoring the McCain-Feingold bill.

McCain's "outsider" image, his willingness to make his colleagues mad, invites journalists to identify with him, says Paul Starobin of the National Journal.

"Who does the press like?" Starobin asks. "They like this guy who is sort of a maverick who doesn't get along with a lot of his own colleagues. So, in a way, he embodies some attributes--like iconoclasm and irreverence--that journalists themselves pride themselves on."

And McCain is very accommodating to journalists.

Washingtonian's Harry Jaffe: "He is good with the press. By that, he's accessible, he will talk to the press, he will get back to the press, he does not keep the press at bay. Reporters--again, we're human beings; we like that." A television news producer at the D.C. Fox affiliate says no other senator's office returns press calls as promptly as McCain's.

Above all, journalists like what appears to be McCain's candor. Michael Lewis says he was amazed the first few times he spoke to McCain.

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