The Pampered Politician

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

"I was talking to someone who didn't use conversation as a tactic for political advancement, but just as a means for getting across what he thought," he says, bemused. "I was really floored, because I spent so much time in the presence of these serious political people who--everything that came out of their mouths was in some way implausible or strained or contrived--it was like another world to me. And I was so kind of grateful to find this guy in the middle of it all who wasn't like that."

Lewis says his own cynical nature is actually what drew him to McCain, and is what draws others to him.

"I think his rise is partly a response to how deeply cynical the people and the process has become, because he's managed to keep himself more or less honest and straight and decent, more or less functioning like an ordinary human being, rather than a politician. The distinction between him and everything else is growing. He benefits from the rise of the professional spin doctor and the rise of the modern campaign and all this stuff that makes politicians look like Martians."

But despite what reporters think, there remains another factor that explains their zeal for McCain: He has gulled them into loving him. Contrary to popular belief among Beltway journalists, John McCain is no wide-eyed neophyte, stumbling across great press coverage by randomly mouthing off.

Bruce Merrill, a professor at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, has worked on more than 100 political campaigns around the country, including McCain's first House race in 1982.

Merrill maintains that all of it--the war-hero status, the neopopulist stands, the accessibility, the candor--is carefully packaged and presented, with the goal of positive press.

Americans today, Merrill says, are "tired of political parties; they want someone who will stand up and tell it like it is. I think John McCain understands this. He understands the media, he understands the population, he presents himself extremely well and he has very good people around him that understand mass-public opinion and political communication, and they're very, very good at presenting him to the public."

One of McCain's "very good people," J. Brian "Jay" Smith, of the Washington political consulting firm Smith and Haroff, says he is aware of no strategy on McCain's part to woo the media.

McCain's relationship with reporters, says Smith, simply "reflects the high regard John McCain enjoys in Washington and the Senate."

To the casual observer, John McCain swept onto the national stage overnight. Actually, it has taken him years to rehabilitate his image.

In 1990, pundits agreed that McCain's political career was over. His public image was a wreck. As a member of the Keating Five--a group of senators who had finagled on behalf of the now-failed Lincoln Savings and Loan and its chief mogul Charles Keating--McCain was just another scum-sucking, bottom-feeding, scandal-ridden politician.

As McCain approached his 1992 reelection bid, pictures of Keating's Bahamian resort--where McCain vacationed more than once--were still fresh in Arizona voters' minds. His ratings in the polls were subterranean.

Then, in 1991, fortune smiled on him. Along came the Persian Gulf war, another foreign conflict to which he could hitch his fate--and his strategy for gilding his image. McCain soon was grabbing every media opportunity that came to him as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, quickly becoming the body's self-anointed expert on foreign policy.

"John is very bright," says ASU's Bruce Merrill. "History gave him the opportunity with the war. He made himself available. I mean, John would drive from here to Kingman to be on the radio for five minutes, because he understands that's how important the media is--that if you have access to the media, and the media in a positive light, you can rebuild."

Thanks to Saddam Hussein, a full war chest, a weak opponent and his own perseverance, McCain was reelected to the Senate in 1992.

Rising in local polls and confident of his position in Arizona, McCain began to focus almost exclusively on national issues. When Jon Kyl was elected to the Senate in 1994, McCain reportedly told Arizona's new junior senator that he would now be responsible for the lion's share of constituent service work; McCain would be too busy working on his global image.

The strategy worked. McCain press coverage tends to point out his role on the Senate Commerce Committee (he took the helm of the powerful committee this spring) far more often than his role in the Keating Five, or other past indiscretions.

The omissions leave Arizona Democrats and even a few Republicans shaking their heads.

At least one Washington journalist has taken note.

Ben Scheffner, a reporter for the weekly Roll Call newspaper, covers Congress. Noting the quantity of favorable press the senator has garnered over the last year, he is baffled.

"The interesting thing to me is that he doesn't seem to carry any taint of the Keating Five," Scheffner says. "In all of these sort of glowing profiles you read of him and stories which mention him as a serious contender for 2000, it's rarely mentioned--and even when it is, it's glossed over."

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