The Pampered Politician

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

McCain himself admitted to New Times that he threatened Barrett over the same topic. "I told her [Barrett] there are consequences associated with causing other candidates to be defeated," he said in a March 1994 interview.

Then there's the matter of Cindy McCain's barbiturate addiction. In August 1994, Cindy admitted to local reporters that she was addicted, and had been stealing Percocet and Vicodin from her own nonprofit Third World relief agency, American Voluntary Medical Team. It was front-page news for days in Arizona, but it was barely noticed by the national media.

When the Washington Post reported Cindy's addiction, it was in the paper's Style section, in a column titled "Names and Faces," sandwiched between items about Princess Diana's domestic disputes and the discovery of a lost Orson Welles movie.

More than just a sordid tale of an unhappy woman's addiction, the Cindy McCain story serves up a parable about the way John McCain handles his affairs. When the McCains learned that New Times was to receive documents from the Maricopa County Attorney's Office detailing Cindy's alleged crimes and indiscretions, they retained political consultant Jay Smith to represent Cindy. Smith wisely set up interviews with three particularly sympathetic local journalists, who dutifully reported Cindy's side of the story--complete with tearful photographs and video footage--before New Times could publish its own story.

But, eventually, it was revealed that Cindy and Smith had lied to reporters about her status with federal prosecutors, and about the dates she had received treatment ("Opiate for the Mrs.," September 1, 1994). The senator's claims that he never knew about the addiction--even though Cindy said she had sought treatment at an inpatient facility in Wickenberg--did not ring true. It was reported that one of Cindy's employees, Tom Gosinski, was fired when she suspected he knew of her addiction.

Cindy was allowed to escape a prison sentence by entering a federal diversion program. Just days after Cindy's addiction--and plan to enter such a program--was revealed, McCain voted against crime legislation that would have provided $1 billion in funding for such diversion programs.

The Arizona Republic--which was not among the media outlets given semiexclusive access to Cindy--took to the story with uncharacteristic zeal, reporting that her lawyer, John Dowd, had tried to convince County Attorney Rick Romley to investigate the whistle-blowing Gosinski for extortion. The Republic lampooned Cindy's plight in a particularly nasty cartoon.

John McCain didn't speak to the Arizona Republic, the state's major daily and newspaper of record, for many months.

Almost three years later, the senator still doesn't return calls from New Times. His office did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.

No one on the national scene took note when John McCain successfully threatened, coaxed and cajoled Arizona Republicans--Governor Symington, party chair Dodie Londen and most of the state's congressional delegation--to endorse Phil Gramm for president. The plan was to give Gramm a much-needed boost in the Arizona primary.

When McCain's scheme backfired--Gramm pulled out before the Arizona primary, but if he hadn't, would have suffered abysmal defeat--the local press reported it. Arizona Republic political columnist Keven Willey pointed out in print how embarrassing the situation was for McCain, and how he better pray--real hard--that Bob Dole would forgive him.

Amazingly, McCain needn't have worried. He hopped from Gramm's campaign chairmanship to the top echelons of the Dole campaign, and within months his name was floated as a vice presidential candidate.

And possibly most puzzling, since the troubles of Arizona's chief executive have received wide press outside the state, the national media have ignored McCain's friendship and close political alliance with Governor Fife Symington, who this week went to trial on 22 felony counts.

Longtime Arizona Democratic political consultant Bob Grossfeld, with no small amount of envy, says, "The rehabilitation of John McCain's public image is one of the greatest public relations feats since the rehabilitation of Tylenol and the comeback of Coke."

McCain wins the press-club popularity contest, but fawning features in austere periodicals like the New Republic and The New Yorker won't get him the name identification of a Jack Kemp or a George W. Bush. Indeed, when McCain's name shows up at all on national polls, it's in the low single digits. So, what exactly does his friendly press get him? It ensures McCain's role as a contender. For the record, Bill Clinton ranked about the same in 1989.

ASU professor of journalism Bruce Merrill explains, "The goal of any serious presidential candidate now, for the next several months, leading up to about a year before the election . . . will be to position themselves to be considered a player by the press. You must have the press convinced you are a player before you can be a player. So, in a way, the press is the gatekeeper. If the press decides you're not a player, no one's ever going to see your name."

In 1995, the Columbia Journalism Review published an article about cynicism in journalism by National Journal writer Paul Starobin.

Starobin describes a 1992 New Republic slam of Dan Quayle by Michael Lewis, titled "The Boy in the Bubble."

"Lewis certainly managed to avoid the trap of a journalist becoming too cozy with the subject," writes Starobin, who criticizes modern journalism for being too cynical.

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