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On WTTW's Chicago Tonight last Friday, Joel Weisman asked his panel of reporters for their thoughts on the Democrats' "Teflon candidate," the "media darling" to whom "nothing sticks" -- Barack Obama. I waited for someone to point out that the same language pretty aptly describes John McCain.
Nobody did. Political campaigns are about pinning an unflattering label on the opposition, and Obama's already been stuck with a pretty good one -- the candidate to whom nothing sticks. No matter how much he's hammered, he's presumably getting away with murder.
To the extent that Obama's gotten a pass from the media, it's because he's a political phenomenon. McCain's appeal is a lot more personal and durable. He served and suffered in war and his courage can't be questioned -- his bio is catnip to middle-aged, male political writers. Aside from that, he enjoys a glass, tells a good story, blows up when he's angry, swears like a man -- or like a journalist -- and he likes our company. Dammit, he's one of us! And those political writers remember that back in 2000, when everyone was younger and McCain's original Straight Talk Express was hauling the most enthusiastic, idealistic candidate in the field, Bush stopped him with lies. So he's owed.
Michael Tomasky gives a lot of space to McCain's relationship with the media in his review of three new books on McCain in the June 12 New York Review of Books. The books aren't particularly friendly -- Tomasky says they argue that "while there has been much to respect in McCain in the past, there remain today only shards and vestiges of that man." If that's true -- and I find myself not wanting to believe it because I've admired McCain enormously myself -- Tomasky doesn't expect the media to notice.
He writes, "The McCain we see publicly now is determined to do anything he has to do to win. It's probably unlikely that the larger national press will arrive at this interpretation by November. The image of the straight-talking maverick who bled in a cell [in Hanoi] while Baby Boomers indulged themselves is just too hard-wired into their systems. In addition, McCain, still adept at the seduction of journalists and the self-deprecating witticism, hides his rank ambition better than, say, Hillary Clinton does."
When two media darlings run against each other for president, the coverage is hard to predict. I wrote a few weeks ago that it could turn into a media civil war -- Kool-Aid against Kool-Aid. But journalists being such skeptics, when it comes down to a choice between admiring promise and admiring achievement, achievement will win every time -- even if promise has a lot more to offer the future. The press could make McCain pay for being too old and too Republican, but it'll find him a lot easier to forgive than Obama for wrapping the press around its finger.