Posted on Wednesday, July 9, 2008
To the skeptical observer, an amusing aspect of the 2008 presidential
contest is watching both candidates maneuver to place themselves above
criticism as willing media acolytes invent helpful story lines. At every
opportunity, Barack Obama’s campaign hints that any/all criticism of the
Democratic candidate is by definition racist. Sen. John McCain
emphasizes his manly refusal to trade on his Vietnam War heroism. No
braggart soldier he, the straight-talking maverick reminds us daily. Far
be it from him to mention his five years in a prisoner-of-war camp,
McCain modestly boasts. Meanwhile, his campaign staff portrays every
disagreement about foreign policy as mocking the candidate’s valiant
sacrifice. What’s less entertaining is the complicity of the Washington
media establishment in creating and sustaining these fictions for
self-aggrandizing purposes of their own. All that hoo-hah from
journalists about their relentless search for the truth? Maybe in Des
Moines or Spokane. But among Washington courtier/pundits, most high
profile political coverage consists of make-believe narratives concocted
to sway voters emotionally. In consequence, much of the electorate’s
flying blind, a dangerous way for a democracy to operate.
One ludicrous recent example was an outburst of pretended outrage by the
Mc-Cain campaign over some relatively innocuous remarks by retired Gen.
Wesley Clark on CBS News’ “Face the Nation.” Regarding McCain’s
captivity and torture in North Vietnam, Clark began by saying this: “I
certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war. He was a hero to me,
and to hundreds of thousands and millions of others in the armed forces,
as a prisoner of war.”
A hero to millions. Got that?
Clark added that McCain lacked the kind of command experience arguably
useful to a president—unlike the general himself, a highly decorated
(and badly wounded) Vietnam combat veteran and former NATO supreme
Host Bob Schieffer pushed the point: “I have to say, Barack Obama has
not had any of those experiences, either. Nor has he ridden in a fighter
plane and gotten shot down....”
“Well, I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down,”
Clark responded, “is a qualification to be president.”
As part of his self-deprecating fly-boy persona, McCain himself often
jokes about how little skill it takes to intercept a heat-seeking
missile. If Clark can be faulted, it’s for maybe polishing his own brass
when he was supposed to be touting Obama, and for adopting Schieffer’s
language, easily taken out of context by the art of malicious
Which is exactly what McCain’s campaign did next, issuing a press
release whining that Clark had “attacked John McCain’s military service
record.” That’s plainly absurd.
“Clark had done nothing of the kind,” wrote Zachary Roth in the Columbia
Journalism Review. “He had questioned the relevance of McCain’s combat
experience as a qualification to be president of the United States. This
is a distinction that you’d expect any reasonably intelligent
nine-year-old to be able to grasp.”
Ah, but that would leave out Washington’s high-dollar press corps.
Reports in The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, and on CNN
and MSNBC claimed, as the Los Angeles Times phrased it, that Clark
“didn’t pay proper homage to McCain’s greatest sacrifice.”
Which, of course, he certainly had.
The Politico claimed that the retired general had “invoked McCain’s
military service against him.” An editor for The New Republic opined
that it’d be naïve not to recognize Clark’s comments as part of a covert
scheme by Obama not only to belittle McCain’s Vietnam exploits, but to
suggest that they “rendered him psychologically unfit for presidential
office.” Sheer fiction.
Taking matters further, MSNBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell described a
TV ad criticizing McCain’s stance on Iraq as part of “an organized
campaign against John McCain’s military service.” Would it shock you to
learn that the ad mentions McCain’s service not at all? As Jamison Foser
writes at mediamatters. com, Mitchell “may as well have said a giant
purple unicorn had called McCain a traitor, for all the truth there was
to her statement.”
Ah, but Mitchell, Mrs. Alan Greenspan in civilian life, is a bona fide
Washington media celebrity, a courtier/pundit of high social standing.
As such, it’s crucial to understand, she can appear on national TV and
say virtually anything she pleases about any politician, especially any
Democrat. So-called mainstream Washington journalism, see, isn’t a
profession as most educated Americans understand the term. It’s more
like a social clique or a fraternal order. Driven by ambition and status
anxiety, members and aspirants alike adopt group narratives for many
reasons—to secure invitations to the right dinner parties, rub elbows
with the great, appear on TV chat shows, earn higher lecture fees, win
book contracts, etc. Mere accuracy, alas, gets lost in the shuffle.
—–––––•–––––—Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and
recipient of the National Magazine Award.