The Newsweek-McCain Duel

posted at 7:02 am on May 12, 2008 by Ed Morrissey

It didn’t take long for John McCain’s closest aide, Mark Salter, to respond to a Newsweek article by Richard Wolfe and Evan Thomas that painted Barack Obama as sweetness and light, and Republicans as an Evil Empire. Newsweek took even less time publishing Salter’s rebuttal in a demonstration of the velocity of political reporting and campaigning in 2008. The opening paragraphs of the Newsweek piece suggests that Wolfe and Thomas have joined Chris Matthews in receiving thrills up their legs on the Obama trail:

How do you know if Barack Obama is unhappy with what you’re saying— or not saying? At meetings of his closest advisers, he likes to lean back, put his feet on the table and close his eyes. If he doesn’t like how the conversation is going, he will lean forward, put his feet on the floor and “adjust his socks, kind of start tugging at them,” says Michael Strautmanis, a counselor to the campaign. Obama wants people to talk, but he doesn’t want to intimidate them. “If you haven’t said anything, he’ll call on you,” says Strautmanis. “He’s never said it, but he usually thinks if somebody is very quiet it’s because they disagree with what everybody is saying … so Barack will call on you and say, ‘You’ve been awfully quiet’.” There are no screamers on Team Obama; one senior Obama aide says he’s heard him yell only twice in four years. Obama was explicit from the beginning: there was to be “no drama,” he told his aides. “I don’t want elbowing or finger-pointing. We’re going to rise or fall together.” Obama wanted steady, calm, focused leadership; he wanted to keep out the grandstanders and make sure the quiet dissenters spoke up. A good formula for running a campaign—or a presidency.

It worked against Hillary Clinton, whose own campaign has been rent by squabbling aides and turf battles. While Clinton veered between playing Queen Elizabeth I and Norma Rae, Obama and his team chugged along with a superior 50-state campaign strategy, racking up the delegates. If the candidate seemed weary and peevish or a little slow to respond at times, he never lost his cool. But the real test is yet to come. The Republican Party has been successfully scaring voters since 1968, when Richard Nixon built a Silent Majority out of lower- and middle-class folks frightened or disturbed by hippies and student radicals and blacks rioting in the inner cities. The 2008 race may turn on which party will win the lower- and middle-class whites in industrial and border states—the Democrats’ base from the New Deal to the 1960s, but “Reagan Democrats” in most presidential elections since then. It is a sure bet that the GOP will try to paint Obama as “the other”—as a haughty black intellectual who has Muslim roots (Obama is a Christian) and hangs around with America-haters.

What themes do the writers visit in the first two paragraphs of their article?

  1. Temper — Obama doesn’t have one, but McCain??
  2. Richard Nixon!
  3. Racism.
  4. Smear campaigns about Obama’s origins.

That’s a lot of propaganda to pack into such a small space, but Wolfe and Thomas are pros. Why Richard Nixon is still relevant forty years later is never really answered, especially since McCain didn’t begin his political career until after Nixon rightly got chased out of politics. Robert Byrd filibustered civil-rights legislation just four years before Nixon won the presidency, and he’s still in the Senate, honored and feted by his fellow Democrats. I’d say that’s a lot more relevant than a long-departed presidency.

The fourth theme treats McCain especially unfairly. McCain publicly rebuked one of his own supporters, radio host Bill Cunningham, for even hinting at such an issue. McCain took a lot of heat from Republicans after his disavowal of Cunningham, and yet Wolfe and Thomas report as fact that the Republican Party will adopt this line of attack in the fall. They don’t even mention McCain’s own criticism of such tactics, made publicly during the course of the campaign

Salter rips Newsweek for its Matthewsian tilt in his response:

A useful way to read the piece would be to try to imagine you were a Republican reading it. The characterization of Republican presidential campaigns as nothing more than attack machines that use 527s and other means to smear opponents strikes us as pretty offensive. Is that how Ronald Reagan won two terms? Do they really think other Republican presidential candidates were elected because they ran dirtier campaigns than their opponents? Or could it be that they were better candidates or ran better campaigns or maybe more voters agreed with their position on important issues? From the beginning of their article, Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe offered a biased implication that Republicans have won elections and will try to win this one simply by tearing down through disreputable means their opponents. You can see why many Republicans and voters and our campaign might take issue with that.

Suggesting that that we can expect a whispering campaign from the McCain campaign or the Republican Party about Senator Obama’s race and the false charge that he is a Muslim is scurrilous. Has John McCain ever campaigned that way? On the contrary, he has on numerous occasions denounced tactics offensive tactics from campaigns, 527s and others, both Democratic and Republican. By the way, which party had more 527 and other independent expenditure ads made on its behalf in 2004? It wasn’t us.

Salter points out that 527s supporting Democrats have already announced their intentions to drive attack ads against McCain, in part to preserve Obama’s nice-guy image. Wolfe and Thomas don’t give that much play despite accusing the Republicans of doing the exact same thing without any evidence whatsoever. In doing so, they want to put McCain on the defensive, playing by a different, more restrictive set of rules than the Democrats.

Salter rightly rejects that construct:

Senator McCain is not going to referee ads run by groups outside our control. The other side has no intention of reciprocating and has shown every inclination to tolerate and even encourage such attacks against us. Of course, he will denounce any use of race or calumnies against his opponent by anyone. But he won’t play traffic cop anymore. The other side uses the same tactics, with no opposition from the Obama campaign that I have seen. Also, were he to do so and be unable to discourage independent expenditures run by people who have no relationship with him or our campaign, (and, in some cases, had previously run attacks against him) the Obama campaign will denounce him as a phony or weak. If Evan and Richard’s piece represents a general attitude among their colleagues, the press will agree.

Evan and Richard noted, ominously, that our campaign includes Steve Schmidt and Charlie Black, characterizing them basically as noted Republican attack specialists. The Obama senior staffers were described as idealists and decent sorts, and jujitso experts who could use Republican Party smears and deceitful tactics against their authors. I’m sure both David Plouffle and David Axelrod are fine, upstanding citizens. But the former ran a campaign for Senator Torricelli and the latter worked on the campaigns of Mayor Daley. I don’t remember those campaigns being notable for their delicate courtesy and
softball tactics toward their opponents.

In fact, neither candidate can direct the efforts of outside groups like 527s; any coordination at all, even to restrict ad campaigns, is strictly illegal. If Salter speaks for the campaign and McCain will stop commenting publicly on those campaigns, then all the better. Obama’s silence on the MoveOn campaign’s distortions speak volumes about the rules for Democrats, and McCain should follow Obama’s example. And maybe “news” organizations should quit looking for leg tingles and start doing some actual reporting in this election.

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What themes do the writers visit in the first two paragraphs of their article?
Temper — Obama doesn’t have one, but McCain??
Richard Nixon!
Smear campaigns about Obama’s origins.

Actually, referring to Nixon violates official Obama canon for McCain. The official canon includes:

(1) McCain is old. I am young, and like to serve as a jeans model for swooning reporters.
(2) McCain wants to run the third Bush term and, by the way, did I mention he voted for the war? I am about looking to the future and making change, and he’s still defending his war vote. (Don’t you dare spin that as “McCain is the candidate looking to try to solve the Iraq problem and I’m simultaneously focused on the past AND advocating defeat as the solution.”)
(3) McCain is running his campaign based on distractions, distortions, (racism), and the tired old politics of the past. I am change you can believe in.

I personally don’t know how McCain is going to win. Bush managed to win re-election in 2004 purely because Kerry wasn’t credible on the #1 issue at the time (Iraq), even though (1) voters thought Kerry more credible on almost every domestic issue and (2) Kerry and the demos out-raised Bush. This cycle, McCain may be on the wrong side of the #1 issue, and there’s huge Republican fatigue, and Obama is probably going to out-raise McCain 3:1. Oh, and while the press favored Kerry in 2004, they actually get aroused at the sight of Obama!

Outlander on May 12, 2008 at 7:30 AM

I’m sorry, but McCain and his campaign staff have no credibility attacking the goals and practices of 527s since the candidate himself championed the legislation that led to their creation.

Also, this is barely, barely the beginning of the general campaign. What do McCain and Salter expect they’re going to get from the MSM from now on? McCain had his day in the MSM sun during the years he was running against his own party. That party is over. If Salter is going to spend the rest of the campaign complaining about media bias, 527s, and “respectful campaigning,” then the McCain campaign should just pack up and go home now.

McCain needs a positive strategy, not a negative one. I haven’t seen it yet.

BigD on May 12, 2008 at 7:43 AM

This piece by powerline, says it all….

It’s no surprise that the media are in the tank for Barack Obama, but the willingness of the New York Times to simply misrepresent the facts–while pretending to act as a fact-checker!–is pretty breathtaking. You may think the Times is an outlier, if not a joke, but I suspect that many more news outlets are prepared to follow the Times’s lead in flat-out misreporting the facts, if that’s what it takes to get Obama elected.

The Times story is “On McCain, Obama and a Hamas Link.” It takes John McCain to task for pointing out that Hamas has endorsed Obama. The Times reporter, Larry Rohter, says that John McCain has “again portrayed the Democratic contender as being the favorite of Hamas, the militant Palestinian group.” Of course, this is not McCain’s “portrayal;” it is an indisputable fact that Hamas has endorsed Obama and has said that it hopes he will be elected. But the paper’s most egregious error, in its campaign “fact check” column, is yet to come.

Rohter notes that charges and counter-charges have gone back and forth between the McCain and Obama campaigns, but Rohter judges that McCain is mostly at fault:

But important nuances appear to have been lost in the partisan salvos, particularly on Mr. McCain’s side.

McCain, Rohter writes, is guilty because he says that Obama has advocated “unconditional” meetings with Iran’s President:

[I]n a fund-raising letter sent out in April, a spokesman for Mr. McCain wrote: “We need change in America, but not the kind of change that wins kind words from Hamas, surrenders in Iraq and will hold unconditional talks with Iranian President Ahmadinejad.”

That, the Times says, is wrong. It quotes Obama adviser Susan Rice denying that Obama has advocated “unconditional” talks with Ahmadinejad:

Susan E. Rice, a former State Department and National Security Council official who is a foreign policy adviser to the Democratic candidate, said that “for political purposes, Senator Obama’s opponents on the right have distorted and reframed” his views. Mr. McCain and his surrogates have repeatedly stated that Mr. Obama would be willing to meet “unconditionally” with Mr. Ahmadinejad. But Dr. Rice said that this was not the case for Iran or any other so-called “rogue” state.

That’s good enough for the New York Times’s “fact checkers.” The problem is that, contrary to his campaign’s current revisionist effort, Obama plainly has advocated unconditional talks with Iran on several occasions. He was caught on YouTube doing exactly that during one of the Democratic debates. Not only that, Obama’s web site contains this statement:

Diplomacy: Obama is the only major candidate who supports tough, direct presidential diplomacy with Iran without preconditions.

Now that it is convenient for Obama to retreat from his conciliatory attitude toward Iran and other bitterly anti-American states, the Times is happy to help him cover his tracks, even though Obama’s own web site confirms that, exactly as the McCain campaign said, Obama has advocated talks with Iran “without preconditions.”

It will be interesting to see whether the Times corrects this column. Personally, I’m not holding my breath. I think we are about to witness a level of partisanship in the “mainstream” media that has not been seen since the era of professional news media began a little over a century ago. In the past, when newspapers like the Times have misreported facts, people have generally assumed it was, even if the result of bias, inadvertent. No longer. We have entered an era in which leading news organs will intentionally and persistently misinform their readers in order to achieve a political objective–the election of Barack Obama.

Keemo on May 12, 2008 at 7:53 AM

Richard Wolfe? The guy who EVERY night on Olbermann’s show says nothing but “You’re absolutely correct, Keith” ? Unbalanced? Never.

Marcus on May 12, 2008 at 7:53 AM

Richard Wolfe? The guy who EVERY night on Olbermann’s show says nothing but “You’re absolutely correct, Keith” ?

Marcus on May 12, 2008 at 7:53 AM

You got that right. In any event, it’s the MSM being the same MSM they’ve always been. They usually get away with stuff like this, but not always. Remember Dan Rather’s memo?

Didn’t Dubya agree to ban all 527’s in 2004, after Kerry made a stink about the Swift Boat Vets ad? If I remember, Kerry only wanted the Swiftie ad pulled, but not the others.

…any coordination at all, even to restrict ad campaigns, is strictly illegal.

I didn’t realize restricting these 527’s was illegal, but then how could Bush and Kerry, had they agreed, restrict them 4 years ago…

JetBoy on May 12, 2008 at 8:03 AM

“There are no screamers on Team Obama”!

“he’s heard him yell only twice in four years”

Alrighty then,so this Bermuda Triangle were flying through
on our way to orbit our Sun only seems to affect the Left!

Lets re-cap;

-the media wants everyone to know that Obama is is calm
and collect,like a cat on a hot tin roof!

-wants to talk with Terrorist thugs,since he’s there,I’d
recommend a chat with the beheader,whats there to lose!

-wants to pull out of Irag and surrender,he’ll then send
the rest of the troops to Guam,or Diego Garcia!
UUmm,I think it would be wise to send a few troops to Pearl
it’ll save on the over crowding!

-He thinks theres 57 states!

And now the Liberal media is telling every one that Obama
is one smooth easy going operator!

And the Lib media are also going to tell us, how much
of a temper McCain has that actually doesn’t exist so
I’m sure they’ll be busy manufacturing one!

I’m also curious,is Obama going to get 90% of the airtime,
and McCain gets only 10%,you know that fairness doctrine
the left likes to preach!

canopfor on May 12, 2008 at 8:09 AM

McCain is going to take the “high road” and let the 527’s peddle the dirt (probably a good approach). As far as the MSM is concerned reduced readership and advertising revenue as a continuing trend doesn’t seem to bother them. Too bad they still have considerable influence.

duff65 on May 12, 2008 at 8:23 AM

I’m terrified of hippies, so I will be voting for Nixon.

I mean McCain! McCain!

Nethicus on May 12, 2008 at 8:24 AM

If he doesn’t like how the conversation is going, he will lean forward, put his feet on the floor and “adjust his socks, kind of start tugging at them,”

Is this how Barry plans to practice his “aggressive diplomacy” (without preconditions) in a one on one with Ahmadinijead?

No doubt Barry plans to telegraph how serious he is about stopping Iran’s nukes by taking this a step further and showing Mahmoud the soles of his shoes.

And there will be peace on earth and we will live happily ever after…

Buy Danish on May 12, 2008 at 8:37 AM

Cancelled Newsweek 3 year ago as it began to get on my nerves even then. They send me stuff or call now and then and I tell them that they are too far left for me. Time and US New met the same fate more recently. I now get National Review and like it so far.

jeanie on May 12, 2008 at 8:49 AM


EJDolbow on May 12, 2008 at 8:56 AM

If he doesn’t like how the conversation is going, he will lean forward, put his feet on the floor and “adjust his socks, kind of start tugging at them,”

I wonder what Michelle tuggs on when she’s upset?

I’ll get my coat.

Syd B. on May 12, 2008 at 9:23 AM

This is a preemptive strike in the effort to paint McCain as the next George Wallace/Bull Conner/David Duke if they dare say anything negative about Obama during the general election campaign. However, my guess is the general public is not going to really enjoy the idea of having the race card against McCain being jammed in their faces for the next 5 1/2 months by the big media outlets, especially if voters see the race card being played on issues where they may have the same questions McCain and others do about Obama’s positions and his ability to handle the job.

jon1979 on May 12, 2008 at 9:35 AM

This Evan Thomas, right? You just have to admire a transparent journalist, who is only about seeking the truth.

Jaibones on May 12, 2008 at 9:48 AM

I’ll be really upset if Godwin’s Law isn’t invoked at some point during this election. I really thought it’d happen between Hillary and Obama. We only have a few months left. MSM, don’t let me down. You know McCain is Hitler, just say it. Come on. Come on!

lorien1973 on May 12, 2008 at 9:50 AM

Canceled Newsweek 30 year ago as it began to get on my nerves even then.

jeanie on May 12, 2008 at 8:49 AM

Made a couple minor corrections. Sorry.

Jaibones on May 12, 2008 at 9:50 AM

NEWSWEEK is just as far left as the Nation accept they lie about their bias. It’s really despicable. I don’t think I know anyone who takes this stuff seriously that thinks NEWSWEEK is an even handed news org.

ikez78 on May 12, 2008 at 9:51 AM

News-tweak is only trying to protect Obama-messiah’s right to eat his waffle in peace.

onlineanalyst on May 12, 2008 at 10:37 AM

Just waiting for McCain to start running further to the left so as to rekindle the press love affair he once enjoyed. He must be feeling like a jilted lover at this point.

Keep the air sickness bags handy.

moxie_neanderthal on May 12, 2008 at 10:48 AM

I’m sorry, but McCain and his campaign staff have no credibility attacking the goals and practices of 527s since the candidate himself championed the legislation that led to their creation.

BigD on May 12, 2008 at 7:43 AM

Wrong. 527s existed for decades prior to McCain-Feingold. In the 1990s, groups like the Sierra Club learned that they could exploit the tax code (“527” refers to a section of the code) to fund political actions and evade disclosure requirements and other inconveniences. Subsequent campaign finance reform established disclosure requirements. In recent years the groups became a more popular channel for big political money due to restrictions on so-called “soft money” contributions to political parties.

CK MacLeod on May 12, 2008 at 11:43 AM

Note to CK MacLeod:

Okay, I stand corrected — thanks. I think my original point could still stand; McCain looks silly criticizing forms of political speech that have become more popular as a direct results of legislation he championed.

BigD on May 12, 2008 at 12:43 PM

Newsweak nothing new.

Chakra Hammer on May 12, 2008 at 1:59 PM

Does the Onion logo no longer have meaning? That’s twice now, in a week, that The Onion has been featured in the frontpage image of an article that has absolutely nothing to do with the article.

Some of us use those images for context, you know. What next? Newt’s bespectacled face on an article quoting Chomsky? The Clenis image for an article about Newt?

DaveS on May 12, 2008 at 2:00 PM