You may not know it from the press coverage, but it’s been a momentous week for John McCain too. After his unsuccessful bid for the nomination in 2000, he is now the presumptive Republican nominee for the presidency.
To get some insight into covering McCain over the long haul, we turn to the Senator’s hometown paper, The Arizona Republic, and there we hit a brick wall, or more to the point, a stone wall. Nobody there was permitted to speak to us about The Republic’s notoriously contentious relationship with McCain.
So we turn now to a reporter who’s had more success than us, Michael Calderone, who covers media for Politico. Michael, welcome to the show. MICHAEL CALDERONE: Great to be here. BOB GARFIELD: So why would a large newspaper suddenly clam up about its most important story subject? Why so touchy at The Arizona Republic? MICHAEL CALDERONE: I would attribute it to being that The Arizona Republic is actually on better ground with McCain these days than probably just about any time in the last 18 years, and it could be because of that that the paper doesn’t want to shake things up. BOB GARFIELD: Now, the relationship goes back a long time since McCain first ran for public office. There were allegations that he was a carpetbagger. MICHAEL CALDERONE: That was really one of the first true political tests for McCain. Very famously, in one of the debates, he quashed that allegation, essentially saying that being a Navy man for several generations that he’s accustomed to traveling and the longest he’s ever lived in one place was at the Hanoi Hilton.
And it was a very powerful statement. You know, it really reverberated in the press and kind of put that issue to rest in a lot of ways. BOB GARFIELD: It was one of the more amazing comebacks in American political history [LAUGHS], a response that began with: “Listen, pal …” MICHAEL CALDERONE: [LAUGHS] Yeah. BOB GARFIELD: And it was also the public’s maybe first glimpse at his supposed volcanic temper. But the relationship got still worse between McCain and The Republic during the course of the Keating Five scandal, when the Senator had to answer allegations that he used his influence improperly to help a political supporter, Charles Keating, in the midst of the savings and loan debacle. MICHAEL CALDERONE: For quite a while into the scandal, McCain had repeatedly said he didn’t have much dealings with Keating, and it was actually two Arizona Republic reporters who reported in October of 1989 that Cindy McCain and her father had invested in a shopping mall with Keating, and then there were a few subsequent articles about trips to the Bahamas with Keating, and it was those articles that McCain basically got into shouting matches with the reporters. He called them liars.
And I spoke with Andy Hall, who was one of the reporters on the story. He had told me that at one point John McCain said, this is the worst moment of my life, and Andy Hall said to him, you know, with all due respect, wouldn’t being imprisoned in Hanoi for five and a half years be the worst moment of his life. What Andy said to me was that McCain said, well, at least my captors had ethics. BOB GARFIELD: But it didn’t end there either, did it, Michael? MICHAEL CALDERONE: No, no, it certainly didn’t, because a few years later it came out that Cindy McCain had been addicted to painkillers. Subsequently it was revealed that some of these painkillers had come from a relief organization that Cindy had founded, and it led to a very harsh editorial cartoon in The Arizona Republic that had a crudely drawn Cindy McCain shaking a baby and demanding drugs. And it was exceptionally harsh and,understandably, Senator McCain voiced his criticism of the paper in public. BOB GARFIELD: There was a genuinely bizarre episode in 1999 or 2000 involving singer Connie Stevens and a murdered man, a story that somehow managed to link John McCain into a very sordid affair. Can you tell me about that? MICHAEL CALDERONE: A man named Ron Bianchi was found dead in 2000 and The Arizona Republic was looking into the case. It was a very murky case because Bianchi had a number of different ties and had at some point been a journalist in Arizona. And for years he had spread this rumor that John McCain had an affair with Connie Stevens, the singer.
So because he had always been telling this story about McCain, when he was murdered, The Republic started looking into the story again, just to see if there was anything to it, and found that there was nothing there.
The reason The Republic reported on the Stevens and McCain rumor, when they wrote a very strange piece about Bianchi’s life and death, was because investigators had questioned McCain and Stevens, according to their reporting, so they thought that it was relevant to include.
But understandably, John McCain, who was now running for president, was not very pleased with them publishing this information. BOB GARFIELD: Over the past eight years, McCain has been a genuine darling of the national media, but in the course of a campaign, inevitably coverage is going to get tough, and stories will come out that McCain doesn’t like.
We’ve already seen one example in The New York Times story about his relationship with a lobbyist. Do you think that the bloom is going to come off the rose, inevitably, between now and November? MICHAEL CALDERONE: To a certain extent, it has to, and that’s true because reporters have always thrown around the term “maverick,” and have always prided McCain because he does speak very frankly, he does speak on the record. He has made himself incredibly accessible to the national media since Keating, actually, which is ironically when relations soured more with The Republic.
But at the same time he’s not the insurgent Republican. He’s now - the party’s pretty much in his hands, and being the Republican establishment candidate now, even though he’s always been fighting against the establishment in the eyes of many in the media, I think will lead to a bit more criticism. BOB GARFIELD: Let me ask you one more thing, Michael. Obviously, The Republic is very concerned about its newly won détente with McCain and the campaign. Does this mean that we can expect the paper to be so cautious that it pulls punches, that it goes so easy on him that its reporting ceases to be relevant? MICHAEL CALDERONE: I wouldn’t expect them to pull punches. There’s a very good reporter now covering McCain, and as far as I’m being told by The Republic people, they’re going to deploy resources. And although they are in good footing right now, you never know. If they get some scoop it could all [LAUGHS] fall apart if they get something that McCain doesn’t want. BOB GARFIELD: Okay Michael, thank you so much. MICHAEL CALDERONE: I appreciate it. Thanks very much for having me on. BOB GARFIELD: Michael Calderone is a media reporter at Politico and his story on John McCain’s relationship with The Arizona Republic will appear on Politico.com.