BROOKE GLADSTONE: The role of Arizona Senator John McCain has been a compelling sideshow throughout the campaign, culminating this week in a convention speech full of blistering partisan invective.
JOHN McCAIN: My friends in the Democratic Party, and I'm fortunate to call many of them my friends, assure us they share the conviction that winning the war against terrorism is our government's most important obligation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: No, actually McCain's speech, being of the "Why Can't We Get Along?" variety, was in a much mellower tone than what mostly prevailed at the podium.
JOHN McCAIN: I don't doubt the sincerity of my Democratic friends, and they should not doubt ours. [APPLAUSE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But, that's why he was drafted to speak -- as a spokesman for the few who put principle before politics -- an emblem of the "kinder, gentler" Republican. He's popular with independents, to be sure, but also with 62 percent of Republicans and half of Democrats, according to a recent CNN poll. And we reckon he would score even higher with the media, judging from the ecstatic coverage of McCain since before he took off in his "Straight Talk Express," during the 2000 campaign. (That's the one in which the war room of his opponent, George W. Bush, started whisper campaigns about McCain's black -- actually Asian child -- and questioning his sanity.) But that's all over now. McCain says they've reconciled, and he's been hugging the president on the campaign trail. But you gotta wonder -- in McCain's case -- do words speak louder than actions?
PETER JENNINGS: Do you think the president has been the uniter which he promised to be at the convention four years ago?
JOHN McCAIN: No. But I doubt -- I'm not sure how much of it is his fault, and I - I'm, I'm sure that some of it's his fault, okay? - we have a more bitterly partisan Congress and nation than I've ever seen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Among the myriad interviews he gave this week, he offered that rousing defense to ABC's Peter Jennings, and this to WNYC's Brian Lehrer.
BRIAN LEHRER: Many New York liberals in our audience--
JOHN McCAIN: Yeah--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- consider George Bush not just wrong on the issues, but a liar and a fool.
JOHN McCAIN: Yeah.
BRIAN LEHRER: What do you say to them?
JOHN McCAIN: I say give him the respect that he deserves as a candidate and don't assume someone is guilty until they are proven so.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If it was tough for McCain to reconcile with Bush, and there's much speculation about how that came about, it's just as hard for the media to reconcile that reconciliation. As we just heard, McCain's support lacks the characteristic frankness and fire that made him so much fun to cover. This week, Newsday columnist Marie Cocco summed up her disappointment by stating: The Straight Talk Express has blown a tire. We already have enough politicians with something at the core that is ambition. He wants us to still believe that he is above the cynicism of politics while he indulges in it. Will Saletan is the chief political correspondent for Slate who carried on his own, albeit one-sided, love affair with John McCain. Welcome to the show.
WILL SALETAN: Thanks, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When did your love affair with John McCain begin?
WILL SALETAN: Well, probably the same time every other reporter's love affair with John McCain began. He was, you know, the first politician that we came across of his stature who seemed to sort of cut through the spin and the talking points that we constantly hear from politicians and just talk like a real person, and every now and then confess the obvious, and it just gave him a certain credibility with us, and we felt like we could talk to him and cover him as a real person.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so we've been watching how McCain has been drafted by both parties during this campaign. For a long time, it seemed he was more identified with John Kerry, but now he's definitely crossed over to the Bush side --and maybe he was always there. Is there something that we just fundamentally misunderstand about John McCain? Do we project our, our own desires and wishes on him as we have, say, on Colin Powell?
WILL SALETAN: Oh, I think we definitely project illusions on to him. You know, this is a case of media bias that comes out in a strange way. The vast majority of reporters are liberals or at least Democrats. When they talk to McCain, and they realize that he is a sensible person, that he's not a right wing ideologue, they think he must be one of us. They can't quite believe that there is such a thing as a sensible, rational, well-intentioned Republican. But McCain is such a person, and it's not really for him to explain why he is out there campaigning for the Republican Party. He's doing it because he believes in it. It's really for us to explain why we don't take that seriously and why we think that, in some way, he's crossed back over to a party that he really never left.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the interests of full disclosure, we should say you voted for McCain in the last election, right?
WILL SALETAN: I did. You nailed me, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Now, do you think that the sort of emotional connection that the media feel with John McCain is reflected, then, in the general electorate or-- are the media ahead of them on this one?
WILL SALETAN: Well, the media are the people who get to be up close with John McCain. We love McCain as reporters. We're the people who get to go on the bus. We get to have the interviews. The fact that he's a real person comes across to us in these direct interactions. I think that the ordinary person doesn't get as much of that, and so they're much more inclined to see McCain as a politician in a way that we don't.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So we've heard the tape from McCain. He seems to be talking straight. At least he isn't lying about being more enthusiastic about a candidate that he seems to be relatively lukewarm for. On the other hand, he is taking his place at the podium. He is lending the president his mantle of integrity, and that Newsday columnist is clearly bitterly disappointed. Do you think the rest of the press is?
WILL SALETAN: Yes, but I still think McCain is benefitting from a double standard in this respect. In other words, after this convention is over, the press is going to go right back to loving John McCain. There's a certain intensity around the convention. It's like - "No, don't stand up for him now when it really matters." But after it's all over, McCain is still going to go back to the usual double standard which consists of this: Usually, when reporters hear a politician say something that they don't like but they think that the politician doesn't really mean, they say - you know, he doesn't really mean that. He's just another politician. In McCain's case, what reporters keep thinking to themselves, and often expressing through what they write or say on the air is: He doesn't really mean that. What a great guy. You know. [LAUGHTER] He, he doesn't really mean that he likes Bush. He's just out there doing this -- oh, cause he has to do it, for his political career; for his possible presidential ambition. But instead of holding that against McCain the way they would hold it against any other politician, they just sort of cut him slack for that, because they figure the upshot of it is -- he's really more liberal than he lets on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about that political future, because whenever he's confronted with a reporter, he's always asked the question.
BRIAN LEHRER: Some people suggest that the reason you're going all out for President Bush who you don't always agree with and haven't always had the, the best relations with is that you need the party establishment in case you want to run for president in 2008.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And he basically always says the same thing.
JOHN McCAIN: You know, I'd hope most people that know me wouldn't think that. I think that's a legitimate criticism, but I would point out that I have been campaigning for President Bush since 2002. We had a reconciliation a couple of months after the primaries, and I have been supporting him ever since.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Does that settle the question for you?
WILL SALETAN: [LAUGHS] Not at all. That's priceless. "I'd hope most people who know me wouldn't think that"? [LAUGHS] In a court of law, that would not be considered compelling testimony of one's deep affection for the president.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Will Saletan is the chief political correspondent for Slate. Thank you very much.
WILL SALETAN: Thank you, Brooke. [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, ignoring boring stories can hurt you. This is On the Media, from NPR.