Monday, August 11, 2008

Did McCain Play The New York Times?

This story appeared in The Times August 9; I'm getting to it now because...well, because I'm lazy and I have lot of nothing to do around the house.

Anyway, the story is a fairly conventional "inside the campaign" peek, the message of which is that John McCain's operation is wide open and at times practically chaotic. Newly imported campaign manager Steve Schmidt is trying to bring order and stability to the campaign, but there remain unresolved tensions simmering barely below the surface.

The story was written by Adam Nagourney and Jim Rutenberg; Nagourney is The Times' chief political correspondent. You'll see his byline on a lot of the paper's campaign trail accounts. The story they write is not, on the surface, entirely flattering. Aside from the description I gave above, at times McCain comes off slightly confused and prone to "adopt the last opinion he has heard."

Yet, the overall image painted by the story is one of John McCain as The Anti-Bush. He's so anxious to hear differing viewpoints from advisers that Schmidt has staffers limit McCain's access to his cell phone. He is "the overseer of a kingdom of dissenting camps."

And McCain's pretty cool with all that. His big quote in the story:

“I think a certain amount of tension is very healthy, and a certain amount of different views,” he said. “Because of the bubble that a president is in, and the bubble that a candidate is in, sometimes you find out afterwards something that — ‘Oh boy, I wish I had heard thus and such and so and so.’ So I appreciate and want some of the tension; I don’t want too much of it, obviously, because we have to have certain efficiencies. But I think there is a balance there.”

What's interesting there is McCain's invocation of the "bubble," which is the exact word that has been frequently used to describe George W. Bush in the Oval Office. In fact, Nagourney and Rutenberg explicitly lay out the anti-Bush argument in one paragraph:

While President Bush has been criticized for being too insular and too slow to adapt to changing circumstances, Mr. McCain’s leadership of his campaign suggests a less hierarchical, more free-form style, much closer to that of President
Bill Clinton.

You have your standard accounts of campaign in-fighting; two pollsters with conflicting philosophies are referenced, and the reporters chronicle a fight over McCain's recent negative veer. It might be instructive to note that the latter scuffle was initiated by a couple former McCain ads and outside image man Alex Castellanos, who you might remember from CNN's election night coverage.

I read this story and I can't help but wonder if McCain and Schmidt were thrilled to read it in the paper. McCain is, in this story, an omnivorous information consumer and a fan of dissent. That may all be true. But it seems conveniently timed, coming at a moment when the campaign is desperate to distance their candidate from an unpopular incumbent whose extraordinary lack of intellectual curiosity has long been chronicled.

So in the back of my mind there's a niggling little voice that keeps raising questions, foremost among them being this: did the McCain camp plant this story? You have a couple aides conspicuously grumble around a reporter, maybe stick them at a bar and let the press corps see them slam home a couple beers in frustration. Feed Nagourney and Rutenberg a few choice, anonymous quotes, and the reporter instinct takes over. Now they've got their teeth in a story that paints your guy in a positive light while ostensibly raising questions about the strength of his operation.

And I can't ignore the fact that Nagourney's one of the authors here. As I said, he's a go-to guy for The Times. He was also involved in a fairly significant kerfuffle with the Obama campaign a while back after he analyzed a poll by pointing out that Obama hadn't closed all of America's racial divides. Conflicts between reporters and campaigns are fairly routine, but this one got splashed around the internet and became a (very) minor sensation.

Now, let me say something that will pretty much invalidate the rest of this post: if I had to bet on the motivations involved here, I would guess that Nagourney and Rutenberg wrote the story in the usual way, using the usual sources, with no particularly unique involvement from the McCain camp.

But I do find myself slightly suspicious. And I wanted to share that, because I have lots of free time.


Anonymous said...

Can you explain the whole Georgia-Russia conflict to those who have been to lazy to follow it?

Andrew said...

All I know is what I read in the papers and various internet sites. If you want to be as up-to-date as I am, go through the NY Times archives over the last couple days.