John McCain’s Gentleman’s Agreement with the Press
The simple explanation is: McCain affords the press access like no other candidate. In the McCain campaign, there’s no barrier between candidate and reporter. If you have a question for McCain, you don’t have to bother going to his press secretary; you simply go ask him. On some days, you literally spend eight hours with the candidate, just riding with him in the back of his bus peppering him with questions on everything from Pakistan to his philosophical thoughts about suicide. Toward the end of the day, this amount of unfettered access to the candidate can actually be a bit of a problem, when you start to run out of questions for him and there are awkward silences. But, on the whole, it’s hard to overstate the sort of goodwill this access engenders among reporters.
Benen cites an article he wrote last April on this subject, reporting on an incident wherein many reporters decided not to report on an anti-Vietnamese slur:
According to one insider I talked to, there was a “gentleman’s agreement” in place — in exchange for access and freewheeling interviews, most campaign correspondents would knowingly look the other way from some of McCain’s more “candid” blunders.
Benen thinks this problematic but it strikes me as exactly the way it should be.
It’s a return to a bygone culture, wherein politicians let their guard down in front of reporters, who in turn operated under a professional code to not report on small gaffes or embarrassing incidents that had no impact on public policy.
John Kennedy had that relationship with the press. So did Franklin Roosevelt. To be sure, it was sometimes taken to ridiculous extremes, as when the press played along with FDR’s charades to conceal that he was confined to a wheelchair. That was something the public had a right to know.
Some calls are tougher: She the journalists around Kennedy have reported on his extramarital affairs? Or were we better off knowing, as was the case during the Clinton administration?
In the interests of full disclosure, McCain has done much the same with bloggers as he has traditional media. He holds conference calls three or four times a month and allows no-holds-barred questioning to which he offers candid answers and the opportunity for follow-ups. He’s invited bloggers to ride on his campaign bus, an offer which some have accepted. (I declined, almost entirely because of time allocation priorities.) No other top tier candidate has done anything like this and it’s won him quite a bit of good will.
Why shouldn’t this be the case, though?
The press and the public alike claim they want to get beyond canned answers and talk of the horse race and instead get into the meat of the policy debate. McCain has been doing that for years. His candor and cantankerousness have no doubt harmed him but people nonetheless find it refreshing.
And, hey, if other candidates want to whine about the advantage McCain gets from giving unfettered access to reporters, maybe they should try it themselves.
Photo Credit: AP News Blog