David Brock and Paul Waldman, Free Ride: John McCain and the Media (Anchor, 2008)
“Yesterday we hosted the press corps at our cabin in Sedona and my dad grilled his famous ribs and chicken for them…everybody really relaxed and it was really fun to see big journalistic figures like Holly Bailey swinging on the tire swing and Jon Martin, like, helping my dad grill ribs.” That’s Meghan McCain narrating a video of a barbeque her father, Senator John McCain, hosted in early March of this year. And yes, the video actually shows Newsweek White House Correspondent Holly Bailey hanging, and eventually falling, from a tire swing, Politico blogger Jonathan Martin playing sous chef, and the rest of the corps drinking from red, frat-party-plastic cups while stuffing their faces with McCain’s generous buffet.
To David Brock and Paul Waldman, authors of Free Ride: John McCain and the Media, such an incident comes as no surprise. Brock and Waldman are all too familiar with the way the journalists who are supposed to objectively report on McCain often allow their personal affection for the man to taint their coverage of the politician.
In Free Ride Brock and Waldman trace the blindly amorous relationship between McCain and the press, particularly the journalists working in Washington for national publications and those at major television networks. They contend that McCain’s reputation as a Vietnam War hero, his support of a flimsy campaign reform bill, and his willingness to speak candidly have conferred him with an aura of authenticity, a quality so enticing that it obscures McCain’s true strategy—namely, to appear authentic. Jaded reporters cling to the hope that McCain is the rare exception in the game of politics, a man who’s not afraid to be real. But, as Brock and Waldman show, “McCain has an act, and not having an act is his act.”
Drawing from a copious amount of news articles and television transcripts, Brock and Waldman clearly demonstrate how McCain has built a political career on a positive feedback loop. He allows reporters to hear him stumble and make gaffes, but, as the authors point out, “the best way to avoid having reporters trumpet unflattering things about you is to tell them first, before they get the chance to find out somewhere else.” Furthermore, Free Ride argues that McCain’s maverick persona, a trope based on the specious belief that McCain frequently diverges from conservative party lines, “is particularly appealing to reporters, who would like to see themselves in the same way.” In truth, McCain rarely ventures into moderate territory and only does so when the position is overwhelmingly popular with the public. His risks are carefully calculated to perpetuate his rogue reputation and his rogue reputation masks his careful calculation.
Thus, when McCain changes his mind about, say, the torture or ethanol subsidies, he doesn’t have to worry about how to spin these inconsistencies—the media does it for him. According to Brock and Waldman, fawning journalists excuse McCain’s wavering as “a comment on the nature of the presidential campaign, not as evidence that McCain is an insincere panderer.”
Free Ride isn’t always eloquent. In fact, it often reads like a trial transcript, with the prosecution putting forth its case unencumbered by grace or style. But, the goal of the book is to lay out all the evidence and prove that John McCain is not who the press has made him out to be. Brock and Waldman convinced this reader—let’s hope they persuade a few more.
Katie Rolnick is a freelance writer and co-editor of the Brooklyn Rail Books section.