HEADING THE LIST of a long, long, exceedingly long--we did say long, didn't we?--list of pundits, reporters, bloggers, and publications who have been suddenly been struck by a wave of nostalgia for the "old" John McCain, or the "real" John McCain, or the John McCain of 2000, Time's Joe Klein has been anticipating the apology McCain will make to him, once it is over, for the unworthy, nasty, disreputable, and really mean campaign he has run. Klein says he won't accept it, but he needn't worry. McCain, win or lose, will not make it, and there is no reason that he should.
First is the fact that given the built-in media bias, complaints by the press about "mean" campaigning are a reliable sign to Republicans that their tactics are working. Democratic slurs of conservatives as liars, bigots, and warmongers, cruelly indifferent to the needs of the poor, are described as "spirited," "red-blooded," and proof that the speakers are tough enough to be leading the country. Republican attacks on liberals as arrogant, out-of-it, and too weak to be leading the country are--well, you know, mean. Not to mention that most of these "savage" attacks consist of drawing attention to things said and done by the Democrats that the media would rather ignore: Michael Dukakis defending an insane furlough program for prisoners, John Kerry testifying to Congress that his own former shipmates were criminals, Dukakis looking goofy in a tank, that he climbed into of his own free volition, Kerry saying of himself that he had voted for Iraq war funding before voting against it, Obama condescending to Pennsylvania voters who supposedly cling to guns and God out of bitterness, Kerry windsurfing in shorts . . .. Embarrassing a Democrat with his own words and actions is just--sleazy. How low can you go?
Second is the fact that the press loved "the old McCain" of 2000 for only two reasons: He ran against George W. Bush, and he lost. The best Republican of all is one who nobly loses, which is what McCain looked like doing until he picked Sarah Palin, at which point most of the media exploded in fury. How dare he pick someone who might help him win? How dare he excite the public, when he was supposed to be boring? How dare he raise up a rival to The One? Face it: The reason they loved McCain in 2000 was that his zingers were aimed at Republicans and social conservatives who were not then his constituents. But had he made it into the general, and been aiming his fire at Al Gore and at the pro-choice extremists, the press's ardor for him would have died eight years earlier, and they would have denounced him as . . . mean. McCain hasn't changed: He was always a maverick, but a center-right maverick, a Republican maverick, an American exceptionalist, a security hawk, and a social traditionalist. Against George W. Bush and others, his digressions from dogma stood out more in contrast, but against a Democrat such as Barack Obama, he stands out as the center-right hawk that he is. The press wanted him to fight against other Republicans and to lose, or, barring that, to lose to a Democrat. He isn't complying. That's their problem, not his.
Third, McCain owes the press nothing, as its treatment of him has verged on sadistic or worse. In late July in the first flush of Obama's Grand Tour of the Near East and Europe, (when it still looked like a master stroke, instead of a misstep), McCain's old admirers in the media depicted him as a loser, so old, so befuddled, so hapless and helpless, compared to the luck, poise, and grace of The Star. "You could see McCain's frustration building as Barack Obama traipsed elegantly through the Middle East while the pillars of McCain's bellicose regional policy crumbled in his wake," Klein wrote on July 23. McCain "has appeared brittle and inflexible, slow to adapt to changes . . . slow to grasp the full implications not only of the improving situation in Iraq but also of the worsening situation in Afghanistan and especially Pakistan. . . . McCain seems panicked, and in deep trouble now."
Howard Fineman in Newsweek sounded an even more ominous note. "You can't make up how bad things are going for McCain," he intoned on July 22. "As Barack Obama embarks on his global coronation tour, it's hard to imagine things looking bleaker for his Republican rival. . . . He forgets there's a country named Iran between Iraq and Pakistan. . . . Maybe nothing he says really matters right now." Clarence Page, who styled himself one of McCain's "longtime defenders," kvelled over Obama's world conquest. "And where were you, Senator? While Obama spoke to hundreds of thousands in Berlin, you were doing a meet-and-greet with a few dozen in a German restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. Whose bright idea was that?"
"McCain better watch out," Fineman said soberly. "The only thing worse than the media ignoring you and lionizing your opponent is the media pitying you and painting you as pathetic," he warned. And who might do such a thing? Well, maybe Joe Klein. "Some will say this behavior raises questions about his age," he said of McCain's imagined eclipse by Obama's junior year abroad trip to Berlin. "I'll leave those to gerontologists." Gerontologists? You stay classy, Joe. And for that apology, don't hold your breath.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.