Those of us who remember the 2000 presidential election here in Michigan remember John McCain. McCain was the Republican candidate–”the maverick” or “the moderate”–that gained the support of many Democrats in the state. In 2000, the Republican primary was open to all voters and many progressives and Democrats participated in the primary by casting a vote for Arizona Senator John McCain, because McCain was seen as being “better” than George W. Bush. That was a questionable assertion at the time and indeed, in the past seven years we have seen that McCain has supported much of the Bush agenda. However, like many people across the country, voters in Michigan believed the media’s reporting on McCain.
In Free Ride: John McCain and the Media, authors David Brock and Paul Waldman explore how it is that McCain–a conservative Arizona Senator and Washington insider–has gained the reputation as a “maverick.” Through a combination of examining media coverage and McCain’s voting record, the authors come up with a valuable analysis of McCain and his presidential campaign. The majority of the book centers on the media’s coverage of McCain; coverage that almost always praises him. Brock and Waldman write that McCain coverage is based on three foundations–his Vietnam experience, his advocacy for campaign reform, and his style in dealing with reporters. From these foundations comes McCain’s reputation as a “maverick.” As the authors point out, many in the media have fallen in love with McCain and describe him as a “maverick” without ever explaining why they are calling him that. Moreover, unlike other politicians, the media rarely runs negative stories on McCain even when there is considerable material–from his involvement in the Keating Five savings-and-loan scandal to his temper.
Aside from looking at the media’s coverage of McCain, Free Ride also examines McCain’s legislative record, particularly as it relates to his reputation as a “maverick.” The book spends considerable time on campaign finance reform, as that is the issue that the media repeatedly uses to cast McCain as a “maverick” that takes on special interests and goes against his Party’s position. However, Brock and Waldman point out that far from being an issue in which McCain was an “outsider” there was widespread public support for his stance (they argue that this is a frequent phenomenon when McCain goes against the GOP line, with another example being tobacco regulation). Moreover, while McCain spent several years calling for the passage of campaign finance reform, its practical consequences have been mixed–spending has increased even with soft money being banned. The book places the campaign finance reform effort into the larger context of McCain’s voting record, showing that such public splits with the GOP are rare and that for the most part, he has supported the GOP and has received solid ratings from conservative groups on issues such as abortion.
Free Ride is the second book that Mediamouse.org has reviewed on McCain this year, as we previously reviewed McCain: The Myth of a Maverick. While both books are worth reading on their own, it works well to read them as a pair. McCain: The Myth of a Maverick delves deeper into McCain’s history and political development, while Free Ride provides a more detailed analysis of how the media has covered McCain. Read either together or individually, the two books present an important critique of the McCain “mythology.” Hopefully, the corporate media–particularly the Washington press corps–will read these books.
David Brock and Paul Waldman, Free Ride: John McCain and the Media, (Anchor Books, 2008).