It is bracing to drop in on the McCain campaign after covering the overly managed productions of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The Democratic candidates rarely speak to the travelling press. McCain not only packs his bus with reporters (whom he often greets with an affectionate “Hello, jerks!”) but talks until the room is filled with the awkward silence of journalists with no more questions. The Obama campaign, like the Bush White House, prides itself on message discipline and tracks down leakers with a frightening intensity. McCain and his aides openly discuss strategy, whether it’s Brooke Buchanan, McCain’s travelling press secretary, prepping him for a press conference (“ABC might ask about that”) or McCain discussing his targeting strategy for Tampa (“I thought we did a robo-call to tell people about Schwarzkopf”—referring to the endorsement by General Norman Schwarzkopf).
The intimacy of the bus means that McCain’s family life is an open book. (Cindy is dismayed that their son Jack recently split up with his girlfriend; John has turned his daughter Meghan’s status as an unemployed art-history grad into a punch line.) The chumminess with the press usually spills into the evenings, and McCain’s senior advisers dine almost nightly with the people covering the candidate.
McCain’s open-access policy is partly strategic. After all, he is able to hammer talking points like any politician. (It’s not just his jokes that he repeats.) But, by engaging reporters in long, even substantive conversations, he also disarms them. The incentive to ask “gotcha” questions that feed the latest news cycle is greatly reduced, and the hours of exposure to McCain breed a relationship that inclines journalists to be more careful about describing the context of his statements. Mark Salter believes that McCain’s back-of-the-bus rambles rarely produce gaffes. “Ten per cent of the time, something like that is going to happen,” he said. “But ninety per cent of the time it works out fine. If you just make your case, and reporters are familiar with you and know how you talk and know what you mean when you’re bouncing around on a bus and you truncate your sentences or something, then they know what you’re driving at, and you’re going to be fine.”
Keep that in mind as you watch the members of the Fourth Estate twist themselves into knots debating whether the “breaking news” about McCain’s possible compromise of his vaunted “principles” constitutes a scoop or a “hit-and-run smear campaign” (Monica who? Oh, that was a real scandal–IOKIYAR, natch).
The Man Crush Express rolls on (also, what Marc Cooper said).