Frame Game

Raising McCain

Every presidential candidate who does well enough to attract media scrutiny is doomed to have a bad story written about him. Al Gore? A phony career politician. Bill Bradley? A do-nothing lecturer. George W. Bush? A Clintonesque playboy. Now John McCain faces the same ritual. Rather than resist it, McCain has turned it to his advantage. He has chosen his own bad story: He’s an angry Vietnam veteran. It’s an ingenious choice, a good story disguised as a bad one. It advances McCain’s campaign themes–integrity and fearless independence–while sating reporters who imagine that their questions about his “temper” amount to tough-minded scrutiny.

McCain’s anger is supposed to be bad because he can’t control it–and therefore can’t work with Congress and can’t be trusted with nuclear weapons. To refute this charge, all he has to do is restrain his temper in a few highly visible situations. Journalists unwittingly oblige him. Bent on making news, they bombard him with questions designed to provoke an explosion. “Why is it that those who know you best seem to like you the least?” debate co-moderator Karen Brown asked him at last week’s debate in New Hampshire. Responding to such questions, McCain always smiles, thanks his interrogators, praises his opponents, and deflects the challenge with a self-mocking joke. “A comment like that really makes me mad,” he quipped during the debate.

But McCain understands that while voters want a president who can control his temper, they also want one with a sense of outrage. He flaunts his anger at HMOs, trial lawyers, agribusiness conglomerates, and defense contractors who feed on “corporate welfare.” “It’s important to have passion and to get angry when you see injustice,” he argued on Larry King Live. On Face the Nation, he boasted, “Sure, I get angry. I get angry at this last bill that we just passed that [is] an outrageous waste of taxpayers’ money.” In the New Hampshire debate, McCain vowed, “From time to time, those of us … who stand in an independent fashion are going to break some china. … It is very clear to all the lobbyists and the special influence people that run Washington now that if John McCain is president of the United States, things are going to be a lot different.”

McCain’s enemies make this spin an easy sell. Who’s spreading the rumor that he’s too volatile to be president? Republican Senate leaders. Newsweek supplies their motive–“Many senators despise [McCain] … for his crusade in favor of campaign-finance reform”–and McCain’s campaign manager affirms that they’re out to stop him because “John’s shaken up the establishment by talking about strong conservative reform.” On Face the Nation, panelist Gloria Borger asked McCain, “The entire Senate leadership [is] against you. … Is there a sense, perhaps, that you are too much of a maverick to really become president and govern?” Too much of a maverick? The question was practically a campaign contribution.

In particular, McCain asserts his anger on behalf of soldiers. This combines two good stories: his principled outrage and his war record. “Do I feel passionately about issues? Absolutely,” he conceded in the debate. “When I see … wasteful pork-barrel spending [while] we have 12,000 enlisted families–brave men and women–on food stamps, yeah, I get angry.” On Meet the Press, McCain defended a 1992 shouting match with a fellow senator over the fate of Vietnam POWs. “I took strong exception to his allegations that somehow I was ignoring important evidence,” McCain explained. “We’re talking about an issue of literally life and death.” Such patriotic outbursts have captivated the media. McCain “is best when he is angry,” swoons Time. “He blazes with indignation that 12,000 military families are on food stamps.”

McCain’s cleverest strategy has been to associate the anger story with his POW ordeal. This week, citing nasty rumors that his torture and imprisonment in Vietnam had left him emotionally unbalanced, his campaign released medical records indicating that he had never been mentally ill. The records did more than kill a bad story. They revived a good one. McCain got to tour the TV studios retelling his heroic saga. In every interview, he alluded to his wounds, calling his medical records “an orthopedic surgeon’s dream.” The New York Times discussed his “major fractures” and “solitary confinement.” The Associated Press recalled his 1973 testimony that he had survived through “faith in country, [the Navy], family and God.” NBC’s David Bloom, recounting how McCain had been “brutally and repeatedly tortured,” quoted a commander who said of McCain, “There was no tougher resister among POWs.”

The Vietnam angle doesn’t just help McCain. It hurts Bush. When stories about McCain’s temper first began to circulate, McCain told reporters, “I guess the memo from the Bush campaign has come out to attack John McCain.” McCain has since backed away grudgingly from that allegation (“I was speaking metaphorically,” he says), but his aides have kept it alive by publicly urging the Bush campaign to make sure its agents aren’t spreading the rumors. By framing these rumors in the context of Vietnam, McCain’s surrogates create the impression that Bush, who joined the National Guard to avoid Vietnam, is using McCain’s war record against him.

There’s no evidence to support this insinuation, but since Bush can’t prove the negative–that no one associated with his campaign has ever said any such thing–the insinuation sticks. Front pages and Sunday political shows continue to discuss the anti-McCain “whisper campaign,” a phrase concocted by McCain’s aides. “It’s going to be next to impossible to finger anyone in the Bush campaign for fomenting anti-McCain sentiment,” lamented Newsweek. Vietnam veterans in the Senate called the trauma rumors “disgraceful.” Pundits called them “disgusting” and “despicable.” A POW expert told NBC that those who were spreading the rumors had “spit in the face of every Vietnam veteran.”

Now McCain is being asked whether he’s angry about the rumors about his anger. Again, he gets to impress everyone by turning the other cheek. “It doesn’t matter to me,” he shrugged on Meet the Press. “We need to move forward.” When asked about reports that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott had circulated the rumors, McCain defended him: “Trent Lott has been a personal friend of mine for many, many years.” McCain has won the fight the best way–invisibly–by framing the orientation of the questions. Everyone asks him about the “whisper campaign” against him. No one asks him about the pro-McCain whisper campaign about the “whisper campaign.” Everyone expects Bush to halt the anti-McCain whispers. No one expects McCain to halt the whispers that Bush is behind the anti-McCain whispers.

Pundits can’t believe McCain would fan and exploit rumors about his anger. “Even if you handle it right, you still don’t want this kind of thing out there,” argued Susan Estrich on Fox News Sunday. “There’s some people who only hear a piece of it and say to themselves, is something wrong with John McCain?” Estrich misses the point. Voters are already asking whether something is wrong with McCain. They approach a presidential candidate the way a woman approaches a date. First, they want to know what’s attractive about him. Second, if he passes that test, they want to know what’s wrong with him. They won’t be satisfied–and won’t relax–until they’ve identified his flaws. Third, they want to observe those flaws, examine them, discuss them, and figure out whether they’re manageable. Every candidate has many flaws, some of which are worse than others. A candidate’s best strategy, therefore, is to show the media and the voters his most manageable flaw in the hope that they will focus on that flaw and stop looking for others.

This is precisely what the anger story has accomplished. By consuming the media, it has overshadowed and smothered more dangerous anti-McCain stories. With few exceptions, reporters aren’t pressing McCain about his role in the Keating Five campaign-finance scandal. They aren’t asking him to explain to Republican voters how his crusades for campaign-finance restrictions and a half-trillion-dollar tobacco tax square with conservative principles. They aren’t asking him to explain to independents why he opposes the Brady Bill and Roe vs. Wade. Reporters aren’t trying to protect McCain; they just think his mental stability is a more damaging issue. It “goes beyond accusing McCain of hypocrisy” on campaign finance, says Newsweek. For McCain, this illusion is felicitous. The anger story has distracted the media because it looks so much worse than it is.

Above all, the story of McCain’s anger has obscured what his quarrels have been about. By focusing attention on tone, it has deflected attention from content. When reports about McCain’s bad temper first emerged out of Arizona this fall, they indicated that he had muscled, rebuked, punished, and cowed fellow Republicans in order to squelch dissent. Those reports could have generated discussion about whether McCain’s tirades against entrenched power in Washington are hypocritical. Instead, they have been reduced to discussion about whether he is prone to tirades.

Likewise, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has tried to focus scrutiny on McCain’s tobacco and campaign-finance crusades. “I don’t think John McCain’s personality is the issue,” McConnell pleaded on television two weeks ago. “For me, it’s been a policy difference” over “big taxes and [putting] the government in charge of everybody’s political speech.” But the anger story has overwhelmed McConnell’s critique. Reporters aren’t interested in the clash of ideas. They’re interested in the clash of personalities.

Is John McCain too crazy to be president? The question answers itself. A man who can use that issue to obscure his more serious weaknesses, underscore his strengths, and besmirch his opponent can’t be accused of showing too little rationality and discipline. The better question is whether he has shown too much.