WASHINGTON — I read four newspapers a day, occasionally more. I watch television news and listen to radio news. The media fascinate me. Many times the media suffer a collective mood swing that is more important than the facts they report. Supposedly news stories are based on facts, but often more significant than the facts — pocked as they are with error and biased selection — is the mood. Now the mood coloring the coverage of Senator John McCain’s presidential candidacy is bleak. For weeks the news stories about him have been few and fraught with pessimism. The mood set in when his fundraising problems began.
This week the old combat pilot made it into the news with slightly increased frequency, but still the stories had a charnel quality. First, there were the stories about his age. He turned 71 this week and if elected would be the oldest elected American president. Then there were the ironic stories about how his impoverished campaign has sought authority to receive matching federal funds. That might give him the sustenance to keep battling for the Republican nomination, but it would put him at a disadvantage against the candidates who are flush with money and will not have to settle for federal funds, for instance Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney.
Still the old combat pilot battles on, and frankly I am in his corner. I have known him since the late 1980s and never seen in him anything but a gentleman, a cheerful gentleman at that. There have been rumors of his dreadful temper. I have not seen it. I have seen reports of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s dreadful temper. In fact, I have reported in columns and in my current book on her husband’s life in “retirement,” The Clinton Crack-Up, first-hand accounts from security personnel and innocent bystanders of her ragesâ€”throwing objects at her husband and staff, cussing like a lowdown scamp, and causing unnecessary rows; for instance, for years she has demanded that Secret Service agents carry her bags despite regulations barring them from doing so. Yet never has Senator Clinton’s volatile temper become a public issue. Maybe it will, as her nomination to head the Democratic ticket puts her closer to control of the military and the Justice Department.
By comparison with Senator Clinton, Senator McCain is wise and serene. As for his age, he is going strong despite the daily demands of the campaign trail, his war wounds, and five and a half years in a North Vietnamese prison cell. In 1999 he released 1,500 pages of medical and psychiatric reports gathered since his release from that cell. No presidential candidate has ever allowed such scrutiny of his health record and few would appear healthier. His mother is now 95 years old, vigorous and sharp as a tack. I have visited with her and like her. She could probably hit the campaign trail with him today. On the age issue, her son is right to boast of his DNA. When it comes to patriotism, public service, and good citizenship, McCain is an exemplar hard to match.
I write all this because the media’s mood of pessimism and dismissal is ignorant. The foul mood could deny voters what should be a stimulating presidential match-up, McCain against his Republican rivals and then maybe against the Democratic nominee. I have parted company with him on his campaign finance positions. I worry that when it comes to the salutary economic benefits of tax cuts he needs constant reminders. But otherwise he is a solid conservative. When he speaks from principle, he is as unflinching as Ronald Reagan. On Iraq, he has shown the wisdom of a seasoned military mind. He deserves our trust that he can get through this war successfully with American national interests secured.
Call me a contrarian if you will, but the gloomy media mood shrouding the McCain candidacy is a reflection of the unseriousness inherent in the presidential campaign at this point in the news cycle. By historic standards McCain is perfectly acceptable as a presidential candidate. His presence in the Oval Office would be no surprise to Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan. The Democratic front runners’ would. Being once a first lady in the most scandal-plagued presidency of recent memory or being a United States senator with only three years of service in the Senate are not sufficient qualifications for the Oval Office. In fact, they are the most meager qualifications of any frontrunners in modern American history.
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