McCain's Media Mob Bites Back

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Justin Sullivan / Getty

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) speaks during a campaign rally on Thursday, April 26, 2007 in Columbia, South Carolina.

After formally entering the 2008 Presidential race yesterday, John McCain loaded reporters on to his Straight Talk Express in three shifts, taking on all comers in the style that's traditionally endeared him to reporters more than voters. But he was not actually all that forthcoming, and by today, as a result, he had lost points with his expected constituency just when he is trying to kick-start his flagging campaign.

Asked several times about whether Alberto Gonzales should resign, McCain was coy on Wednesday: "Ask me tomorrow," he said, grinning, clearly implying that tomorrow, he'd make some news by calling for the Attorney General's resignation. Reporters nudged each other, happy to be in on the joke. But why not now just tell us now, we asked. "I don't want to step on the story," he said. And then, he did. Hours later reporters learned that McCain had, literally, hopped off the Straight Talk Express to talk to noted White House correspondent Larry King, with whom he was much more direct about the Department of Justice scandals: Gonzales, he said on the program Wednesday evening, should step down.

So much for endearing himself to the press. McCain's cozy relationship to journalists has been a source for criticism from conservatives (who feel he toadies up to them) and liberals (who feel they toady up to him). Delivering the Gonzales exclusive to King was not an intentional bid to prove his independence from the fourth estate — a theoretically brilliant tactical move — but the fallout provides a glimpse of a press corps ready to pounce.

As the news of McCain's Gonzales announcement spread, reporters grumbled about being scooped by the wily septuagenarian. At first, McCain's staff assured them that the Senator had not intended his remarks to King to get out so soon. Then they told us they can't keep McCain from going off script, though, as one aide said, "I understand why you're mad, I do."

But tempers flared nonetheless, erupting into public view this morning at a press conference in Greenville, S.C., when New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney accused the candidate of intentionally misleading the media about his Gonzales statement. McCain repeated his assertion that he thought the Gonzales news, which surfaced around 6 p.m. yesterday, would not get out until King was broadcast at 9 p.m., and, further, "I wanted the main stories yesterday to be about my announcement." Nagourney responded that McCain could "say whatever you want, but ... some of us walked away from that feeling a little misled." McCain snapped, "I'm sorry if your tender feelings were bruised."

It was an unusually bitter retort for a man who for years has called the media "my base." Later, on the plane to Columbia, S.C., McCain trudged to Nagourney's seat, miming an exaggeratedly shamed face. His wife Cindy had sent him to apologize for being rude, he said. "A thousand pardons," he asked. But the conversation turned into another round of the same debate. McCain had said he was sorry for not calling the press corps once he knew the King show released a transcript a few hours before it aired. That's not good enough, a reporter argued, "You told us you wouldn't talk about Gonzales until tomorrow, then you turned around and talk to King."

"Aren't you guys done by nine?" McCain answered, lamely. "I thought nine o'clock would be same as tomorrow." "But we can get it in the papers," a writer pointed out, "there are still decisions being made at nine." "Some of us even blog," said another.

McCain seemed surprised by our dedication. Then someone asked about the original rationale for misleading us in the first place: "I'm just surprised that someone would just admit 'I was trying to control the narrative.'" "I didn't want to control the narrative," McCain responded, "I just wanted to keep the story about my campaign announcement."

What's the difference, exactly? "There's a difference," McCain insisted.

The conversation eventually moved on, and questions petered out. After he left, reporters discussed his apology and his excuse. No one was satisfied: "How's admitting he wanted to keep a particular story alive 'straight talk'? Maybe it's 'meta straight talk.'"

A veteran White House correspondent was slightly more forgiving: "He says he wants to keep the story about the campaign, fine. He only gets to say that once."