A crucial turning point in the presidential race came when the McCain campaign ended its candidate's habitual informal interactions with the press. The area of the McCain campaign plane where a couch had been installed so the Arizonian could hold court with journalists was cut off with a dark curtain, marking the end of an era.
Since 2000, John McCain had thrived on his irrepressible chattiness with the press, talking about anything reporters wanted for as long as they would listen. The press loved the access and avoided "gotcha" coverage, letting McCain explain any seeming gaffes. The arrangement worked beautifully for both sides -- until McCain became the Republican presidential nominee.
Suddenly, he wasn't afforded the same old courtesy from reporters, and he had to go about the grim business of driving a daily message. With the end of the running bull sessions, a trial separation began with the press that became a divorce that became a feud.
The enduring scandal of the McCain campaign is that it wants to win. The press had hoped for a harmless, nostalgic loser like Bob Dole in 1996. In a column excoriating Republicans for historically launching successful attacks against Democratic presidential candidates in August, Time columnist Joe Klein excepted Bob Dole -- not mentioning that Dole had been eviscerated by Clinton negative ads before August ever arrived.
The press turned on McCain with a vengeance as soon as he mocked Barack Obama as a celebrity. Its mood grew still more foul when the McCain campaign took offense at Obama's "lipstick on a pig" jab. "The media are getting mad," according to Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz. "Stop the madness," urged ABC News' Mark Halperin, exhorting his fellow journalists to fight back against the McCain campaign's manufactured outrage.
The lipstick controversy indeed represented a silly bit of grievance-mongering. But had the Obama camp's tendentious interpretation of Bill Clinton's "fairy tale" put-down as a racial slight generated similar push-back from the media? Had Obama's ridiculous depiction of Geraldine Ferraro as a quasi-racist? Had Obama's repeated contention -- with no evidence -- that Republicans were attacking him for looking different?
The media have made it gospel that McCain is attacking Obama dishonestly. Of course, campaign advertisements are the last place to look for a dispassionate rendition of the facts. McCain's ads are no different. But they are no worse than Obama's spots.
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