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Jewish World Review Jan. 5, 2000 /26 Teves, 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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McCain's moment --
THIS IS JOHN MCCAIN'S MOMENT. When the press turns its attention to someone, the echo chamber reverberates so loudly that it becomes difficult to maintain perspective. A few months back, it was George W. Bush's moment.

In the midst of that drumbeat -- "He's got more money than Croesus," "He's wrapped up all the important endorsements;" "He's got his own supporters plus his dad's huge network;" "He's got the common touch;" "He's got the catchiest slogan" -- the question on everyone's lips was "Why hold the election at all?" The result seemed a foregone conclusion.

Now the fickle finger of media attention has moved on to Bill Bradley and McCain, and the buzz in Washington is: "McCain's going to do it. He's gonna knock Bush out of the game."

We'll see. Things may look very different in a month or two.

It certainly seems to be difficult for anyone to cover John McCain without developing a huge crush on him. George W. Bush may be able to charm contributors, but McCain is the master of bewitching journalists (unheard of for a Republican). This is more than personal charisma on McCain's part, though it is that, too. It is also smart tactics. Only by attracting positive free media can McCain hope to compete against the lavish paid media George W. will presumably deploy.

Certainly part of McCain's appeal is his very quick and often self-deprecating humor. In the face of stories a couple of months ago to the effect that his volcanic temper should disqualify him from the White House, he said, "When I hear stories like that, it makes me really, really mad!"

But McCain doesn't rely only on one-liners. He makes plenty of room in his schedule to brief journalists, and often just to shoot the breeze. The implied compliment does not go unnoticed.

And McCain likes to be jocular about the entire process of running for office. Not in the cynical way Dole was ("Hey, I'm for ethanol. Whatever."), but in a style that says "I'm not taking myself too seriously." Wall Street Journal reporter David Rogers reports the following exchange with the senator about an internal poll: "The candidate summons his advisers with a mock growl to answer reporters. ... 'Murphy!' 'Yes sir!' 'When are we having a poll to show the enormous traction we have made here in South Carolina -- our next propaganda blitz?'

"The hapless aide parries vainly: 'The little we know, based on the very little polling we may or may not have done, we have a helluva lot more support than we used to.' John McCain laughingly admits the subterfuge and admits it makes a mockery of the 'Straight Talk Express' logo. 'Pull that sign off the bus at the next stop,' he declares."

McCain can wear campaigning lightly without risk of being characterized as a lightweight because his personal history is so dramatic and heroic. If a director were to call central casting for the anti-Clinton, he could easily have summoned McCain. And those who see this election in psychological terms are tempted to support McCain if only to signal that personal honor, dedication to duty and old-fashioned patriotism have not been permanently retired post-Clinton.

Still, conservatives eye McCain warily. No one loves his personal story more than they, but his political history of proving "independence" too often seems to find him on the opposite side from conservatives. His campaign finance reform is probably unconstitutional and would enhance the power of the press. It would also harm Republican candidates. His support of a huge tobacco deal -- even leaving aside its offensiveness to sensible people who believe that smokers assumed the risk of illness -- would enormously enrich a tiny group of trial lawyers who are among the most generous donors to Democratic candidates. Even on the subject of taxes, McCain has shown a worrisome ignorance about who pays what. During one debate, he suggested that a waitress pays more in taxes than a wealthy person. This is not true in absolute terms or as a percentage of income.

McCain is a hero and a charmer. The fear is that he would cheerfully sacrifice nearly any conservative principle for the sake of good press.

JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate