The media love McCain, but will Republicans?

By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist, 08/02/99

t isn't news that John McCain is a media darling. Nobody in national politics gets the kind of adoring coverage that Arizona's senior senator gets. ''Good press'' scarcely captures the worshipful tone of it all. ''John McCain Walks on Water'' was the headline on Esquire's May 1998 profile, and the editors weren't being sarcastic.

The Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt, no fan of Republicans, calls McCain ''the most courageous and one of the most admirable men I've ever known in American politics.'' Mike Wallace says that if the GOP nominated McCain for president, he'd consider quitting ''60 Minutes'' to become his press secretary. ''The McCain swoon is now so conspicuous,'' Andrew Ferguson wrote in The Weekly Standard, ''that NBC News, The Washington Post, and other news outlets have assigned reporters to do favorable stories explaining why the stories about John McCain are so favorable.'' That was more than a year ago, and they're swooning still.

Some of this can be chalked up to McCain's Vietnam war record. He was shot down over Hanoi in 1967 and spent 51/2 years as a prisoner of war. For saying no when the Communists offered to release him early - to accept would have violated the Navy Code of Conduct - McCain was badly beaten and tortured. He paid a huge price for his integrity and it is impossible not to respect him for it.

But there is a difference between respecting a politician and falling in love with him. Other senators have paid a high price in service to their country - Max Cleland of Georgia, for instance, left two legs and an arm in Vietnam - and nobody writes that they walk on water. What's more, McCain's story has its seamy side. There is the philandering that wrecked his first marriage, the ugly temper, the Keating Five scandal - unlovely episodes that would not be ignored if his name were Forbes or Bush or Buchanan.

Not everyone in the press is in the grip of the McCain Swoon. Some left-wing journalists have pointed to McCain's conservative voting record and wondered whether their fellow media liberals have lost their minds. The New Republic's David Grann noted in May that McCain is more conservative than the man he replaced in the Senate: Barry Goldwater. He supported the Contract with America and voted to convict Bill Clinton. He was against the Martin Luther King holiday, against raising the minimum wage, against legal abortions, against gun control, against gay rights.

Yet McCain is no idol to the right. There is nothing in the conservative press liked the McCain love-fest in the liberal mainstream media. His hard-right voting record hasn't dazzled conservatives, and for a good reason: McCain doesn't want to be thought of as one of them. He wants to be thought of as a maverick, bucking his party so he can fight Big Tobacco and reform campaign finance.

On McCain's web site, you can read that he is pro-life; ask him about taxes and he'll say they should be cut. But if you don't bring up those issues, he won't, either. The issues he wants to talk about are punishing cigarette makers (he was lead sponsor of a bill to impose massive penalties on the tobacco industry) and campaign-finance (the McCain-Feingold bill would sharply restrict the freedom to raise money and advertise in political campaigns). Those are his marquee issues, and they go over well with liberals and the media. To conservatives, they are anathema.

In a July session with reporters, McCain was asked where he would like to see less government action. Any conservative worth his salt has a ready list of obnoxious federal programs that America would be better off without, from arts subsidies to racial preferences to the Legal Services Corporation. This, slightly edited, was McCain's answer:

''In the case of the Department of Education, I'd like to see most of the money go to the states. But I do think there is a purpose to the Department of Education.

''The Department of Energy I think we could examine very carefully. It was a product of the energy crisis in the 1970s. You could easily give some of its responsibilities to other departments of government.

''We could more carefully tailor a lot of programs that fall under the Department of Commerce. I applaud the vice president for trying to do this `reinventing' of government.

''A lot of my conservative friends think we have to spend a lot more money on defense. I think we have to spend some more money on some programs, but we're wasting literally tens of billions of dollars on programs that are only geared to the Cold War. We could, by restructuring the military, do a whole lot of good things that would not require us to spend a whole lot more money.

''I would look at corporate welfare. Giving McDonald's millions of dollars to sell burgers overseas - the list goes on and on. I would reduce and eliminate many of those programs. Ethanol subsidies are around $700 million a year, and most of it goes to Archer-Daniels-Midland. All the studies show it helps neither the consumer nor the environment. But that doesn't make me as mad as the sugar subsidies do. Because the sugar subsidies increase the cost of a pound of sugar to the consumer by about a third.''

Is that a conservative talking? There is almost nothing in McCain's reply that Ted Kennedy couldn't endorse. He may be Goldwater's successor, but McCain isn't running as another Goldwater. He is running as a conservative who has seen the light. That may not win him any GOP primaries. But the media certainly eat it up.

Jeff Jacoby is a Globe columnist.