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Remembering John McCain: Barreling through S.C. on the Straight Talk Express

John McCain in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Photo © 2007 by River Bissonnette.

Previously published at

We lost a great American on Saturday. Sen. John McCain was a complicated man, but his integrity, courage, and fundamental decency were beyond reproach. In February 2000, I covered the South Carolina showdown between McCain and George W. Bush for The Boston Phoenix. Bush had just lost the New Hampshire primary to McCain and was hanging on for dear life. Bush defeated McCain in South Carolina and went on to win the presidency. I think I had more fun reporting this story than just about any other I can remember. Today, courtesy of the Northeastern University Archives, WGBH News republishes my story in full.

GREENVILLE, S.C. — The Straight Talk Express — a bus that’s expanded into a three-vehicle caravan since John McCain’s unexpectedly large victory in New Hampshire — has just pulled up in front of City Hall. A crowd of people has gathered, waiting expectantly for the candidate. Among them is Geno Church, a city employee who’s holding his 5-year-old daughter, MacKenzie, so she can get a closer look. She points to a huge sign on one of the buses that says “McCain” and asks, “Daddy, why does that sign say ‘Media’?”

Out of the mouths of babes and all that.

The McCain campaign is many things. An insurgent effort by an underfunded challenger against an establishment candidate — George W. Bush — who’s been anointed with more than $65 million in contributions. A crusade to clean up a hopelessly corrupt political system. A book tour to promote “Faith of My Fathers,” which, McCain jokingly but carefully notes at every stop, was published by Random House and is available from for $24.95. (It’s working: “Faith of My Fathers” was Amazon’s 36th hottest-selling book as of Tuesday.)

Above all else, though, the McCain campaign is a media moment. The press has fallen hard for McCain, harder than it fell for Bill Clinton in 1992, harder than it fell for Gary Hart in 1984 or George McGovern in 1972. Aboard the Straight Talk Express, it’s clear that the reporters believe they’re in the midst of something historic — something akin, perhaps, to the 1960 campaign of John F. Kennedy, the last time a war hero with a sense of humor and a proclivity for mixing it up with the press ran for president.

“It’s kind of a running dialogue that goes on on the McCain bus. The extraordinary thing about the McCain campaign is that everything is on the record. I’ve never seen anything like it,” says veteran Boston Globe reporter Curtis Wilkie. Wilkie — one of the characters who pops up in Timothy Crouse’s classic on the 1972 campaign, “The Boys on the Bus” — calls McCain’s dealings with the media something of a “throwback” to the days when “you didn’t have nearly as many press people running around, and in general the candidates were more accessible.” And for the press, there is no higher value than accessibility.

It’s not that the press is consciously in the tank for McCain, or that he escapes all critical scrutiny. The beat reporters say they’re careful not to let their easy access to the candidate twist their coverage. But the cumulative effect of McCain’s blunt candor, his nonstop, on-the-record chatter, his sense of brio and his insouciance, has been to create an aura of goodwill in which the candidate — unlike perhaps any other national politician — automatically receives the benefit of the doubt.

Collectively — with, of course, certain exceptions (Time magazine broke from the pack last week with excellent pieces on McCain’s ultraconservative ideology and lack of a substantive agenda beyond campaign-finance reform) — the media have concluded that McCain is capable of transcending his unremarkable career in the Senate, his run-of-the-mill influence-peddling, and his doctrinaire conservatism to reform a political system that has grown hopelessly corrupt and out of touch with average Americans. Are they right?

Chasing McCain and Bush during the 2000 S.C. primary

John McCain in Kyiv, Ukraine, in 2013. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday’s sad news that Sen. John McCain has been diagnosed with brain cancer called to mind this story I wrote for The Boston Phoenix in February 2000 during the crucial Republican primary showdown between McCain and George W. Bush. Bush had just lost the New Hampshire primary to McCain and was hanging on for dear life. As we know, Bush defeated McCain in South Carolina and went on to win the presidency.

I think I had more fun reporting this story than just about any other I can remember. McCain wasn’t quite as accessible to the media (at least not to all the media) as advertised; but as you’ll see, I managed to wedge myself between him and his bus and ask him a question he didn’t want to answer. I have rarely agreed with McCain politically, but his service and courage transcend political differences. He is a great American hero, and my thoughts go out to him at this difficult time.

How do you say ‘conservative’ in South Carolinese?

NPR’s Ailsa Chang reported earlier this week on the re-election struggles of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is being challenged by right-wingers who think he’s not conservative enough. I nearly drove off the road when I heard this nugget:

Leading the pack of four Republican challengers is Lee Bright, a state senator who’s pushed legislation to ban abortion funding for victims of rape and incest. He also wants to make enforcement of the Affordable Care Act punishable by one year in jail.

“I would put my conservative record against any legislator in the country. I don’t think there’s anybody more conservative than I am,” Bright says.

Fortunately, Chang found that Graham probably doesn’t have much to worry about. Which means that even South Carolina Republicans have their limits.

Update: In other news from the far right, the Arizona Republican Party has censured Sen. John McCain for being too liberal.

The Russian government’s literally incredible behavior

News Dissector Danny Schechter retweeted this blog post by former British diplomat Craig Murray, who questions the notion that the Russian government warned the United States of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s radicalism in 2010.

I will confess that I know nothing about Murray. But what he writes is the simple truth about the official story: After raising a warning flag about Tsarnaev, Russia allowed him into the country in 2012 and let him stay for six months, then leave again. Murray’s gloss on those facts also seems worth thinking about:

In 2012 Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who is of such concern to Russian security, is able to fly to Russia and pass through the airport security checks of the world’s most thoroughly and brutally efficient security services without being picked up. He is then able to proceed to Dagestan — right at the heart of the world’s heaviest military occupation and the world’s most far reaching secret police surveillance — again without being intercepted, and he is able there to go through some form of terror training or further Islamist indoctrination. He then flies out again without any intervention by the Russian security services.

Murray adds: “That is the official story and I have no doubt it did not happen.”

The New York Times today reports on Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s time in Dagestan. This passage pretty much sums up the paper’s findings:

During his six months in Makhachkala [the Dagestan capital], according to relatives, neighbors and friends, he did not seem like a man on a mission, or training for one. Rather, they said, he was more like a recent graduate who could not quite decide what to do with himself. He slept late, hung around at home, visited family and helped his father renovate a storefront.

We are at the very beginning of what is likely to be a long investigation. But these reports are relevant at a moment when — as the Boston Globe reports — Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are despicably calling for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to be treated as an “enemy combatant,” and when Republicans are already describing the Boston Marathon bombings as a breakdown in intelligence.

Not only do we not know that, but early indications are that such irresponsible speculation is not in accord with the facts.

Brown’s reasons for rejecting debate make no sense

Tom Brokaw

This commentary is also online at the Huffington Post.

What we were talking about, in case U.S. Sen. Scott Brown’s diversionary tactics led you astray, was a televised debate, held before a neutral audience, to be moderated by Tom Brokaw. Everything else is baloney.

As you no doubt already know, Brown made two demands that had to be met before he would agree to a debate with his Democratic rival, Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren.

The first was that Vicki Kennedy, president of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, which would sponsor the debate, refrain from endorsing a candidate for “the duration of the Senate race.”

The second was that the debate be carried only by local media outlets and not by “out-of-state cable networks with a reputation for political advocacy” — clear reference to the liberal outlet MSNBC, which had been mentioned as a possibility.

Both demands were ridiculous because they were irrelevant. But when Vicki Kennedy rejected the first of those demands, that was enough for Brown to say no.

(At this point I suppose I should include a non-disclosure: I’m not related to those Kennedys.)

Brown might have been able to make a reasonable case for asking Vicki Kennedy not to endorse until after the debate. But demanding that she refrain for “the duration” was just silly. If the media consortium that includes the Boston Globe schedules a debate, will Brown insist that the Globe not endorse? And what will Brown say if the Boston Herald, as is its wont, puts together its own debate? Surely he won’t ask the paper to withhold its all-but-certain Brown endorsement.

As for MSNBC, the debate organizers could prevent the channel from carrying it live. Afterwards, though, Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz and company would be free to show clips and comment on them whether they had carried the full debate or not. The fair-use provision of the copyright law guarantees that — not to mention the First Amendment.

And why did I say the debate would be held before a neutral audience? Because you can be sure the Brown and Warren campaigns would insist on equal numbers of partisans in the audience. So the Kennedy Institute’s sponsorship isn’t an issue, either.

I know some observers have questioned Brokaw’s alleged liberal bias. But since that hasn’t been raised by the Brown campaign, we have to assume he had no problem with Brokaw as moderator. When Brokaw moderated a debate between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008, he seemed mainly interested in making sure neither candidate exceeded his allotted time. Liberal or not, Brokaw has earned his status as a fair-minded journalist who can be trusted not to throw the debate to either candidate.

It’s also hard to figure why Brown suddenly has a problem with Vicki Kennedy or the Kennedy Institute, given that he took part in a debate with Martha Coakley two years ago that was co-sponsored by the institute without setting any preconditions. As Herald columnist Peter Gelzinis points out, it was only a year ago that Brown couldn’t say enough good things about the late Ted Kennedy’s widow.

Globe columnist Scot Lehigh thinks Brown’s demands were “reasonable,” and he gives the senator credit for sticking to them. Yet Lehigh doesn’t tell us what Brown could possibly gain by failing to take part.

As my Northeastern colleague Alan Schroeder, an expert on political debates, puts it, “They’re making such an ­effort to portray Brown as someone with bipartisan credentials who can work with Democrats, and yet here’s this relatively mild example of cooperating with a Democrat, and they’re balking at it.”

Boston Phoenix political columnist David Bernstein wonders if Brown is trying to curry favor with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, which has had its own issues with Vicki Kennedy.

Who knows what Brown and his advisers are thinking? Their political astuteness is generally beyond question. Maybe this will prove to be a smart move. Right now, though, it looks like a rare misstep, especially curious given that Brown initially made the Warren campaign look flat-footed with his rapid acceptance of several debate invitations.

My own bias is in favor of as many debates as possible, regardless of the venue. For instance, I don’t understand why Warren won’t say yes to WBZ Radio (AM 1030) talk-show host Dan Rea, who is conservative but is as fair as they come.

The candidates really don’t have anything better to do. How would we prefer they spend their time? Making television ads? Attending fundraisers? Of course not. They should spend as much time as possible side by side, talking about the issues. It’s not always the most edifying experience, but it’s better than any conceivable alternatives.

Photo (cc) by Michael Kwan and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

The Times’ tortured relationship with the “T”-word

The New York Times’ tortured relationship with the “T”-word takes an interesting turn today. The paper’s print and online editions diverge, and the Times manages to report on a debate over torture without quite acknowledging that the Bush administration, uh, tortured terrorism suspects.

The Times online

First, the headline. On the front page of the print edition you’ll find this: “Harsh Methods of Questioning Debated Again.” Online, though, is the considerably more frank “Bin Laden Raid Revives Debate on Value of Torture.” Below the headline is a story summary that says, “The raid that led to Bin Laden’s death has raised anew the issue of using torture to gain intelligence.”

On the face of it, that seems like a straightforward acknowledgement that some suspects were tortured, which would be something of a landmark for the Times. Two years ago, then-public editor Clark Hoyt wrote that Times editors had decided not to describe waterboarding and other brutal interrogation tactics as “torture,” although it would quote critics as saying so. Indeed, Hoyt added, the Times had come under some criticism even for adopting the word “brutal” to describe those methods.

The Times in print

When you read today’s story, by Scott Shane and Charlie Savage, you learn that the “T”-word rule is still in effect. Here’s how it begins:

Did brutal interrogations produce the crucial intelligence that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden?

As intelligence officials disclosed the trail of evidence that led to the compound in Pakistan where Bin Laden was hiding, a chorus of Bush administration officials claimed vindication for their policy of “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding.

The “T”-word appears repeatedly in the story, but not as a description of what actually took place. Rather, it is in the context of “a national debate about torture,” Barack Obama’s past statements that waterboarding and other harsh methods were “torture,” efforts to avoid “a partisan battle over torture” and the like.

Among those quoted as claiming torture (OK, enhanced interrogation techniques) worked are Bush-era torture apologist John Yoo and U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., last seen subjecting Muslim-Americans to psychological torture at his Star Chamber hearings on Capitol Hill.

Now, let’s be clear. There is no evidence that waterboarding and other forms of torture had anything to do with producing the intelligence needed to track down Osama bin Laden. Indeed, it’s been reported that the worst of the Guantánamo terrorists, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, tried to divert interrogators away from bin Laden’s courier despite having been tortured repeatedly. In a withering takedown of the pro-torture argument, CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen writes at the Atlantic:

It is entirely possible that some valuable intelligence information about bin Laden’s couriers was gleaned from long-ago waterboarding. And it is possible that some of this information was part of what Attorney General Eric Holder Tuesday called a “mosaic” of information that led to bin Laden’s demise. But it is beyond doubt that the United States was able to track and then kill its arch enemy in Abbottabad based upon regular old gumshoe detective work, both traditional and innovative, that occurred years and years after the detainees in question were reportedly tortured. How exactly does that suffice to restore credibility to the pro-torture argument?

And just in case you’re not convinced that waterboarding is torture, consider the historical evidence, which I laid out in a piece for the Guardian last year. The Times frankly referred to waterboarding as torture in 1945 in reporting on its use against American prisoners of war who were held by the Japanese. No less an authority than U.S. Sen. John McCain has noted that some Japanese officers were executed for waterboarding prisoners. And Harvard’s Shorenstein Center last year produced a study showing that waterboarding was routinely described as torture until the Bush White House started using it against terrorism suspects.

The Times, as our leading news organization, has harmed the public discourse by refusing to call torture by its proper name. Today’s story is just another example of how it has tied itself into knots in its ongoing attempt to avoid saying the obvious.

More: This commentary has now been posted at the Guardian.

Last call for Clark Hoyt

New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt signed off Sunday after three years as head of the paper’s internal-affairs division.

I thought he generally did a good job. Though he was less stylish and controversial than the first public editor, Daniel Okrent, he was always serious and thoughtful. He also re-established the importance of the job after his predecessor, Byron Calame, let it slide toward irrelevance.

Hoyt points to the Times’ shameful, unsupported 2008 report that then-presidential candidate John McCain may have had an affair with a lobbyist some years earlier as his “disagreement of greatest consequence” with executive editor Bill Keller. I would also point to it as his most significant contribution.

Hoyt’s departure also gives me an opportunity to link again to this fine profile by David McKay Wilson, a classmate of mine at Northeastern during the 1970s.

McCain, Brown and torture (II)

One rather odd aspect of reports that Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown had said he would support waterboarding of suspected terrorists was that none of the stories I looked at — from the Boston Globe, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette and the Associated Press — quoted Brown directly.

Michael Pahre noted that shortcoming in the comments. And though the AP did quote Brown in a story earlier today on a Senate debate sponsored by WTKK Radio (96.9 FM), I still wanted to hear from the Brown campaign myself.

This afternoon I talked with Brown campaign spokesman Felix Browne, who told me that Brown did not consider waterboarding to be torture. “He believes waterboarding is an enhanced-interrogation technique,” Browne said. “It’s hard, but it’s not torture. He does not believe that it’s torture.”

Browne also said he was pretty sure Brown had not discussed his position with U.S. Sen. John McCain, a staunch opponent of waterboarding who endorsed Brown earlier this week. “Obviously Sen. McCain and Sen. Brown are two different individuals,” Browne said.

And there I thought the matter would rest — except that, when I sought to clarify whether Sen. Brown would support waterboarding terrorism suspects, spokesman Browne realized he wasn’t entirely sure. So I put off writing this until he’d had a chance to check. Early this evening he e-mailed me this:

Waterboarding has been banned by executive order of the President. It would be up to the President to reauthorize its use. Scott Brown would support the President in whatever he decides.

Democratic Senate candidate Martha Coakley, for her part, used the WTKK debate to clarify her own opposition to waterboarding, as I noted in an update to my earlier item.

All that’s remaining is to hear from McCain — who, as I pointed out earlier, doesn’t just oppose waterboarding, but has gone out of his way to label it as torture, and to emphasize that U.S. forces actually executed Japanese officials at the end of World War II for waterboarding American prisoners.

This is no mere difference of opinion. McCain must choose between his endorsement of Brown and his moral revulsion over a practice regarded almost universally as torture. Will someone please put the question to him?

McCain, Brown and torture

I hope the local political press is burning up the lines to U.S. Sen. John McCain’s office today. It would be interesting to know what McCain thinks of state Sen. Scott Brown’s support for waterboarding, a practice McCain rightly regards as torture.

“Waterboarding is an enhanced interrogating technique. We need to interrogate by all legal means,” Brown said yesterday. (Sadly, if you follow the link and scroll down, you’ll see that Brown’s Democratic opponent in the Massachusetts Senate race, Attorney General Martha Coakley, missed a chance to take the high road.) [See update, below.]

Brown’s remarks come on the heels of McCain’s endorsement of him in the Massachusetts Senate race — hardly a surprise, given that they are both Republicans. The question now is whether McCain will stick by his endorsement.

During the Republican presidential campaign, McCain unloaded on former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani when Giuliani said he wasn’t sure if waterboarding was torture. According to the New York Times, McCain said of waterboarding:

All I can say is that it was used in the Spanish Inquisition, it was used in Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia, and there are reports that it is being used against Buddhist monks today…. It is not a complicated procedure. It is torture.

On another occasion, McCain said, correctly:

Following World War II war crime trials were convened. The Japanese were tried and convicted and hung for war crimes committed against American POWs. Among those charges for which they were convicted was waterboarding.

As this well-footnoted Wikipedia article notes, waterboarding is also regarded as torture by a wide range of international and human-rights organizations. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would have thought otherwise before Dick Cheney came along.

McCain, of course, was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam era and was himself tortured. The question now is whether he will torture logic and stand by his endorsement of Brown — or do the right thing and let Brown experience a drowning sensation caused by his own ill-chosen words.

Update: Coakley took care of whatever ambiguity she might have created by speaking out forcefully against waterboarding in a debate earlier today on WTKK Radio (96.9 FM). John Monahan reports in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette:

Ms. Coakley … said she backed Mr. McCain’s view that waterboarding is a form of torture.

“I don’t agree with John McCain on much, but I respect him. He was a war hero and he was tortured and he says he thinks it is. So this is one area where Scott Brown can pick and choose what he believes, but this is an area that he is really more like Bush-Cheney than he is like John F. Kennedy,” she said.

NPR ombudsman Shepard responds

NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard has responded to my item of last week in which I criticized her for defending NPR’s policy of refusing to refer to waterboarding as “torture.” She writes:

Yes, President Obama and AG Eric Holder have said that waterboarding was torture. I’d personally call it torture. But if you were an editor at the Globe, would you say that someone tortured another person? Or would you want to use a direct or indirect quote, i.e., “John Smith said the guard tortured him”?

I’m not trying to say what is and is not torture, but is every abuse classified as torture now or are there degrees? When a police officer throws a suspect to the ground and handcuffs them, is that torture or simply abuse?

Would it be better to, say, describe the technique and then say some call it torture? I do not think enhanced interrogation techniques is acceptable either. That’s why I come down on describing the technique and adding that some call it torture.

Shepard asks, so I’ll attempt a few answers.

I’m not sure what Shepard thinks there is to gain by skiing down the slippery slope from waterboarding to getting rough with a suspect during an arrest. In my original item, I strictly limited my remarks to waterboarding, recognized as torture by just about everyone on the planet.

The opinions of Obama and Holder are entirely unnecessary to determining whether waterboarding is torture.

As John McCain and others have pointed out, the United States executed several Japanese military officers for waterboarding American prisoners of war after World War II. And as I wrote last week, if NPR really can’t bring itself to use the T-word, perhaps it can describe waterboarding as “an interrogation technique once considered so heinous by the United States that it hanged Japanese officers for doing it to Americans.”

So yes, if I were an editor at the Boston Globe, you’re damn right I would refer to waterboarding as torture. That seems about as solid as referring to oil as a fossil fuel, or baseball as a sport. By eschewing the term “torture” to describe a practice that the entire international community regards as such, NPR is not being neutral. Rather, it is embracing a euphemism that places the network squarely on the side of the torturers and their enablers.

NPR should not use enhanced interrogation techniques on the English language.

Thursday update: I was not as precise as I wanted to be when I wrote about “everyone on the planet,” as I was in a rush and had lousy Internet access. Last week, Bob Garfield of “On the Media” interviewed Shepard and made the point I was trying to make:

The U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights says that waterboarding is torture. The International Committee of the Red Cross have called what the U.S. did “torture.” Waterboarding is unambiguously in violation of the International Convention on Torture, which has been ratified by 140-some countries.

The United States is among those 140 countries, but, as the Associated Press reported in 2002, the Bush administration sought to block enforcement of the measure when inspectors wanted to visit Guantánamo.

Torture is not only a moral problem, but it has a precise legal meaning that most definitely encompasses waterboarding.

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