There is a reedy, strained quality in John McCain’s voice these days. On a diagnostic level, I know this tone. Some pundits are attributing it to age and exhaustion, but having spent twenty-five years advising fallen icons, corporate and individual, I see a different pathology: The telltale symptom of feeling betrayed.
McCain has been a media darling for about twenty years. People who enjoy this status—and it is deeply seductive—inevitably make a dangerous error of attribution, believing that the media like them when, in fact, what they really like is their shtick, their media product.
When the catharsis comes—and it comes, to lift from Hemingway, gradually then suddenly—there is shock and bewilderment. During last week’s debate, I saw bewilderment as McCain ambled like a driverless bumper car around the stage. The proverbial line in the cartoon dialogue box above his head read: “I can’t believe I have to do this crap.”
Media adoration is like snack food—irresistible, addictive, and ultimately not good for you.
When it comes to media affection, it’s not about you, it’s about what you give them. And for years, John McCain gave the media a lot.
The cliché about narrative arcs has long been that “the media like to build you up then tear you down.” All right, fine, but it doesn’t address the question why?
Here’s my theory: The media like to build up people—and institutions—because of a personal affinity, or a shared agenda, or because they help deliver ratings and readership. When the icon ceases to play that role, for whatever reason, the affection evaporates.
There is also a latent personal dynamic: The media enjoy creating icons, but once the masterpiece is complete and no longer needs his or her creator, the ball peen hammers come out.
The role McCain has played for many years is the « Republican the Media Like, » the “cool” Republican who guests hosts on Saturday Night Live and banters with Jon Stewart. With his war hero status, intermittent harassment of conservatives, game personality and overall media-friendliness, McCain served two purposes: Providing the press a steady stream of shtick and serving as de facto certification that it did not have a liberal bias.
While McCain’s campaign was hibernating earlier in the year, Mike Huckabee guest-starred on the Hip Republican Variety Show, a counterintuitive cinematic thrill, such as in Beauty and the Beast, when the hideous Beast becomes kindly—and eventually good-looking!
Perceived media betrayals don’t just happen to conventional politicians. Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop enjoyed icon status for many years—and earned a stay of execution for his pro-life political stance—because of his pioneering work on the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. In the late 1990s, however, he incurred the wrath of the press and his erstwhile cheerleaders among progressives when he expressed support for animal research and questioned some of the health scares that had become staples of network magazine shows and leading print media. With AIDS receding from the headlines, Dr. Koop suddenly found his tell-it-like-it-is perspectives under withering scrutiny.
McCain’s reversal of fortune, or peripeteia in the language of Greek tragedy, occurred, inevitably, when he ceased being The Guy Bush Smeared and became the nominee of Republican Party, something that he could only have accomplished by becoming a Central Casting conservative Republican. A conservative might argue that this is proof of the media’s liberal bias, but that’s too easy. It’s more proof that McCain lost his shtick, not unlike what happens when Jim Carrey plays against-type and trades frantic silliness (hysterical) for “deep” and “serious” roles (no sale).
This syndrome hits Democrats, too. It happened to Bill Clinton, “the first black president,” when his benign remarks about Obama’s campaign being a “fairy tale” were met with a histrionic press reaction as if Clinton had been shouting racial epithets.
Hillary Clinton enjoyed a lengthy media honeymoon as The Anointed until her garden-variety political criticism of rival Barack Obama prompted the media to suddenly compare her to…Karl Rove!
Obama’s perepeteia will occur if and when he is sworn in as president. As monstrous as American history has been to black men, the irony of an Obama victory will be that few candidates have had a swifter, more affectionate presidential rise due, in part, to the reflexive characterization of any criticism as below-the-belt dirty tricks.
Media adoration is like snack food—irresistible, addictive, and ultimately not good for you. A President Obama will enjoy some sort of honeymoon, but it’s only a matter of time before his presidency falls short of being a trip to Lourdes. The problems facing the country, both at home and abroad, are too intractable for quick or easy solutions.
A President Obama would be well-advised that the same “mainstream media” that was so unbalanced in his favor in the short-term does tend to be more balanced over the longer-term, especially once the icon they helped create eludes them and utopian idéals—which actually motivate the press more than liberalism—are not realized.
When your shtick goes, so does the press.