WASHINGTON We reached the pinnacle of irony this past week, America. John McCain, who jokes that the national media are his political base, produced a YouTube spot satirizing the fawning coverage of Barack Obama on some cable and broadcast networks.
McCain was trying to grab back some of the spotlight Obama dominated during his maiden presidential candidate voyage to the Middle East and Europe. It got coverage normally granted presidents on their first post-election trips abroad. But it was not the first time a presidential candidate had made such a trip in the middle of a campaign, and Obama may want to dust off a chapter in history to guide him the rest of the way.
The anti-slavery politician William Henry Seward was so confident that he would win the 1860 Republican presidential nomination and the White House that year that he went on an eight-month tour of Europe to meet kings, queens and heads of state.
Presumptuousness and a tactical decision to temper his anti-slavery rhetoric when he got home was Seward's first folly. His second, the purchase of Alaska, turned out far better for him, and for the United States.
While Seward looked abroad and ran a risk-averse campaign, Abraham Lincoln became the history maker.
Obama's trip to Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, Israel and Europe had its risks but appeared to have concluded more successfully than Seward's did.
Obama did have shaky moments. In tough interviews with network anchors and correspondents, he looked evasive and irritated when pressed on his unwillingness to acknowledge the U.S. troop surge supported by McCain had been a success in Iraq. Some reporters blogged about Obama aides acting as if he were already president. There's that presumptuousness again, enhanced by reports Obama had ordered presidential transition planning.
But this trip was about images, not words. In sideways glances at TV screens, Americans were able to take measure of a potential president on the world stage. The choreographed political diplomacy showed a confident-looking Obama on even platforms with heads of state. Obama can now sprinkle speeches with phrases like, "As I said to Hamid Karzai."
McCain's YouTube cut featured the greatest hits of 2008 for critics of liberal media bias. McCain has a point, partially. There was gross imbalance in the coverage of the two candidates' foreign trips this year. And on some cable network talk shows and in a few liberal columns, the Illinois senator got the most breathlessly favorable commentary any politician has received in the talking-head era of the last 30 years.
The nonpartisan Project for Excellence in Journalism said Obama was prominently featured in 82 percent of campaign stories during the third week of July, while McCain was featured in just 52 percent.
But is it bias or the nature of news? If McCain were the younger man on his first serious trip abroad, would the coverage be a mirror opposite?
"The sort of wall-to-wall nature of the coverage (of Obama's trip) is extraordinary," said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota. "It does not surprise me there is a lot of skepticism about the disproportionate" coverage.
But Schier said stories about Obama's trip were often inside Twin Cities newspapers, which "seemed about right." He has a simple explanation for the volume on networks and cable channels.
"Ratings," he said, calling Obama "a charismatic guy" who was "getting involved on the international stage for the first time."
"By that definition it is truly news because this guy has never done it before," Schier said.
Media swooning is not new. No one ever said McCain sent warm feelings up their legs, like MSNBC's Chris Matthews said it did with Obama. But in the 2000 election, McCain permanently imprinted his maverick brand during the merry mayhem of rolling news conferences on the Straight Talk Express. And don't forget that Ross Perot got the phenom treatment in 1992 even led in polls before he started channeling crazy aunts in the attic.
Much of politics is timing. Obama is running as the freshest face in wearying times and in the ripest moment for Democrats in at least 16 years, maybe longer.His trip was an important test. Partisans were given enough trip-related talking points to chew on for weeks. Underplaying it would have been worse than overcovering it.
Contact Chuck Raasch at [email protected].