The death of the Straight Talk Express

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This is a very weird piece of journalism by Maeve Reston. She's the reporter who asked John McCain if birth control should be covered under insurance like Viagra. Reston didn't ask the question for kicks--Carly Fiorina, speaking on behalf of the campaign, had said that she thought that it was unfair that birth control wasn't covered. If you remember, McCain bumbled the question in excruciating fashion. In Reston's telling, this is one of the events that ended McCain's policy of giving reporters unfettered access. The piece is kind of homily to the good old days, when the press and John McCain used to exchange cupcakes, read Tiger Beat, and then strip down to their undies and have a tickle-fight:

I joined McCain during the icy December days in New Hampshire when his confidence about a comeback seemed almost delusional. Inside the steamy windows of his campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express, McCain held court on a gray horseshoe-shaped couch at the rear, where we listened with rapt attention...

He leavened policy discussions with funny stories from his school days when some knew him as "McNasty" or reliving his daredevil exploits as a young naval aviator. He was unguarded and charming, occasionally solicitous about our lives.

One winter afternoon when Cindy McCain joined him and he was stuck with three newly engaged reporters, he gave us a 10-minute treatise on honeymoon spots.

"Where did you guys go on your honeymoon," I asked.

"Uhh," McCain said. "Hawaii," Cindy interjected.

"Canada?" McCain joked, pretending to fumble. "I get my marriages mixed up."

Cindy good-naturedly rolled her eyes. "We had a great time," he said, grinning, before telling us about their honeymoon spot.

For several months, he would often lean in and ask the same question: "Did you set a date yet?"

And did Reston glean from her unfettered access to John McCain? That he really didn't like Barack Obama. That Steve Schmidt did a great Dick Cheney impression.

I want to be respectful here because I think daily reporting is a tough, tough job. I think covering candidates and looking for a new angle everyday has to be doubly hard. But this idea that candidates are under some obligation to give reporters access, that there is necessarily a great deal to be learned--as opposed to a perspective to be lost--from being in a candidates good graces, has to go.

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This came up when I was on that New Yorker panel, and folks were mourning the days when McCain was an insurgent straight-shooter, who was principled and above playing politics. But here is the problem with such nostalgia--it's almost always wrong. John McCain has run a standard Republican identity politics campaign, and levied the sort of personal attacks that a lot of reporters probably thought he never would. I don't fault McCain for that. He's a politician trying to win. I fault reporters for buying his line and then selling it to the rest of the world. Worse, it still hasn't occurred to them their gullibility is almost certainly intimately linked to the very thing they most miss--access.

Reston's alleged "gotcha" question was powerful, not because it embarrassed McCain, it was powerful because it gave a deep insight into what McCain had thought about and what he hadn't. Thus I'm befuddled to see her almost blaming herself for McCain pulling back. I don't know where this idea comes from that reporters are supposed to be chummy with the people they cover. The reporter is trying to get to what she sees as the essential narrative. The candidate is trying to get the reporter to buy the narrative they like. These two perspectives are opposed to each other. And yet Reston actually seems hurt by McCain turning his back on the press:

On a recent Sunday during a brief stop at a Virginia phone bank, I got unusually close to McCain in the line of people waiting to shake his hand.

Tape recorder out and within a foot of him, I asked if he could talk about his new economic plan, which he was to unveil that week. The man who once asked me about my wedding date returned my gaze with a stare, shook the hand of the strangers to the right and left of me and continued out the door.

I remembered Graham's explanation in January about why McCain spent so much time with reporters. He said that McCain felt too many politicians had become like a guy in a toothpaste commercial -- you knew what he was selling but not what was behind the smile.

What McCain didn't like about other campaigns and wanted to change, Graham continued, was that "nobody gets behind the curtain."

Whether it was McCain's fault or ours, the curtain had been drawn tight.

I don't understand this. Are we supposed to be friends with these guys? Why are they even on the plane with the candidate? It just seems like an invitation to be get snowed.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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