There was an astonishing quotation in a recent New York Times story about John McCain from Robert Timberg, a biographer and admirer of McCain's. Timberg told the Times reporter David Kirkpatrick that, "Political campaigns have a way of distorting reality and turning political candidates into caricatures of themselves. In some ways that has happened to (McCain), and in some way he may have contributed to that." Mark Salter, the McCain aide who has co-written most of McCain's books, is quoted as calling Timberg's assertion "deeply offensive."
I called Salter to talk about the Timberg quotation, and the Times story - in which Kirkpatrick explores the literary influences on McCain's life (and on Salter's) and discusses the shaping of McCain's heroic image. We also talked about Salter's current view of the press: "I think the media is driven by a need to see this history happen," he said. "And I think they've rationalized it, they think they're on the level with McCain, that he's not the old McCain. But he is the old McCain. He just doesn't know what happened to the old press corps."
Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Jeffrey Goldberg: How are you doing?
Mark Salter: No more debate prep at least.
JG: What did you think of the Kirkpatrick story?
MS: I'm kind of pissed off about that. That and a few other things. I never even read For Whom the Bell Tolls. I had to read it for the second book (I wrote with McCain). I didn't pattern McCain's life on For Whom the Bell Tolls. It pissed me off. It's McCain's fucking story. Kirkpatrick was part of the New York Times story that can't be mentioned, but I've talked to him for every one of the biographical series. I just thought the idea that we had created a sort of new John McCain, a sort of hybrid of Robert Jordan and Marlon Brando, because McCain's favorite movie is "Viva Zapata," was not fair to McCain.
JG: What specifically bothered you about the Timberg statement?
MS: Kirkpatrick never mentioned Timberg to me. I was responding to a question along the lines of, "What do you say to people who say McCain's exploiting his P.O.W. experience?" That's what I said was deeply offensive.
JG: Is Timberg wrong to say that McCain has become a caricature, that the campaign has brought out bad qualities in him?
MS: I have not talked to Timberg. And right now all I've got is the quote and Kirkpatrick's story. I would like to know what the question was, the exact quote, before I have any comment on what Bob said. I think the world of Bob.
JG: What do you think of the assertion that McCain is exploiting his P.O.W. experiences?
MS: I find that very offensive. Barack Obama gets to tell his story why? Because it's more potent?
JG: How are you feeling about the press these days?
MS: Look, I think, starting with the Democratic primary, there has been a different standard for Obama than there has been for any candidate running against Barack Obama. And maybe this should have set off more warning bells with me. I think much of the media has a thumb on the scale for Obama. I think the thumb has been there the entire time. There are many honorable exceptions, I don't mean to tar everybody, but I think there's one standard for us, and one standard for Obama. He has run more negative ads than McCain has run ads. They run from the quite misleading to the blatantly untrue.
JG: Do you think the Palin pick turned off people like me who care about foreign policy and felt that the pick undermined his credibility on the issue?
MS: I'll take your word for it that that's how it affected you. I think the press has been harsh consistently.
JG: What is your argument to people who believe Palin doesn't have any experience in defense and foreign policy? What do you say to people who say, "Mark, look, it's not there? If, God forbid, she had to step in, she doesn't know anything."
MS: Does she have vast foreign policy experience? No. No, she does not have vast foreign policy experience. What appealed to McCain about her was, you know, everybody was talking about a change election. Every challenger who ever has run a race has run on a change platform. Everybody essentially runs as a reformer. When you're a guy like McCain who really has fought for reform, he found enormously appealing a woman who ran as a change agent and then fought to be one in office. If it was going to be a foreign policy pick, then it would be somebody else, I guess, but it wasn't. And she learns quickly. She learns quickly.
JG: So what is it that David Brooks and David Frum and others are missing about her?
MS: I get what their reservations are, but you're missing that here's a woman who ran as a reformer, who got there and took on the oil companies and immediately took on the entrenched Republican power structure and then kept up the fight. In McCain's mind the biggest sin is to run as one thing and then be another. You incur an obligation, just like when you go to war, the worst thing is to not accept responsibility for the deaths that you are responsible for.
JG: But there are questions about her reform reputation. What about the so-called bridge to nowhere?
MS: To say that she didn't kill it is just false. She made a decision not to spend money on that bridge. She did it. She has cut spending, she has reduced earmarks. She's tough, she's tough. She took a lot of body blows, a lot of crap. Your blogging colleague over there seems to have lost his fucking mind, you know. Prior to Sarah Palin, he was accusing me of being a plagiarist, the whole Solzhenitsyn thing, the cross in the sand, and then it turned out that Sozhenitsyn didn't write such a story. I mean, Jesus Christ, it's just remarkable. This whole story about how the baby isn't hers? Jesus Christ. Just crazy shit.
JG: Do you agree with Bill Kristol when he said that McCain should open up to the press in the final weeks?
MS: So we can get stories that McCain is answering questions that aren't of interest to the voters?
JG: We've talked in the past about narratives, and what narrative the press is looking for with McCain --
MS: Look, Obama is blaming the "deregulators," George Bush and John McCain, for creating this whole mess, when everyone knows how this mess got started: people pushing sub-prime loans on people who can't afford to pay them back. That's how it got started. Which party is more culpable for that phenomenon? The Democrats! The Democrats are. We say, if you want to pin political blame pin it on the Democrats for the Community Reinvestment Act and all the things they did protecting Fannie and Freddie, a position Barack Obama wholly shared. But what do we get in the media? That Rick Davis lobbied for Fannie Mae. We get no competing narrative.
JG: Do you think your guy still has a shot?
MS: Yes I do. You know, we got hit with an unprecedented financial crisis that turned an extremely challenging environment into an extraordinarily extremely challenging environment, and I get it, but I see persuadables left, I see soft support for Obama, I see reservations about his readiness.
JG: Do you think your campaign has been too negative, like a lot of people think?
MS: The other guy is much more negative, by some almost immeasurable factor. His message on McCain has been consistently negative since the North Carolina primary. Barack Obama has not made a public statement in this country which did not include a full-throated attack on McCain. It's just a fact. They have ads saying McCain opposed stem cell research. McCain voted for stem-cell research as he got ready to run for President. He offered, against the consensus advice of his staff, the immigration bill. Obama runs an ad saying, "He's turned his back on you." For three weeks Obama has walked around this country calling McCain a liar, dishonorable, and erratic. Those are character-based attacks that he has been leveling at us for weeks and weeks and not a single reporter has called him on it. It's just insane. McCain won't even use Rev. Wright, out of an abundance of caution. So he raises the next guy, Bill Ayers, and you know what we get? We get called racist. How is that racist? You got me.
JG: Does McCain hold Obama in contempt?
MS: No, that's absolutely false.
JG: Does he respect him?
MS: There are things he respects about Obama. He recognizes his gifts, and we said in the convention speech that he recognizes the symbolic importance. This has a real impact on our culture, his winning the nomination. McCain understands that. It demonstrates that the country has moved to a better place.
JG: What do you say to people who say, "The McCain I like I haven't seen in two or three months, and I hope he comes back to us."
MS: That's the McCain who's running in this race. You just don't report what you see. It's the whole thing about our rallies. Ninety-nine percent of our rallies, if there's a disruption, if there's something ugly shouted, they're Obama supporters.
JG: Are Sarah Palin rallies are different?
MS: I haven't been at them so I don't know. Her rallies are bigger than ours, so it increases the possibility that you get a few more nuts.
JG: Looking back, do you think there was something false about your salad days with the press?
MS: No, I'm trying not to draw general lessons about the press or us or the meaning of life out of all of this. Otherwise I'd despair. I think the media is driven by a need to see this history happen. And I think they've rationalized it, they think they're on the level with McCain, that he's not the old McCain. But he is the old McCain. He just doesn't know what happened to the old press corps. They rationalize a reason to go get him. Every Obama attack they carry. Every McCain criticism of Obama they rush to blunt even before Obama does.
JG: Putting aside Palin, is one of the problems you're facing the fact that there's no foreign policy discussion right now?
MS: Iraq was supposed to be the issue of the campaign. We assumed it was our biggest challenge. Funny how things work.