As John McCain and Bill Bradley have learned so painfully in the weeks leading up to the first presidential primaries, the only thing worse than being despised by political journalists is being romanced by them. Whoever goes up must come down, and the landing is usually abrupt and inevitably hard.
Sappy notions about a particular candidate may persist for a while at the beginning of a presidential campaign, but sooner or later the mundane truth emerges: Politicians are human beings, not heros, and their rise to power and their will to succeed always involves compromise as well as principle.
Thus is the shiny varnish stripped away by the same media that applied it so recently and so assiduously, leaving candidates denuded and voters disappointed.
That seems to describe the situation of McCain, whose blustery charm can no longer conceal the more dubious aspects of his record in the Senate. The Arizona Republican enjoyed a long, happy ride courtesy of the national press as the champion of campaign finance reform, but on closer examination he has turned out to be a prime example of the abuses he set out to expose.
Why so many reporters and pundits came to adore the charismatic McCain is easy to understand. He apparently likes them and courts their favor, treating them as the important people they know themselves to be. He sometimes sounds too candid for his own good, and perhaps he is. Those personal qualities combined with his dramatic war record make McCain a conservative Republican who is irresistible even to many liberal Democrats.
Indeed, in a presumably unconscious imitation of his own semi-confessional style, more than a few of the journalists covering the maverick senator have been compelled to admit that they no longer feel entirely objective about the man.
Aside from his personality, however, the most attractive aspect of McCain has been his record on campaign finance reform, which could now be his downfall. On an issue of paramount importance to pundits and editorial boards, he has distinguished himself from the gang of greedy hacks who control Capitol Hill. He has repeatedly defied the Republican leadership on that question, lonely and heroic in his defense of public integrity, even at the risk of his own standing in the party.
How unedifying, then, to learn that McCain -- the very powerful chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee -- is just as vulnerable to accusations of trading influence for campaign funds as his more obviously villainous adversaries. The stories began to trickle out after the Boston Globe reported that he had written letters to the Federal Communications Communication on behalf of a corporate contributor from Pittsburgh.
Other news outlets started scrutinizing his relationship with U.S. West, the telecommunications firm that has long been his most generous supporter. The Arizonan's many favors to contributors in the rail, airline, liquor and gambling industries are already chronicled in "The Buying of the President 2000" by the Center for Public Integrity.
According to legend, McCain embarked on his crusade for reform a decade ago, after being burned in the Keating Five scandal, when he and four other senators were caught assisting savings-and-loan crook Charles Keating in his travails with federal regulators.
What is usually omitted from this uplifting tale, as the CPI report explains, is the fact that although McCain eventually paid back Keating and the U.S. Treasury for various vacation junkets and other financial favors, the senator's wife and father-in-law only sold their interest in a Keating-sponsored shopping mall two years ago for a profit of between $100,000 and $1 million.
Meanwhile, McCain became the faithful friend of other monied interests. Those interests have reciprocated his affection with enormous contributions to his presidential campaign, understanding that even if he fails in his quest for the White House he will continue to serve as chairman of the Commerce Committee. That special-interest money pays for the Straight Talk Express, the campaign bus where McCain conducts heartfelt interviews about the nefarious influence of money in politics.
Disenchantment with McCain is growing as reporters covering him have been constrained to take note of topics other than his winning personality. (The next wave of negative stories will focus on McCain as a conservative ideologue with certain unsavory associates, such as his South Carolina coordinator Richard Quinn, a leading national purveyor of ultraright "neo-Confederate" propaganda).
Taking money from special interests hardly distinguishes McCain from George W. Bush, who is roasted to a turn in CPI's book. So is Al Gore, mostly by dint of his association with various Democratic fund-raisers and lobbyists, including campaign manager Tony Coehlo.
The vulnerability of Bush and Gore won't surprise voters, but they might be stunned to learn how cozy Bradley became during his Senate career with the financial, drug and chemical industries. Giant pharmaceutical and petrochemical firms were the influential New Jersey lawmaker's most generous supporters, and he assisted them by writing special tax and tariff provisions into bills that came before the Senate Finance Committee. Bradley could justify these deals by citing his commitment to free trade and to aiding companies in his home state -- but he gladly took their money, too.
What has dismayed Bradley's fans in the mainstream media, however, isn't his lifelong acceptance of the campaign finance system he now denounces so passionately. Instead, they seem troubled that the aloof insurgent is finally responding in kind to attacks by Gore. That is a silly complaint, even more ridiculous than Bradley's earlier posturing as a politician "above the fray." His quite predictable turnabout has come with bad news in the polls from New Hampshire and Iowa, and has included a couple of very cheap shots that seem to have shocked his more naive admirers.
Even at this early stage, the rhythm of the election cycle is as familiar as the lyrics of a pop oldie: breaking up really is hard to do, especially in the media. Whenever the pundits fall in love -- as they did with President Clinton at the beginning of the 1992 campaign season -- disillusionment is certain to follow.
Gore and Bush may have to live without valentines from the press corps. But maybe they're better off as wallflowers than as heartbreakers.