The Headless McCain Smear

The national media played up McCain's victimization in the 2000 South Carolina primary, but strained themselves to avoid identifying the perpetrators.

By Glenn Greenwald
January 21, 2008 9:38PM (UTC)
main article image

(updated below - Update II - Update III)

A couple of weeks ago, I began noticing in passing that John-McCain-loving journalists (excuse the redundancy) loved to highlight in the most melodramatic terms possible the horrendous, ugly, vicious "smear campaing" which victimized McCain in South Carolina in 2000. Yet as they harped on how terrible, mean-spirited and even overtly racist it all was, none of them ever said who was responsible for any of it.


In their narrative, McCain was the sympathetic victim -- that was always clear -- but every time they described it, they would strain to use the passive voice, so as to avoid any mention of who the culprit of the "smear campaign" actually was (as in: "In 2000, McCain was the target of an ugly smear campaign in South Carolina suggesting he had an out-of-wedlock black daughter and that he suffered from mental problems due to his POW years, etc."). As The Politico's Jonathan Martin put it:

Indeed, the national media is consumed by the McCain-as-victim narrative just two days out from the Republican primary, with the major newspapers filled with accounts of McCain valiantly fending off smear tactics and the networks focused on the same.

A Thursday evening segment reports that McCain's "South Carolina Truth Squad" is doing a better job of combating negative ads than in 2000.

The reason for this gaping omission -- search high and low and see if you can find any reference to the perpetrators of the Smear -- seems rather clear. McCain only had one opponent back then -- the Honorable, Ethical George W. Bush, who restored adult honor and integrity to the White House. And his campaign was run by Karl Rove, perhaps the only national political figure who can compete with McCain when it comes to the media's swooning affection. Honorable and decent men like that can't possibly have been involved in something so wretched.

Thus, each time the 2000 McCain Smear was mentioned by national journalists, I began looking to see if the agent of the Smear was identified, and literally, not once was it. The passive voice was always used to describe the Smear, so as to play up McCain's victim status without ever having to place the blame on anyone as the perpetrators. Here is but a small through representative sampling:

Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, today:

After the slimy, rumor-filled campaign run against him in that state in 2000, media outlets yesterday embraced the notion that his triumph was "poetic justice" (Chicago Tribune), "exorcising the ghosts" of South Carolina (New York Times) and a "spiritual victory" (Slate).

Perry Bacon, The Washington Post, January 15:

In 2000, McCain lost the presidential primary race in South Carolina thanks in part to a smear campaign alleging he'd fathered a black child out of wedlock.

Elizabeth Bumiller, The New York Times, January 17, 2008:

In the 2000 South Carolina primary, one of the most notorious smear campaigns in recent American politics peddled distortions and lies about him, among them that Mr. McCain's current wife, Cindy, was a drug addict and that the couple's daughter Bridget, adopted from Mother Teresa's orphanage in Bangladesh, was a black child Mr. McCain had fathered out of wedlock.

Juliet Eilperin and Jonathan Weisman, The Washington Post, January 20, 2008:

The senator assembled a formidable list of South Carolina backers, including Attorney General Henry McMaster and House Speaker Bobby Harrell, who not only crisscrossed the state for McCain but also launched a "Truth Squad" that prevented any repeat of the attacks on his military record and rumors about his family that helped defeat him in 2000.

Michael Cooper, The New York Times, January 15, 2008:

The polls had not even closed in Michigan yet when the McCain campaign worked Tuesday evening to repel an attack here in South Carolina, where a brutally negative campaign derailed Senator John McCain's candidacy in 2000.

Peter Hamby, CNN, January 17, 2008:

In 2000, McCain was the target of a whisper campaign alleging that he fathered a black child while married to his wife, Cindy. The truth was McCain and his wife had adopted their daughter, Bridget, from Bangladesh.

Foon Rhee, The Boston Globe, January 18, 2008:

John McCain, who was slimed before losing the South Carolina primary in 2000, is sitting back this time around. . . . Eight years ago, McCain was also coming off a win in the New Hampshire primary. But in the final days before the South Carolina, he was derailed in part by false rumors that he had fathered an illegitimate black child.

Wow - that all sounds really ugly, terrible, and even quite racist -- and all to win an election. Who would do such a thing? For such a significant yet ugly and terrible event in our political history, there seems to be extremely little interest -- none actually -- in identifying the culprits. It's a Smear that just spontaneously occurred, with McCain as the clear Victim but with no agent behind it.

UPDATE: Peggy Noonan, on Meet the Press yesterday, had the best forumlation of all (h/t timhowe):

I think to some degree, to tell you the truth, [McCain] understood, and South Carolina itself understood, that they kind of owed him one, you know? They allowed him to be smeared, they'd given him a bad time in the year 2000, they decked him then, they knocked him out of the race. This time they picked him up and put him back in.

At least she identified a culprit: it was the voters of South Carolina who were guilty, because they "allowed him to be smeared," and had "given him a bad time in the year 2000." That's an excellent use of the passive tense: "allowed him to be smeared" -- "smeared" by whom? Nobody ever says. It's the Big Bang Theory of Political Demonization. The Smear just erupts on its own, with no author.

UPDATE II: Evidence linking the 2000 Smear to Bush supporters, if not to the campaign itself, is ample (see, e.g., here, here and here). As indicated there, McCain certainly blamed the Bush campaign, and there is abundant evidence to support that connection.

At the very least, as we have seen repeatedly from the various controversies among Democrats this year, journalists typically do not hesitate to assign blame to candidates when their supporters engage in dubious behavior. That there was only one candidate who benefited from the McCain Smears, whose campaign happened to be run by an operative with a long history of such behavior, makes the connection and the evidence for it at least worth mentioning, to put it mildly.

UPDATE III: The Palmetto Scoop, published out of South Carolina, explores additional evidence linking the 2000 Bush campaign to the McCain Smear. They have more here.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

MORE FROM Glenn GreenwaldFOLLOW ggreenwald

Related Topics ------------------------------------------