NYT front page reports on McCain's reversal on spying, executive power

McCain's behavior on these vital issues completely negates the two attributes the media uses to define him -- his "moderate" ideology and principled independence.

Published June 6, 2008 10:51AM (EDT)

On Wednesday, I documented John McCain's complete reversal of views -- in the last six months alone -- on FISA, warrantless eavesdropping and executive power. McCain's diametrically opposite views were contained in a questionnaire McCain completed for The Boston Globe last December (wherein he rejected many of the Bush/Cheney theories of presidential omnipotence and warrantless eavesdropping) and then a statement McCain issued this week to National Review (wherein he embraced those same theories in order to persuade the Right that he approves of and would continue Bush's lawless surveillance policies).

The reporter who circulated the spying/executive power questionnaire in December to all of the candidates for the Globe was Charlie Savage, one of the very few national reporters who has reported continuously and insightfully about Bush's executive power abuses over the past several years. Savage won the Pulitzer Prize for his work exposing Bush's radical use of signing statements to vest himself with the power to break the law.

In what might be one of the most significant and under-noted media developments of the year, it was announced last month that Savage was leaving the Globe and joining The New York Times. Already, that move has paid dividends, as the NYT today publishes a front-page story by Savage detailing McCain's reversal this week. The article begins this way:

A top adviser to Senator John McCain says Mr. McCain believes that President Bush’s program of wiretapping without warrants was lawful, a position that appears to bring him into closer alignment with the sweeping theories of executive authority pushed by the Bush administration legal team.

The article quotes my Wednesday column to make this point:

And Glenn Greenwald, a Salon columnist and critic of the Bush administration's legal claims, wrote that the statement was a "complete reversal" by Mr. McCain, accusing the candidate of seeking "to shore up the support of right-wing extremists."

An Obama spokesman was extremely critical of McCain's blatantly opportunistic switch: "anyone reading Mr. McCain's answers to The Globe and the more recent statement would be 'totally confused' about 'what Senator McCain thinks about what the Constitution means and what President Bush did.'" Amazingly, after being forced to repudiate comments by a McCain representative at a campaign event two weeks ago which suggested McCain would oppose telecom amnesty, McCain now appears close to repudiating the follow-up "clarifying" comments from another adviser, the one who gave the statement to National Review:

Asked whether the views Mr. Holtz-Eakin imputed to Mr. McCain were inaccurate, Mr. Bounds did not repudiate the statement. But late Thursday Mr. Bounds called and said, “to the extent that the comments of members of our staff are misinterpreted, they shouldn’t be read into as anything otherwise."

Neither Mr. McCain nor Mr. Holtz-Eakin, a former head of the Congressional Budget Office who primarily advises the campaign on economic issues, were available for comment, Mr. Bounds said.

I'm actually giving a seminar this morning on precisely these issues and thus don't have the time until later today to give Savage's article the attention it deserves. But as is typical, Savage's article is comprehensive and reports on all of the key facts.

There are two critical conclusions highlighted by this episode: (1) whether McCain embraces the Bush/Cheney/Yoo theories of the omnipotent executive is, far and away, one of the most vital questions of the campaign, since the vast bulk of the radicalism and accompanying controversies of the last eight years -- from spying to detention to torture to extreme government secrecy -- arise out of those theories; despite that fact, those issues have been missing almost entirely from the media's coverage of the campaign -- until now; and (2) despite how central these issues have been, McCain is simply incapable of forming a coherent position on what he thinks about any of this, dramatically changing his answers almost from one day to the next depending on who is asking. This behavior, culminating in his embrace this week of the Bush/Cheney/Yoo theories, severely undermines the two attributes the media relentlessly uses to depict him -- his "moderate" ideology and his straight-talking, principled independence.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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