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Day 17

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Keeping the Press on a Leash

McCain’s Mask

by VIJAY PRASHAD

Young John McCain’s friends called him McNasty. He was swift to anger and had a sharp tongue. There was little room for anyone who displeased him. That predisposition has mellowed but not vanished. McCain is known for his off-colour jokes and asides. One legendary “joke” captures both his heartlessness and his bigotry. “Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly?” he asks. “Because her father is Janet Reno.”

A child of the armed forces (his grandfather and father were both admirals in the navy), McCain was a navy pilot during the Vietnam conflict. Shot down, he was an iconic prisoner of war. Upon his release, McCain was the toast of those old men who egged the youth on to die in their name. A photo opportunity with Richard Nixon set McCain’s political career on the roll. He won an election in the frontier state of Arizona, home to Barry Goldwater, who, until recently, defined the edges of right-wing Republican thought. All this despite McCain’s McNasty reputation.

McCain’s genius is that he knew he was a creature of the press and that his survival in politics relied upon keeping the press in line. Rather than starve the ravenous media, McCain fed them, developed close relationships with them, and brought them onto his side. When he says things that are inappropriate, most of them do not want to run these statements because it would deny them access to this ebullient personality, the popular guy who gathers those less popular around him.

It is this closeness to those sent to report on him that allows McCain to get away with the facade that he is an “independent”. The press anointed him a “maverick”, a term he liked and likes to use. McCain is both an independent and a maverick in his style, in his stance toward the media. But his positions are anything but independent or maverick. In most ways, McCain is close to that right-wing edge of his party that was sharpened by his former comrade-in-arms, Goldwater.

About the economy of the United States, which teeters on the brink, McCain honestly said: “The issue of economics is something I’ve never really understood as well as I should.” Such candidness is of course refreshing. But no one who has access to his press conferences asked him whether this should disqualify him from leadership at a time when perhaps some kind of understanding of global forces is necessary.

Recognising his shallowness, McCain hastened to add: “As long as Alan Greenspan is around, I would certainly use him for advice and counsel.”

Greenspan is another remarkable politician. As the steward of the Federal Reserve Bank, he donned the mask of the Oracle, and his every utterance, even glance, was greeted with much speculation. There was nothing democratic about how Greenspan made monetary policy; he was secretive on principle because he felt that monetary policy should not be a province for oversight or deliberation. The Greenspan legacy led to at least two tattered booms: the dot-com economy and now the housing market.

But the shrapnel from these explosions missed Greenspan. He continues to stand above it all, even claiming in his new book to be highly critical of President George W. Bush, who did not benefit from any criticism of his tax cuts when Greenspan held the keys to the currency. Only now, when the cuts have become unpopular, Greenspan speaks out. Such opportunism does not earn him a rebuke; instead, he won plaudits for his sagacity. McCain and Greenspan have this teflon quality in common.
McCain’s reliance on Greenspan goes back several decades. In the early1980s, Ronald Reagan’s administration opened the floodgates to deregulation of all aspects of U.S. life, including, most importantly, credit markets. Small savings and loans banks began to lend money without care. A significant number of them imploded. The government had to come in and bail them out (the total bailout cost $160 billion). The most spectacular collapse was of the Lincoln Savings & Loan, run by Charles Keating.

When Keating’s bank was in trouble, he turned to Greenspan, then a private citizen, for help. Greenspan wrote to the Federal Home Loan (FHL) Bank of San Francisco after he conducted a study of Lincoln. In the letter (dated February 13, 1985), Greenspan assured the FHL Bank that Lincoln was in good shape and deserved access to more capital.

Keating, he wrote, “restored the association to a vibrant and healthy state, with a strong net worth position, largely through the expert selection of sound and profitable direct investments”. The FHL Bank took Greenspan at his word. So, apparently, did John McCain. He took campaign contributions from Keating and lobbied on his behalf in the U.S. Senate.

When Lincoln collapsed (costing U.S. taxpayers $3 billion in 1989), McCain said he only supported Keating because of Greenspan. Yet, his trust for Greenspan did not diminish. Greenspan went on to run the Federal Reserve Bank. McCain remained in the Senate.

The Keating story was huge. Even the generally tolerant media could not cover up this scandal since McCain was one of the “Keating Five” (five U.S. Senators who had taken money from Keating and worked on Lincoln’s behalf). The episode stung McCain. He vowed to become a foe of campaign contributions and to remove corruption from politics. McCain held hearings and sponsored a Bill (with liberal Senator Russell Feingold).

Keating’s McCain was transformed into Feingold’s McCain. On the issue of campaign contributions and lobbying, McCain seemed more liberal than the Democrats.

Yet even this was a mirage. The best test of the shallowness is in McCain’s current campaign workers. Many of the leaders of his campaign are professional lobbyists who represent the most aggressive companies to work the halls of Washington, D.C. Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, runs a large firm that manages the interests of most of the large multinational corporations.

McCain’s finance managers are both from the Loeffler Group, the firm that lobbied Congress to give a major military contract to Airbus instead of Boeing. This infuriated the populist Right and the union Left, both of whom felt that a U.S. firm (Boeing) should have got the deal rather than a European firm (Airbus).

Even this scandal had no legs. Neither of McCain’s Loeffler Group advisers resigned, nor did McCain have to really defend himself at a time of job loss in the U.S. No corporate sector with a substantial size is absent from McCain’s campaign. His campaign bus is a corporate Trojan horse.

The most well-known person in the McCain campaign is Charles Black, a seasoned Republican operative who has been in or around Republican administrations since the 1970s. Whereas most of the other McCain people work on the economic side of lobbying, Black has a long political client list.

It is the wish list of anti-communist leaders who won favour from Washington, D.C. At the top of the list are Mobuto Sese Seko (Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Jonas Savimbi (Angola) and Ferdinand Marcos (the Philippines). Black continued to cultivate links with these sorts of figures in Asia and Africa.

A recent client was Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a group set up and funded by Congress in the 1990s. Black was Chalabi’s lobbyist in Washington, D.C. Black remains proud of that work: “The INC became not only well known, but I think the message got out there strongly.” The work, of course, included lobbying Congress to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime and to install Chalabi’s INC in Baghdad.

Black’s work succeeded partly. In October 2003, PRWeek, the trade magazine of public relations experts, honoured Black’s firm for running a “solid, disciplined campaign” to sell the Iraq war. Winning the award with Black was public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, whose principle, Mark Penn, ran Hillary Clinton’s campaign until he had to resign for his work on the Colombia-U.S. Free Trade Bill.

Most of this information on McCain is hidden in plain sight. Perhaps these themes will become an issue in the general election. But it is unlikely. This is largely because McCain dazzles the reporters who cover his side of the campaign, and they form his first constituency. Nothing McNasty does is abhorrent, only “straight-talk”.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu 

This article was originally published by Frontline, India’s national magazine.