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Jewish World Review March 3, 2000 /26 Adar I, 5760

Tony Snow

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What makes McCain tick? -- IF YOU WANT to understand the origin and nature of the press' mad crush on John McCain, think of these two words: prom night.

Two kinds of people attend high-school proms -- preening popular types and geeks who lurk in the corners, wondering why their dates never returned from that "quick" trip to the rest room. In adult life, hot politicians inhabit the kingdom of coolness, while journalists sit on the outside, looking on -- wishing that, just once, they could dance beneath the mirrored ball.

This voyeuristic sense of impotence makes the political journalist one of the easiest targets on earth, and John McCain knows it. He has spent years courting the 97-pound weaklings and Olive Oyls of the press corps. He has wooed them and wowed them by sharing savage insights about his colleagues.

He jokes with them, confides. He gives them a sense that they matter, that they have risen to a level where they can serve as faithful repositories for his insights and secrets.

Few journalists can resist such determined seduction, but that's just the start. McCain has more ammo in his amorous arsenal. He is a former prisoner of war. Most guy reporters haven't gotten this close to the military since their dads made them throw away their G.I. Joe dolls. Furthermore, most of those old enough to have served in Vietnam either evaded or dodged the draft -- and booed lustily when Presidents Johnson and Nixon attempted to prosecute the war.

McCain gives these folks an opportunity to face their pasts and admit that their casual views on the war were feckless at best. It turns out that communism was a rotten deal for the people of Vietnam, despite claims that the North Vietnamese "really wanted" to live under the thumb of the Vietcong.

Many Children of the Sixties compounded their intellectual errors by shacking up and doing drugs until their grades cratered or their money ran out. For years, Baby Boomers remembered these as halcyon years of love and idealism. But Bill Clinton has destroyed those delusions. The late '60s and early '70s were, on further review, the Stupid Years.

McCain brings that epiphany home with a wallop. Sure, he partied and goofed off. But he also got shot down over Vietnam and broken into pieces by his captors. He refused to take an early out. He demonstrated measures of courage none of us has yet been called upon to summon, and he has the scars and infirmities to prove it.

And so the nerds swoon. Reporters scurry onto the Straight Talk Express eager to get a chance to sit at the man's feet, listening to him not talk about Vietnam. They revel in his smiles, bask in his laughter, scribble down his one-liners and conceal his malaprops. They also pinch themselves: They originally were assigned to cover what editors expected to be a fringe candidacy, only to find themselves within striking distance of making history. A year from now, they might actually be invited to a state dinner!

The result is a lot like Stockholm Syndrome, in which captives fall in love with their captors. McCain is flinty, defiant, politically incorrect, unmanageable -- a tornado of a man sweeping through the otherwise tame and barren world of presidential politics. For reporters in attendance, his buscapade represents a once-in-a-lifetime Near Macho Experience.

Furthermore, there's the added feature of his being a Republican they can like. Most journalists regard GOP members as an exotic collection of sickos -- racists, bigots, country-clubbers, homophobes, Bible Thumpers, you name it. McCain has played into this bias by accusing those who disagree with him of "intolerance" and singling out for castigation two of the media establishment's favorite bogeymen, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

Since love is blind, few reporters have pointed out that Falwell hasn't spoken in recent years against anything other than Larry Flynt and that McCain agrees with Robertson on virtually every issue of consequence -- abortion, taxes, welfare, Internet pornography, defense, foreign policy, educational vouchers, etc. Nor have they pressed him on outright lies and deceits.

They harbor the view that President McCain would function as a virtuous version of Bill Clinton. But McCain isn't a liberal. He's a curmudgeon. And one day, his swooning chroniclers will have to reckon with the fact that the guy's gruesome wartime experience didn't turn him into a liberal mole. It made him what he is: an ex-pilot who shoots first and reflects later; a generally conservative man whose key skills are his relish for picking fights and his expertise in surviving them.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate