September 22, 2008 08:37 PM EST
John McCain’s senior adviser Steve Schmidt slammed the New York Times Monday as nothing more than a partisan rag.
Schmidt might want to break the news to Steve Duprey, the McCain adviser who scurries at many campaign stops to get copies of it for the candidate and his top aides. He might also want to break the news to McCain himself, who has enjoyed a very friendly relationship with the paper and many of its biggest stars – as recently as 24 hours before the Schmidt attack.
“Whatever the New York Times once was, it is today not by any standard a journalistic organization,” Schmidt said on a conference call. “It is a pro-Obama organization that every day attacks the McCain campaign, attacks Sen. McCain, attacks Gov. Palin and excuses Sen. Obama.”
That metamorphosis from what it once was must have happened awfully fast. McCain granted the paper an interview on the economy less than 24 hours before Schmidt sought to discredit it.
McCain was also scheduled to sit down last week with the Times’s chief military correspondent, Michael R. Gordon, whom McCain is known to hold in high regard.
“I don’t think that kind of statement represents anything like John McCain’s true views about The New York Times, and I don’t think it represents Steve Schmidt’s real views, either,” said Todd S. Purdum, national editor for Vanity Fair and a 23-year veteran of the Times. “I think the McCain camp is frustrated with the current climate, and with the tough coverage of its sharp tactics, and is blaming the messenger – the oldest trick in the book.”
It is a pretty effective trick for firing up the conservative base. But unlike many conservatives, McCain very much cares what the Times has to say, according to aides.
Unlike Reagan and the current president Bush, McCain isn’t capable of brushing off – or at least feigning indifference – to the paper. The Arizona senator is far more like Bush 41: he knows it will invariably make him angry, but he can’t help but check what the agenda-setting Times is saying each day.
McCain has made himself accessible to the Times throughout his presidential campaign, giving the paper multiple, in-depth interviews, including a 45-minute conversation with reporters Adam Nagourney and Michael Cooper on July 11, which produced a 1,426-word Sunday feature on the candidate.
Earlier in the election cycle, McCain spoke with the Times about his views on the Iraq War, frankly discussing his perspective on the surge with Gordon and Nagourney in April 2007, and telling them: “I have no plan B…I am not guaranteeing that this succeeds…I am just saying that I think it can. I believe it has a good shot.”
Later in the primary season, after his campaign was left for dead in the summer of 2007, McCain turned to the Times for a biting interview that took aim at his top rivals for the nomination.
In a September conversation with Cooper, McCain lashed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani for their lack of foreign policy credentials, saying of Giuliani: “I know of nothing in his background that indicates that he has any experience in it, with him or Romney.”
His campaign also took a shine to reporter Marc Santora, who covered the McCain team for four and a half months before leaving the beat in January.
McCain’s positive view of the Times has also stemmed from personal friendships. In a September 17 posting on his Vanity Fair blog, Purdum detailed the close personal relationship between McCain and legendary Timesman R.W. Apple, whose “best friend in national politics was John McCain,” according to Purdum.
At Apple’s memorial service, Purdum recalled, McCain struck a reflective chord, telling his listeners that the Times writer had been an important critic of his senatorial conduct: “There were several times when I wasn’t pleased to read an analysis of my conduct written by Johnny Apple. But I also – in hindsight only – recognized it was both accurate and educational.”
That’s not to say that McCain’s relationship with the New York Times has been entirely smooth. After the paper published an article last February insinuating an improper relationship between McCain and a female lobbyist, the Arizona senator responded: ”Obviously I’m very disappointed in the article. It’s not true.”
In May, McCain threw a jab at Times columnist Thomas Friedman, referring to him as a chauffeur-driven New Yorker after Friedman criticized his gas tax holiday proposal. But McCain quickly added, “I like and admire and respect him.”
In July, the Times ran afoul of the McCain campaign again when it rejected an op-ed submitted by the senator, in response to a piece by Obama detailing his views on the Iraq War.
Still, at no point did McCain or his associates attack the Times with the venom Schmidt directed toward the paper Monday.
The Times endorsed McCain’s presidential bid in January 2008, hailing him as “the only Republican who promises to end the George Bush style of governing from and on behalf of a small, angry fringe.”
Clearly, the relationship has changed since then – but it’s certainly not as chilly as Schmidt suggests.