TERENCE SMITH: From the outset of his presidential campaign, John McCain has afforded the political press extraordinary access. His campaign bus, dubbed the "Straight Talk Express," has ferried candidate and reporters on a nonstop rolling press conference along the highways of the early primary states. Have news organizations returned the favor in the form of positive, even adoring, coverage?
That's what Senator McCain's Republican opponents claim. Here to debate that issue are Haley Barbour, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, and a supporter of Texas Governor George W. Bush; also former Senator Warren Rudman, who is a national co-chairman of the McCain campaign; Evan Thomas, assistant managing editor of Newsweek; and Geneva Overholser, syndicated columnist and former ombudsman at the Washington Post. Welcome to you all.
Haley Barbour, has the media gone soft on John McCain?
HALEY BARBOUR: Oh, I think it's probably more than that, Terry. I said last week that the news ... the national news media were slobbering all over John McCain and that well known conservative correspondent Mary McGrory of the Washington Post said that absolutely it was true, that I was quite right, that the press has swooned for McCain. I've never seen anything like it. And I think what's interesting for most viewers or people who are interested is that the press that is most pro-McCain are the most liberal press. The ones who are the biggest Clinton supporters like the New York Times and the Boston Globe have come out and said McCain is the anti-Clinton. The Washington Post actually ran an editorial that proclaimed that McCain was the conservative candidate in the race. It's been a long time since Republicans looked to the Washington Post to tell them who was a conservative.
TERENCE SMITH: Warren Rudman, is it true? Has the press gone easy?
WARREN RUDMAN: Of course it's true. They've not gone easy, but if you want to use the word slobber, I'll take slobber. But let me tell you why. You covered it in your opening. I've traveled on that bus. Several of the people here have traveled on that bus. It's remarkable -- unprecedented access -- not mealy-mouthed campaign bite answers. Ask a question, get an answer. But most of all, the press has watched him at 114 town meetings in New Hampshire answer every question and they've respected this guy and they like him.
Now as far as conservative, John McCain has one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate. As a matter of fact, Haley, I thought the most interesting piece was Richard Cohen, a very liberal columnist in the Washington Post who said, almost quote, you know, I disagree with almost everything about this guy's voting record but I really like this guy. This goes beyond politics. This goes back to the Kennedy era of the American people suddenly having their minds and hearts captured by an insurgent candidacy, almost like Ronald Reagan did to Gerry Ford in 1976. So that's the reason, nothing to do with liberal-conservative. It has to do with access. It has to do with openness, it has to do with the candidate himself.
TERENCE SMITH: Is that so Evan Thomas?
EVAN THOMAS: I think that's pretty fair. I think we overestimate how liberal the press is. A lot of the correspondents on that bus are national political correspondents who make a lot of money and their editors make a lot of money. And in their old age they've turned into Republicans. I think it's just a myth that the press is all that liberal. I don't believe it. They tend to be more middle of the road, really.
TERENCE SMITH: But are they in love with John McCain?
EVAN THOMAS: Yes, they are totally in love with John McCain for the reasons that Senator Rudman has given. He gives great access. He gives great quotes. He's funny-he's teasing. He's a fellow subversive in some ways. And they're all sort of united against the establishment. And he's a great story.
TERENCE SMITH: Geneva Overholser, is it true, a, and b, has it affected coverage?
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Well, I think there's no question that the press adores John McCain. I don't think any of us would think of the press as a subtle machine. I mean, the press doesn't do subtlety. We tend to go all out for somebody and then to decide, oh, no, and tear that person down. But I think what's more important is it isn't the reason for McCain's success. When I was in New Hampshire, it was the people I talked to who kept praising his accessibility. They don't care that he's so accessible to the press. What they love is he was out there at town hall meeting after town hall meeting in their high schools, and that's what they like, not that he was so accessible to the press.
TERENCE SMITH: But has access equaled favorable coverage?
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: I don't think that there's any question that accessibility will get you better coverage. And I hope that that's something that we take away from this campaign. The people who are straightforward are better treated. I think we all believe in this. You tell the truth and they'll like you.
WARREN RUDMAN: In fairness, you know, Haley's candidate who -- you know -- I admire. George Bush is a good man, but whoever is handling him up in New Hampshire, they surrounded him with security, with the rope lines. They denied access. And suddenly after he got clobbered in New Hampshire, he's adopted the campaign playbook in South Carolina. And he's starting to get more access. That's good. It comes with risks -- as we know from politics -- but it's risks you have to take.
HALEY BARBOUR: But you're getting away, Terry, from the real point. And the point is John McCain can be very accessible. John McCain is a genuine American hero whom I admire very much. But that doesn't give the press the right to not blow the whistle. I mean, when you're on the Straight Talk Express for what was it, senator, 100-something visits --
WARREN RUDMAN: 114.
HALEY BARBOUR: -- in New Hampshire. And John McCain went all over New Hampshire saying I never voted for a tax increase. In fact, everybody sitting at this table knows John McCain voted for a tax increase. He proposed one of the biggest tax increases in American history.
WARREN RUDMAN: On tobacco.
HALEY BARBOUR: On tobacco, that's fine, but his defense was, I was never for a tobacco -- tax increase on tobacco.
WARREN RUDMAN: On tobacco.
HALEY BARBOUR: He said I never voted for a tax increase. And no reporter ever blew the whistle on him.
TERENCE SMITH: Have they failed to blow the whistle?
EVAN THOMAS: They have been too forgiving I think that's true.
TERENCE SMITH: They have been too forgiving?
EVAN THOMAS: I think so. I mean, put it this way -- there's a double standard. They've been more forgiving of Senator McCain than they would have been or they have been of candidates who don't put them out that way -- I think there are good and human reasons for this. I think if you spend time with somebody, generally you tend to like him. And it's not always true, but --
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Are you sure they're more forgiving? What about the temper question? There was endless stuff on the temper question. We've heard about Marie, the flame of Florida. I mean, people haven't just completely left the guy off the hook.
EVAN THOMAS: But I think that they have forgiven him his gaffes. Handlers like to believe that you can't put a candidate out there because he's going to say something stupid and it's going to become a three-day story. McCain has said stupid things again and again and the press has generally forgiven him.
TERENCE SMITH: But, you know, the worm has turned a bit here. Last summer and fall, George W. Bush got the most extraordinary coverage. Look at this cover -- back in June Time magazine says President Bush? In June?
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: If that isn't slobbering I don't know what slobbering is.
HALEY BARBOUR: I can tell you, there won't be anything like this again. What we really need from the Straight Talk Express is some straight talk. You know, we talked about Senator McCain saying I never voted for a tax increase and Senator Rudman says that's OK because it was about tobacco. Senator McCain said over and over again I never voted for public financing of campaigns. Of course he did vote for public financing of campaigns -- and finally a reporter asked him about it yesterday. He had been saying it for weeks and weeks. It's not just, this guy is a good guy or bad guy. It is holding people to the truth, the same standard for everybody.
EVAN THOMAS: As you know, the press is fickle. They may fall in love but they can also fall out of love. It's a long campaign. I mean, give them time. I'm not predicting this will happen, but the press loves a story, it loves the parabola, and they love stories that go up and down. They love tension -- they love conflict. And for that reason, the press may still turn on McCain.
WARREN RUDMAN: I think that John McCain has earned the respect of the people he's appeared before. That includes the press who last time I checked were people because of his forthright way, because of the way he campaigned, as far as being easy on him, I recall some pretty tough stories about John McCain over the last month in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post. Now, you know, they picked up every little thing, probably not Haley, but they haven't picked up every little thing on George Bush either.
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Well, I'd like to at least float the theory that one reason the press has been easy on McCain, to use the phrase that's been used here, is because of the very accessibility. If we like to believe that if you say enough good things, then they sort of outshine the bad, then that's part of what's going on here.
TERENCE SMITH: What about Haley's charge that they have not followed up the way they would have with other candidates?
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Well, my argument about that is that you're exactly right, Haley, and that the same is true, we will don't follow up enough with other candidates. That's the part I disagree with.
TERENCE SMITH: Including George W. Bush?
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: We get on campaign buses, and we all do the same thing. We report about the same things. Questions are raised in debates. People after the debate between Gore and Bradley are going is it true then about $150? We don't follow up though.
EVAN THOMAS: What we haven't done with McCain is belabor petty points.
WARREN RUDMAN: That's exactly right.
EVAN THOMAS: Often in a campaign a trivial little mistake will come up and we'll make a five-day story with a spin and counter-spin. With McCain that hasn't happened. Look at the letters, for instance, that he sent out as committee chairman. I don't personally think that there's anything terribly scandalous about that. But with a different candidate the press would have done a lot with that story. And I think the fact they didn't is partly because John McCain is disarming and he's a human being. He did his best to confront and deal with the issue and it pretty much went away.
HALEY BARBOUR: I would like to say on Evan's points, there's nothing wrong in my mind with what Senator McCain has done. There's nothing wrong with the fact that his campaign manager is a lobbyist. There's nothing wrong with the fact that a bunch of lobbyists had a big successful fund-raiser in Washington for him. What's wrong is for him to act like it's wrong when somebody else does it and the press does not blow the whistle on him. Let me just make one point and I'll be quiet. Evan made to me a crucial point for us Republicans. Right now the McCain campaign is being promoted by the liberal media establishment.
TERENCE SMITH: Are they portraying him as more liberal than he is?
HALEY BARBOUR: They are promoting him, even the New Republic, voice of the left for two generations, says McCain is the model of what Republicans ought to be like. Here's the problem though -- that all of these people are going to be for Albert Gore in November. Every one of them is going to be to be for Albert Gore in November.
TERENCE SMITH: Is he being misportrayed as a result of all of this?
WARREN RUDMAN: Absolutely not. Not all the time, thank God, or I wouldn't be standing here but on many of them, John McCain laid out his positions. Haley, you should have been there. He disagreed with people. He argued with people. If they took a position contrary to his, he didn't pander to the people. The fact is he is a conservative, very conservative.
He'll be a conservative president -- let me say something, Haley. With all due respect, I've watched this campaign. If we as Republicans want to win the White House, we have to pull in Independents and a lot of Democrats like Ronald Reagan did in 1980. After watching what I've been watching in New Hampshire and we'll see what happens in South Carolina, there are certain indications that John McCain has the greatest opportunity to win the White House back for the Republican Party and he is a Republican. He is a conservative Republican. And people do believe in John McCain. The problem is the entire establishment got on George Bush's bandwagon eight months ago and decided we'd have a coronation. But something happened on the way to the coronation.
HALEY BARBOUR: Sir, I would just respond by saying this. John McCain would be a 10 times better president than Albert Gore.
WARREN RUDMAN: Thank you.
HALEY BARBOUR: There's no question about that.
WARREN RUDMAN: Thank you very much.
HALEY BARBOUR: The problem is that the people that have floated John McCain's boat throughout this have been the liberal media and they have been outspoken in trying to help him. Again ...
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: I want to say something here. This is the second time you have said that - the people who have floated this campaign -- the other time you said they're the ones who have promoted it. I am amazed to hear you do what I think the press does way too much of and that is say we are the point, we have the power, we can do this. That is not true.
TERENCE SMITH: The people of New Hampshire ...
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: The people who floated McCain's campaign is the people of New Hampshire. If your candidate didn't win there, then it is not the press's fault. I've talked to those New Hampshirites, and they were very impressed because he was accessible.
HALEY BARBOUR: In all fairness ...
EVAN THOMAS: The support has been critical to McCain…
GENEVA OVERHOLSER: Yes, but he's the one who promoted …
TERENCE SMITH: How much of this is motivated by press self-interest? In other words, are the media looking for a horse race?
EVAN THOMAS: Sure. Of course, we love a story. I mean, we love a story and McCain is a great story. We love tension and we love insurgence. We love all those things. We do in every campaign. It's just particularly juicy in this campaign because you have a good and interesting insurgence.
TERENCE SMITH: Final word.
HALEY BARBOUR: The principal beneficiary of McCain style campaign finance reform is the media because you all will have more control over the flow of political information than Americans receive.
TERENCE SMITH: OK. Listen, we're out of time. Thank you all very much, all four of you.