TOPICS > Politics

McCain TV Ad Draws Scrutiny for Distorting Facts

July 30, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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A recent ad run by GOP Sen. John McCain alleged that his rival, Sen. Barack Obama, chose to skip a chance to meet with wounded troops because media was not allowed -- claims that have since been disputed. The Washington Post's Dan Balz and's Brooks Jackson discuss the debate over the ad.

JIM LEHRER: Now, a look at a dispute over a campaign attack. Judy Woodruff has that story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On Saturday, Republican presidential candidate John McCain started airing a TV ad that criticized Democrat Barack Obama’s international trip last week.

TELEVISION AD NARRATOR: And now he made time to go to the gym, but cancelled a visit with wounded troops. Seems the Pentagon wouldn’t allow him to bring cameras.John McCain is always there for our troops. McCain, country first.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There’s a problem, however, with the suggestion that Obama cancelled his visit with wounded troops because the press could not come: It’s not true.

As for Obama making time to go to the gym, the ad showed Obama shooting baskets with American troops in Kuwait. The Obama campaign denounced the ad and said McCain is “running an increasingly dishonorable campaign.”

Obama did, indeed, cancel a visit with wounded troops at an American base in Germany, but it was not because the press was forbidden.In fact, he planned to bring just one aide, his campaign military adviser.

But the Defense Department said no campaign staff was allowed, and Obama — at that time traveling with only campaign staff — cancelled the trip. Obama did visit wounded American troops during a previous stop on the trip away from cameras as part of a congressional delegation.

Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican who supported McCain’s 2000 candidacy, accompanied Obama on part of his trip last week. Hagel was not on the campaign-funded leg in Europe and spoke to CBS’s Bob Schieffer Sunday.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), Nebraska: It would be totally inappropriate for him, on a campaign trip, to go to a military hospital and use those soldiers as props. So I think he probably, based on what I know, he did the right thing.

BOB SCHIEFFER, Host, “Face The Nation”: Do you think that ad was appropriate?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: I do not think it was appropriate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But McCain, who has built has candidacy around his self-described record as a “straight-talker,” has continued to level the charge in media appearances and in campaign e-mail sent to reporters.

McCain was asked about it on ABC Sunday.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: There was nothing to prevent him from going, if he went without the press and the media and his campaign people. But we’ll see what happens.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, “This Week” Anchor: Fair game?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Well, I think people make a judgment by what we do and what we don’t do. He certainly found time to do other things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But news reports over the past two days have contradicted the McCain narrative. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Monday.

ANDREA MITCHELL, MSNBC Anchor: The McCain ad says literally that he could have gone, you know, that he did other things, Obama did other things, he could have visited the troops, but not with cameras. That literally is not true. And the point is that Obama had no intention of bringing any cameras with him. I was there; I can vouch for that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The ad is one of a stream of critical spots from the McCain team since they brought in a new campaign manager. The result: harder and more frequent questioning of, and attacks on, Obama’s record, fitness for office, and judgment. Late today in Missouri, Senator Obama was asked about the recent critical ads run by the McCain camp.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: You know, I don’t pay attention to John McCain’s ads, although I do notice that he doesn’t seem to have anything very positive to say about himself, does he? He seems to be only talking about me. You need to ask John McCain what he’s for, not just what he’s against.

Rules on visiting wounded troops

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, for a closer look now at all of this, we turn to Brooks Jackson, director of, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

And Dan Balz, he's the chief political reporter for the Washington Post. He was with Senator Obama on his overseas trip, and he joins us now from the Post newsroom.

Dan Balz, let me start with you, since you were on the trip. It is the case that originally Senator Obama had planned to visit wounded troops at Landstuhl Air Base in Germany, right?

DAN BALZ, Washington Post: That is right. He had planned to do it on Friday morning before he was going to fly from Germany to Paris for his meeting with President Sarkozy in France.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so what happened next? Why the decision to cancel that visit?

DAN BALZ: Apparently what happened was that, on Wednesday night, while they were still in Israel, General Scott Gration, who is the military aide, a retired major general in the Air Force, now works for the Obama campaign, and who had been trying to coordinate the trip to the hospital, received word from the Pentagon that he would not be able to attend or accompany Senator Obama because he is a campaign staffer.

The Pentagon, as we were told, interpreted their regulations as such that this would be seen as part of a campaign event and members of his campaign would not be able to accompany him.

There was a meeting on the plane as we were all flying from Israel to Berlin on that morning on Thursday, and the word we were told was that Senator Obama decided in the face of that that he was reluctant to go at all, because he felt that the entire visit would then be characterized as a campaign visit.

But when we were briefed the next day about it, and in subsequent conversations that I've had with the Obama campaign, I had been told repeatedly that, A, there was never a plan to take the full press corps, that there was not even a plan to take what we call a protective pool, which simply might have accompanied him to the hospital from the airplane at the hospital, that they were going to do this basically quietly and not have publicity about it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the statement that was given to us just a few minutes ago by the McCain camp in which, among other things, they say the Obama spokesman, Robert Gibbs, told reporters the campaign was considering having the senator accompanied by a pool reporter, you're saying that's not your information?

DAN BALZ: Well, when Robert Gibbs was first asked, "Was there even going to be a protective pool?" And by that, it's a term of art. It's a handful of people who literally accompany the motorcade but generally do not attend any event.

The protective pool accompanied him to Walter Reed Hospital recently, stayed outside the gates, did not attend, and there's no real coverage of it. It's just there protectively in the event that there's some unforeseen event that happens and there's press on the scene.

Robert Gibbs was asked about this on the airplane. And the first thing he said was, "I don't think we ever got to that point of making a decision."

I asked him again yesterday in an interview I did with him by telephone, "What about the idea of a protective pool?" He told me then that he had gone back to the advance people, who had been in the process of arranging the entire visit in Germany, and they told him that they had decided they were not going to take even a protective pool, that, in fact, that all of the press on the airplane would have landed at Ramstein, at the air base, and would have stayed there at the air base and not accompanied him.

So that is the version that we have gotten from the Obama campaign.

Senate trip vs. campaign trip

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, so, Brooks Jackson, with, put up against what Dan Balz is saying, the reporter who was on the trip, with what the ad says. And just to repeat part of it, it says, "He made time to go to the gym" -- referring to Senator Obama -- "but cancelled a visit with wounded troops. Seems the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras."

BROOKS JACKSON, Right, very artfully worded. Of course, each of those three statements is true. He did make time to go to the gym, but he goes to the gym daily, sometimes twice daily. So he always makes time for the gym. He did cancel the trip. We've heard the particulars of that.

The Pentagon does say no cameras, but they always say no cameras. And the previous times he'd visited wounded troops at Walter Reed, as it's just been said, the protective pool was told, "You guys stay in the van." They watched Obama disappear into the hospital, come back to the motorcade, and reported the event, the bare details of his coming and going.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the suggestion in the ad is, when it says, "Seems the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras," the suggestion is that's the reason he decided not to go.

BROOKS JACKSON: The insinuation that there was going to be some huge photo opportunity that was somehow cancelled and therefore Obama cancelled it for that reason is just false. There were never going to be cameras along. There was never going to be a big photo opportunity. And it's just an untrue statement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you've looked into it separately, besides what Dan Balz has said?

BROOKS JACKSON: We said all this in an article we posted on our Web site on Monday.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Dan, coming back to you, we heard in the clip we just used, though, Senator McCain is not backing down. I mean, among other things, he's saying, "Well, why didn't Senator Obama just go on his own to visit the troops?"

DAN BALZ: Well, Judy, I think that's a separable question and a legitimate question. I mean, I think that it is clear that the Pentagon did not say to Senator Obama that he was not allowed to come visit the troops, the wounded servicemen and women, that he was welcome to come as a U.S. senator but that he could not come with a campaign aide.

The fact of the matter is there was nobody on the airplane with him who was not, in one form or another, a campaign aide. When he went to Iraq and Afghanistan, he traveled with a Senate aide, but when they got to Jordan, the Senate aide dropped off the trip.

I was told again yesterday the reason being they did not want to commingle what had been a congressional trip to Iraq and Afghanistan with a campaign-funded trip the rest of the way.

So it is true, however, that he could have gone. And, you know, Senator McCain is certainly within his rights to say, "Under those exact same circumstances, I would have gone to see the -- gone to the hospital to visit the troops, and Senator Obama didn't." But the charge that he didn't do it because he could not take cameras is the one that we have all taken issue with.

Assessing Obama's response

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dan, is there anything else the Obama campaign is doing to fight back on this?

DANBALZ: No. I think that they're -- you know, they have tried to put outthe story. When it first came out, their explanations were, if not --they weren't necessarily contradictory, but they seemed to point inslightly different directions as to how it unfolded and who made thedecision and why.

And it really took from Friday morning orThursday night, while we were still in Berlin, until Saturday morning,when we were in London, when Senator Obama addressed this at a pressconference outside Number 10 Downing Street, and he essentially said,when it was clear that General Gration was not able to accompany him,as he thought about what the trip to the hospital might turn into,i.e., it might be seen as political exploitation, that he made thejudgment not to go.

Senator McCain basically said, "If I were in the same situation, I probably would have gone."

JUDY WOODRUFF: So as somebody who looks at ads day in and day out, Brooks Jackson, what are we to take away from this?

BROOKSJACKSON: Well, here we have found certainly one ad that is based on afalse insinuation. There are many ads in presidential campaigns thatare going to contain false and misleading information which we probablyshould judge on the basis of more of a sample than this one ad.

JUDYWOODRUFF: Well, let me ask you, finally, this notion that this ad ran,we were told, as a paid commercial. We don't have the exact number oftimes, we're told maybe just a dozen times. We were not able to confirmwith the McCain campaign right up until air time. And yet news programslike this one have done a number of...

BROOKS JACKSON: Ourindications were that, from the Campaign Media Analysis Group, whichtracks these things, is that this ad has run very lightly only a fewtimes. Sometimes campaigns put out what's basically a video pressrelease and not expecting a lot of people to see it, but expectingreporters to talk about it, as we're doing here, and run it for free onnational television and get their point out that way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So for what it's worth, the McCain campaign may not be paying to air it.
BROOKS JACKSON: But they're certainly getting attention.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, we're going to leave it there. Brooks Jackson, Dan Balz, thank you both.