When it comes to John McCain, the mainstream media has a pretty selective memory.
Deputy White House press secretary Raj Shah took the podium for Monday’s news briefing and was hit with a cascade of questions about the Trump administration’s handling of a White House staffer’s crude joke last week about the Arizona senator’s health.
But when it came to a much crueler statement made by a much more prominent member of the Democratic Party during McCain’s first run for the presidency, the media had almost nothing to say.
As The Daily Caller pointed out this week, in a 2000 interview with the liberal website Salon, comedian Al Franken disparaged McCain’s service as a prisoner during the Vietnam War, saying the man who’d endured more than five years of torture had “sat out” the fighting in a North Vietnamese POW camp. At the time, Franken hadn’t yet started his own political career, but was a well-known author and national voice for liberals and Democrats.
“I doubt I could cross the line and vote Republican. I have tremendous respect for McCain but I don’t buy the war hero thing,” Franken said in the interview. “Anybody can be captured. I thought the idea was to capture them. As far as I’m concerned he sat out the war.”
Franken’s remarks are now almost two decades old, but they have a new currency thanks to the media “outrage” over a remark by White House aide Kelly Sadler, who told colleagues last week not to to worry about McCain’s opposition to President Donald Trump’s choice to lead the Central Intelligence Agency because the senator is “dying anyway.”
It was a blunt, almost cruel thing to say about the senator, who was diagnosed in July with an aggressive form of brain cancer.
But it was also exactly the kind of gallows humor that’s a staple of conversations in newsrooms around the country about prominent figures in, which makes the feeding frenzy that rose up around Shah on Monday so hypocritical.
(He was peppered with more than a dozen questions about Sadler’s remark, according to a partial transcript by RealClear Politics.)
What Franken said in that Salon interview was something entirely different.
Even though he tried to pass if off as a “joke” in a 2015 interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the context of the Salon interview isn’t anything close to being humorous.
Franken had just finished explaining how he wanted to grill George W. Bush about his Christian faith (which Franken clearly doubted he had), so unless liberals want to pretend Franken was joking about that, the excuse doesn’t hold water.
The point here isn’t to downplay Sadler’s remarks – or now-President Trump’s comments about McCain in 2015. But it’s important to put them in context, and compare the media’s treatment of them to how Franken got a pass — like all liberals do from a media that adores them.
At the time Trump made his remarks, he was in the early stages of what promised to be — and was — a long, no-holds-barred campaign for the Republican nomination. McCain had by then made it clear he was not going to be backing Trump, so he was essentially a political rival.
Sadler, when she spoke, was in a closed-door meeting of colleagues she must have thought she could trust, and spoke in a hard-boiled, flippant way familiar to literally any man and woman who’s ever worked in a newsroom (and probably those who work in politics).
But what Franken said in the cool of the moment, appraising a presidential primary campaign that didn’t even involve his own party, was an exercise in studied sliming. He could pass it off as a joke only because he’s a liberal Democrat, favored by a media overwhelmingly staffed with liberal Democrats or Democrat sympathizers. He never had to fear he would be taken seriously.
He didn’t have to fear it in 2000 when he made the statement. He didn’t have to fear it 2015 when it returned to the news. And he doesn’t have to fear it now.
Because when it comes to John McCain, the media’s memory is politically selective.
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