John McCain: One interview, two gaffes

He flatly denies saying what he actually said to a national TV audience just last Tuesday, about how the media had been mistweating poo’ liddle Hiwwawy. And he says that his new position that the President may engage in warrantless wiretapping in violation of criminal statutes is no change at all from his earlier position that “Presidents have the obligation to obey and enforce laws that are passed by Congress and signed into law by the president, no matter what the situation is.”

John McCain gave an interview to Newsweek and screwed the pooch twice, which may be a single-interview record.

John Cole caught the first one.

Background: McCain in Kenner, Louisiana (falsely advertised as New Orleans) just this past Tuesday night:

Senator Clinton has earned great respect for her tenacity and courage. The media often overlooked how compassionately she spoke to the concerns and dreams of millions of Americans, and she deserves a lot more appreciation than she sometimes received.

That’s the version in the text still up on his campaign website. It matches the video (at the 40-55 second mark).

But here’s a segment of the Newsweek interview:

Q. Want to back up a little bit and talk about press coverage. One of the things that you mentioned in your speech in New Orleans was that you felt that the media hadn’t recognized or had overlooked some of the attributes that Hillary Clinton had brought to the race. And I wondered &#8212

A. I did not [say that]—that was in prepared remarks, and I did not [say it]—I’m not in the business of commenting on the press and their coverage or not coverage … My supporters and friends can comment all they want about the press coverage, and that’s their right. They’re American citizens. I will not because I believe it’s not a profitable enterprise for me to do so. I can’t change any of the coverage that I know of except to just campaign as hard as I can and try to seek the approval of the majority of my fellow citizens.

Jonathan Martin chooses to believe McCain rather than using his ears, saying that McCain “killed the line,” but John Cole says of McCain, “He is either lying, or he does not remember what he said.” [UPDATE: Martin caught on, asked McCain’s staff about it, and got lied to. He’s not pleased.

As between “lying” and “does not remember” as an explanation for McCain’s original denial that he said what he had in fact said, my money is on “does not remember.” It’s quite possible that McCain saw the line in his prepared text, decided that it was inconsistent of his lifetime policy of sucking up to the press, decided to leave it out, got so fussed trying to read his teleprompter (never McCain’s best event) that he read the line anyway, and then remembered what he wanted to say rather than what he said.

In either case, not a reassuring performance.

The other whopper is less obvious but more substantial. It’s either a flip-flop-flip or a simple flip-flop plus a weasel.

Background: On the question of warrantless communications monitoring, which underlies the argument about retroactive immunity (one might even call it “amnesty”) for the telcos that complied with the Bush Administration’s possibly illegal requests, McCain six months ago came down squarely against Bush.

There are some areas where the statutes don’t apply, such as in the surveillance of overseas communications. Where they do apply, however, I think that presidents have the obligation to obey and enforce laws that are passed by Congress and signed into law by the president, no matter what the situation is.

“No matter what” seems reasonably air-tight. But the reporter followed up by asking whether the powers of the Commander in Chief might sometimes over-ride statute. Again, McCain was unequivocal: “I don’t think the president has the right to disobey any law.”

But this week, under pressure from the Corner at National Review, McCain flipped (or is it flopped?). His official spokesman, in a written response, said that the President had authority to “collect intelligence against foreign threats to the United States as authorized by Article II of the Constitution” and that “most people, except for the ACLU and the trial lawyers, understand” that warrantless monitoring was “Constitutional and appropriate in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001.” Note that the claim is of Constitutional authority, not statutory authorization. Warrants were clearly required under the (criminal) statute, and the Administration claim for the legality of its actions is that Congress had no authority to bind the President in the exercise of his Article II “Commander in Chief” power in wartime.

At the same time, another spokesman for McCain denied that his stance had changed. I’d count that as a flop (or is it a flip)?

So the Newsweek reporters asked about it.

Q. Have you changed your thinking on wiretapping?

A. Of course not. My position has been exactly the same. I have always said the president should obey the law. I still believe the president should obey the law.

So that’s a flip-flop-flip. He thought the President had to obey the law, then he didn’t, now he does again.

Or maybe it’s just a flip-flop plus a weasel. Of course everyone but a few monarchists think that the President should obey the law. Bush’s sycophants simply claim that the (Constitutional) law is that in wartime his national security powers override (statutory) laws, and that any statutes that intend to control that power are void. So McCain could say that he’s always thought the President should obey the law, but has decided that his earlier actions were lawful.

But six months ago he specifically referred to “laws passed by Congress.” So if it’s McCain’s current position that Bush’s actions were lawful, then he has obviously changed his views, while denying that he has done so: a flip-flop plus a weasel.

I suspect that there’s a deeper story here. McCain’s advisers appear to have urged him to display his physical vigor at every possible moment in order to allay the fear that he may be too old for the job. At seventy-two, McCain has displayed only the aerobic capacity to perform high-degree-of-difficulty acrobatic position-changing without breathing hard, but also the limberness required to bring both feet at once all the way to his mouth.

Impressive, isn’t it?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: