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As media pounces on Obama relationships, McCain gets a pass
Nick Juliano
Published: Monday May 5, 2008

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Mastermind of Nixon's Watergate break-in calls McCain an 'old friend'

It's a classic pattern in politics, isn't it? A young, fresh, charismatic, upstart candidate bursts onto the campaign trail to glowing reviews from the press that covers him only to have those same reporters and pundits aim their BB guns toward his rising balloon just as it's ready to crest the horizon.

While that arc seems to be playing out now for Barack Obama, whose faced relentless recrimination over his associations with controversial pastors and former radicals in recent weeks, the media largely let John McCain float by unscathed.

Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman explores McCain's "own radical friend."

"Obama has been justly criticized for his ties to former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, who in 1995 hosted a campaign event for Obama and in 2001 gave him a $200 contribution," Chapman wrote. "The two have also served together on the board of a foundation. When their connection became known, McCain minced no words: 'I think not only a repudiation but an apology for ever having anything to do with an unrepentant terrorist is due the American people.'"

"What McCain didn't mention," Chapman adds, "is that he has his own Bill Ayers—in the form of G. Gordon Liddy. Now a conservative radio talk-show host, Liddy spent more than 4 years in prison for his role in the 1972 Watergate burglary. That was just one element of what Liddy did, and proposed to do, in a secret White House effort to subvert the Constitution. Far from repudiating him, McCain has embraced him."

Liddy didn't just have a role: he was the chief operative for Nixon's White House "plumbers" unit, who, along with E. Howard Hunt, masterminded the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate hotel in 1972.

Following prison, Liddy started a countersurveillance private security firm. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1998. He entered talk radio in 1992, and is now syndicated in 160 markets as well as Sirius and XM satellite radio.

While right-wing blogs continue to fume over Obama's connection to the former anti-war radical, little has been written about Liddy and McCain, who appear to be much better friends. Liddy has donated $5,000 to McCain's political campaigns since 1998 -- sending 25 times as much money to the Arizona senator than Ayers did to Obama.

Liddy also greeted McCain as "an old friend" when hosting the candidate on his talk radio show, Chapman writes, and McCain gushed at the "pleasure" he took in appearing and praised Liddy's "adherence to the principles and philosophies that keep our nation great."

Muses Chapman, "Which principles would those be? The ones that told Liddy it was fine to break into the office of the Democratic National Committee to plant bugs and photograph documents? The ones that made him propose to kidnap anti-war activists so they couldn't disrupt the 1972 Republican National Convention? The ones that inspired him to plan the murder (never carried out) of an unfriendly newspaper columnist?"

The Obama-Ayers connection has not received near the amount of coverage as Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but it continues to roil the conservative blogosphere. ABC's George Stephanopoulos thrust Ayers into the spotlight during last month's Democratic debate asking a question suggested by at least two conservative talk-show hosts. Whether the crimes of Watergate will be revisited in any serious way as they relate to McCain remains to be seen.

Attacks on Obama associations have taken a toll

It is the Wright eruption that has caused Obama the most headaches over the last month and a half. And as the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz notes, Obama's reception from the press has grown quite chilly over the last few weeks.

Obama's image has undergone something of a transformation. In March, feeding the curiosity about his background, a Newsweek cover story focused on "When Barry Became Barack" in college, while a Time cover profiled the candidate's mother. By last week, Newsweek's cover piece was exploring why he seems "strange," "exotic" and, to some, "haughty" and "a bit of an egghead." How did Obama, cast by some journalists as the new JFK, come to be depicted as what the New Republic's John Judis says may be "The Next McGovern"? [...]

As a newcomer to the national scene -- as well as the first African American with a serious shot at the presidency -- Obama is something of a blank canvas for political writers, especially compared with a former first lady. His long association with Wright prompted journalistic questions, however belated, about what Obama believes and why he remained at Wright's church despite the pastor's anti-American rhetoric. [St. Petersburg Times media critic Eric] Deggans says the coverage of Wright and the flag-pin flap "kind of bugged me. . . . It's a weird universe where you've got some journalists who are looking for a story that is going to change the game significantly because that's how they make their bones."

But on the pastor issue, too, Obama is alone in scrutiny while McCain remains relatively unscathed. New York Times columnist Frank Rich examines the disturbing discrepancy -- and its racial undertones.

Mr. McCain says he does not endorse any of Mr. Hagee’s calumnies, any more than Barack Obama endorses Mr. Wright’s. But those who try to give Mr. McCain a pass for his embrace of a problematic preacher have a thin case. It boils down to this: Mr. McCain was not a parishioner for 20 years at Mr. Hagee’s church.

That defense implies, incorrectly, that Mr. McCain was a passive recipient of this bigot’s endorsement. In fact, by his own account, Mr. McCain sought out Mr. Hagee, who is perhaps best known for trying to drum up a pre-emptive “holy war” with Iran. (This preacher’s rantings may tell us more about Mr. McCain’s policy views than Mr. Wright’s tell us about Mr. Obama’s.) Even after Mr. Hagee’s Catholic bashing bubbled up in the mainstream media, Mr. McCain still did not reject and denounce him, as Mr. Obama did an unsolicited endorser, Louis Farrakhan, at the urging of Tim Russert and Hillary Clinton. Mr. McCain instead told George Stephanopoulos two Sundays ago that while he condemns any “anti-anything” remarks by Mr. Hagee, he is still “glad to have his endorsement.”

I wonder if Mr. McCain would have given the same answer had Mr. Stephanopoulos confronted him with the graphic video of the pastor in full “Great Whore” glory. But Mr. McCain didn’t have to fear so rude a transgression. Mr. Hagee’s videos have never had the same circulation on television as Mr. Wright’s. A sonorous white preacher spouting venom just doesn’t have the telegenic zing of a theatrical black man.

Perhaps that’s why virtually no one has rebroadcast the highly relevant prototype for Mr. Wright’s fiery claim that 9/11 was America’s chickens “coming home to roost.” That would be the Sept. 13, 2001, televised exchange between Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who blamed the attacks on America’s abortionists, feminists, gays and A.C.L.U. lawyers. (Mr. Wright blamed the attacks on America’s foreign policy.) Had that video re-emerged in the frenzied cable-news rotation, Mr. McCain might have been asked to explain why he no longer calls these preachers “agents of intolerance” and chose to cozy up to Mr. Falwell by speaking at his Liberty University in 2006.

With Democrats Obama and Hillary Clinton maintain their focus on each other during this interminable primary campaign, the job of official criticism of McCain has fallen to the Democratic National Committee. They've focused on his own words about the possibility of keeping troops for "100 years" in Iraq and perceptions that he is out-of-touch on the economy.

Maybe the press is waiting for the general election to play the same round of guilt-by-association gotcha with McCain as they have been with Obama. So far, though, the indication seems that his base is keeping itself in line.