John McCain is upset about the huge pile of secret diplomatic cables that hit the press this week. And he isn’t just blaming WikiLeaks.
The Arizona Republican points an accusing finger at the American newspaper that obtained the cache of documents and is publishing them in nine lengthy installments.
“I wish The New York Times had chosen not to,” McCain says in an interview. “It’s harmful to the United States of America and our national security interests. Their argument is that it was coming out anyway. But there’s a certain imprimatur of The New York Times that gives it a certain degree of respectability.”
He pauses for a moment. “You know,” he adds with a chuckle, “my relationship with The New York Times is such that anything I say about them will not be taken too seriously.” McCain is referring in part to his denunciation of the paper for a 2008 article that implied, based on unnamed sources, that he had a romantic relationship with lobbyist Vicki Iseman. (The Times, in settling a libel suit by Iseman, said it did not intend such a conclusion.)
It doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask why the Times (which got the material this time from The Guardian, its British partner in the last Wiki deluge) springs into action when the group’s oddball boss, Julian Assange, wants to further discredit this country. Executive Editor Bill Keller, who consulted with U.S. authorities in withholding some information, told readers that the cables “contribute to our understanding of how American foreign policy is made, how well it is working, what kind of relationships we have with allies and adversaries.” While news organizations sometimes make mistakes, Keller says, “We get to decide because America is cursed with a free press.”
McCain doesn’t go as far as the running mate he bequeathed to America. Sarah Palin took to Facebook to rip the “Obama administration’s incompetent handling of this whole fiasco.” But the senator is taking the WikiLeaks dump personally.
He recalls having frank discussions with Pakistani Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief of staff: “I’d be very unhappy, and he’d be more unhappy, if that candid conversation we had was leaked. What do you think the king of Saudi Arabia is thinking right now? There’s an incredible chilling effect on our ability to have a dialogue right now with our friends and even our enemies.”
“What do you think the king of Saudi Arabia is thinking right now? There’s an incredible chilling effect on our ability to have a dialogue right now with our friends and even our enemies.”
• WikiLeaks Fun Facts• Leslie H. Gelb: WikiLeaks Accidentally Helps U.S. • Philip Shenon: Moscow’s Bid to Blow Up WikiLeaksWeeks after winning re-election to a seat that once seemed vulnerable to a conservative primary challenger, the 74-year-old lawmaker is again establishing himself as a foreign policy force. He has had to shake off accusations of being a sore loser, of shedding the maverick mantle as he moved right during the primary. And the one-time media darling—back during the rambling bus rides of 2000—has begun to rebuild his relationship with a press corps he feels turned on him in his contests with Obama and former Rep. J.D. Hayworth.
As McCain begins his fifth Senate term, the political landscape has changed, with Republicans having picked up six Senate seats and control of the House. In a wide-ranging conversation, the senator, once renowned for working across the aisle, made clear he is hanging tough with the GOP and won’t be ceding much ground to Barack Obama.
“The question that should be asked is, will the president compromise with the Republicans? The Republicans won the last election; the president did not. The message was a repudiation of his domestic policies. Repudiation of Obamacare, the stimulus package, TARP, and the spending practices,” he declares in his staccato fashion. “The American people said we want to extend the Bush tax cuts.” (So does the White House, except for families earning more than $250,000; in a CNN/Opinion Research poll earlier this month, just 35 percent said the breaks should be extended to everyone, regardless of income.)
McCain trotted out his own version of triangulation, pivoting from the president to the Senate Democratic leader. He accused Harry Reid of “stalling around,” and “trying to jam us up against Christmas Eve” by pursuing what he called “political” measures, such as a food safety law, a bill to help immigrants brought here illegally as minors, and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
“Then they turn around and say, ‘Yeah, but we want you to act in the best interests of our country.’ It doesn’t compute.” McCain was referring to Republican objections to the START arms-control treaty with Russia, on which he says he is open to compromise.
Reid spokesman Jim Manley called McCain’s comments “absolutely ridiculous,” saying that “an unprecedented amount of Republican obstructionism” had slowed down such legislation as the food safety bill. “Instead of channeling the Tea Party’s talking points, Senator McCain should be working with us on a constructive basis to get all these issues done,” Manley says.
After taking his slap at Reid, McCain was slightly more generous toward Obama, saying “there is no doubt in my mind he is sincere in wanting to work together. I don’t know if he’s sincere enough to really, actually be able to make that step toward significant compromise.”
McCain ratcheted up his rhetoric on North Korea, which last week launched an artillery attack on the South, essentially accusing the administration of participating in a diplomatic charade.
He says the United States, by giving North Korea $1 billion in food and energy assistance over the last 15 years, is “propping up the most brutal and repressive regime on the face of the earth today.” Repeating his call for “regime change” in Pyongyang—albeit through peaceful means—McCain unloads on the rogue state’s Chinese benefactors: “We’ve got to start treating China as the nation they are rather than what we hope they will be…They are acting in an irresponsible manner for a world power.
“North Korea is a Third World, third-rate nation that we’d pay no attention to unless they had nuclear weapons. To think they’re going to give that up is just damned foolishness.” But McCain tosses one compliment in the president’s direction: “I’d give the Obama administration some credit for being tougher on North Korea than the Bush and Clinton administrations were.”
It’s no surprise that the former Navy pilot sees himself as a champion of the military, and he chides Obama for inexperience in pushing to lift the ban on openly gay service members.
But McCain is indulging in semantics when it comes to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. In 2006, he said on MSNBC that “the day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, ‘Senator, we ought to change the policy,’ then I think we ought to consider seriously changing it.” Now that Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, supports the Pentagon’s move toward junking DADT—and even McCain’s wife, Cindy, has appeared in a gay rights group’s video opposing the policy—the senator is blocking Obama’s plan.
“I understand that’s his commitment to the gay and lesbian community,” McCain says. But while a Pentagon study released Tuesday found more than two-thirds support for the change among service members and said disruptions would be minimal, McCain wants a broader study that would focus on combat readiness.
His explanation: “The Marine commandant is opposed to [dropping] Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. I know for a fact the other three service chiefs have serious reservations.”
As for their superiors, McCain casually mentions the commander in chief and defense secretary, “neither of which I view as a military leader.”
The message: John McCain may have lost his chance to command the U.S. military, but he’s still practiced in the art of trench warfare.
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.