Whatever CNN is paying Jay Carney, Barack Obama’s former White House press secretary certainly earned his cash Wednesday night in his debut as the cable network’s “senior political commentator.”
The president’s loyalist—looking tan, rested and ready in a blue blazer and open-necked shirt—had only just begun to give his take on his ex-boss’s prime-time speech about the savage Islamic terrorists in Iraq and Syria (spoiler alert: he liked it) when Sen. John McCain showed up on screen and performed the television equivalent of a mugging in a dark alley.
“I’m astounded that Mr. Carney should say that the Free Syrian Army is now stronger,” said the Arizona Republican, who still seemed to be reliving his anger and disappointment that Obama had beaten him so badly in the 2008 campaign. “In fact, they’ve been—”
“That’s not what I said,” Carney interrupted. “If I could, sir, what I said is we now know a great deal more about the opposition—”
“C’mon. Jay,” McCain shot back. “We knew all about them then. You guys didn’t choose to know. I was there in Syria. We knew them. Come on. You guys are the ones—your boss is the one that, when the entire national security team wanted to train them, he turned them down, after—”
“Well, Senator,” Carney returned fire, “I think we have to agree to disagree on this.”
The two Washington denizens--one, a 78-year-old former prisoner of war who suffered years of torture in the Hanoi Hilton, the other a 49-year-old battle-scarred veteran of Georgetown cocktail parties and the political intrigues of Time magazine—kept trying to talk over each other for several riveting minutes.
In a way, the good senator saved the former White House mouthpiece from the essential dilemma of his new role: If he’s too dispassionate and disinterested in his analyses of the Obama administration, he might risk burning some very monetizable bridges for which any number of large corporations would happily pay him handsomely. If he’s too loyal and scripted, the viewers and even CNN’s bosses might dismiss him as a flack and a hack, and decide not to renew his presumably lucrative contract (we’re probably not talking Chelsea Clinton money here, but still).
It’s a good thing Carney was appearing from San Francisco, while McCain was 2,438 miles away in the nation’s capital. Looking far younger than his white hair would suggest, the senator was bouncing on the balls of his feet, his jaw working tensely, his eyes on fire.
Indeed, McCain looked like, at any moment, he might jump through the screen, grab his adversary’s scalp and start pulling savagely on Carney’s recently trimmed nut-brown and amber coif, and perhaps even administer a squeeze to his throat.
Carney, meanwhile, alternated between a deadpan expression of enforced calm and a sidelong glance of sour amusement.
The argument quickly got personal, with McCain stopping short of calling Carney a liar as they relitigated America’s long and costly military adventure in Iraq, but it barely mattered what they were arguing about. (Later on, after McCain had departed for another post-speech television appearance, fellow panelist Jake Tapper referred to the encounter as “The McCain-Carney Showdown.”)
“Facts are stubborn things, Mr. Carney…” McCain attacked. “And the fact that [Obama] didn’t leave a residual force in Iraq, overruling all of his military advisers, is the reason why we’re facing ISIS today….[It] shows me that the president really doesn’t have a grasp of how serious the threat of ISIS is.”
“Again, Senator, we’re going have to agree to disagree,” Carney retorted, and went on to explain, with meticulous counterfeit patience, that it was the Bush White House that had set the departure date for the American military, and it was the Iraqi government that refused to agree to legal protections for U.S. troops, and so on and so forth.
“Again, Mr. Carney, you are again saying facts that are patently false,” McCain replied. “You, in your role as the spokesperson, bragged about the fact that the last American combat troop had left Iraq. If we had left a residual force the situation would not be what it is today, and there would not be—”
“Senator, I can posit, with great respect for you—”
“No, you can’t. No, you can’t, because you don’t have the facts. You don’t have the facts, Mr. Carney. That’s the problem.”
“Senator, I understand that you present the facts that you believe are true based on the argument that you’ve made that we should leave troops in Iraq in perpetuity, and that’s just not what this president believes…”
“It’s a bad decision,” McCain spat out. “It’s not a matter of disagreement. It’s a matter of facts.”
All in all, it was a veritable YouTube moment, and even if filled with more heat than light, it was a good deal more entertaining than the usual blather of punditry one experiences on these occasions. And McCain had every reason to be happy that he had put Carney (and, by extension, he doubtless hoped, Obama) on the defensive.
Some minutes after Carney finished with CNN ringmaster Anderson Cooper in the 9 p.m. block, he came back on the air with Wolf Blitzer after 10 p.m., and Blitzer kept demanding to know why McCain was wrong. Carney retreated into a cloud of rhetorical dust.
Next, CNN might consider pairing Carney with Ted Cruz.