Alex Massie

When a wink is better than a policy proposal.

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What accounts for John McCain's popularity? By which I mean, of course, his popularity amongst the press and television pundit class. After all, by some conventional measures, McCain is a politician, with few legislative achievements to his name (the most significant being his highly dubious campaign finance reforms) who shows little interest in the actual business of government, beyond sweeping bromides about "national greatness" and calls to "service".

It helps that McCain is primarily interested in foreign affairs which carries much greater cachet in Washington than banal, number-crunching domestic policy. The pundit class considers a lack of foreign policy "experience" a serious handicap; having little interest in domestic affairs is not considered a problem. In part, for sure, this reflects the traditional view that the president has greater autonomy and power vis a vis foreign policy than matters domestic. But it's also because foreign policy lends itself to generalised bloviating in a way that, say, economic policy does not. And journalists prefer grand rhetoric to tedious detail.

It's also the case that McCain's heroic biography - the cornerstone of his campaign - and his willingness to grant the press access to the candidate bolsters his easily-earned reputation as a "maverick". But there's something else too, something that I'd been meaning to write about for some time but that this passage from Matthew Parris's (excellent) autobiography Chance Witness, reminded me of.

Writing about yet another Tony Blair speech, Parris notes:

"In that speech... there were ambitions but no plan. Of high-minded waffle this politician had no monopoly but what I found unusually repellent about Mr Blair's was that it came across unaccompanied by even the slightest wink. All politics involves a measure of sham, and a little sheepishness befits those who make it their career. The disjunction between a largeness of gesture and a timidity of intent can be redeemed by humour or by apology, but Mr Blair did not think he was funny and showed no potential for contrition. It was very American, very televangelist and most unBritish."

John McCain is not like this. In some ways he is a very unAmerican politician. At his best McCain recognises and mocks the rules of the game, the absurd hoops that candidates are expected to leap through and the dizzyingly facile nature of the modern campaign.

Unlike say Hillary Clinton, he's fond of the knowing wink that acknowledges the daftness of the media-political vortex. I know this is a game, he slyly suggests, and I also know that you like the fact that you know that I know and appreciate the ridiculousness of the game. But I didn't make the rules and, heck, I'm not sure you can remember insisting upon them either. But we're in it together so let's make as merry as we can and do our best to forget the degrading lunacy of the contest. 

So when McCain makes a joke such as his "Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" refrain, the press is willing to concede that this is indeed actually a joke. When McCain panders, the press forgives him because he's winked at them - and at the entire process - as if to say Watch me do this, see how much fun opportunism can be - especially when you know that I know that I don't really mean it or, heavens above, take it seriously.

This is something Hillary Clinton never learnt to do. Her earnestness let her down and, allied to her campaign's pleasure in being thought (in the ealry days at least) ruthless and efficient and never-likely-to-make-a-mistake-or-leave-anything-to-chance, she fell prisoner to the rules of the game. Her pandering was always done too seriously and the candidate never created any distance between Hillary Clinton the Human Being and Hillary Clinton the Politician. Consequently, no matter how opportunistic or daft the moment may have been - all her remarks had to be taken seriously. Christ, you felt, she might actually believe this guff. There was no wink, no sheepishness, no acknowledgement that she was playing a game (albeit one for high stakes) and, thus, no room in which to give Hillary the benefit of the doubt. There was no humour, no levity, no self-mockery and, alas, no irony either. Mitt Romney suffered from the same problem.

And that's at least part of the reason why, though by many more disinterested measurements, she and Romney are more formidable and stronger, more talented politicians than John McCain, they've also been less successful.

Obama has something of McCain's deftness, though he could do more to use this to his advantage. When he was badgered by policy questions during a routine photo-op in a Pennsylvania diner, he complained, a little peevishly, "Why can't I just eat my waffle?" He should have winked and turned his breakfast to his advantage, joking about "this is waffle time, not question time. Question time comes between coffee and getting back on the bus" and leaving the affairs of state until after breakfast. Even better, he could have bought breakfast for the reporters travelling with him, apologising for having dragged them to a diner to watch him eat breakfast...

That's a minor example, of course, and perhaps Obama would like to play a different game entirely. But for the time being he's stuck with this one and he might remember that reporters - and voters for that matter - appreciate some sheepishness and a nod and a wink from time to time.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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