There’s no doubt now, if there ever was, that John McCain – now leading in the polls as preferred President against both Hillary and Obama (leading the latter by, by some measure, as much as 51 to 41%) — is getting an easier ride from the press, than either of the Democrats. The question is why?

Consider the recent revival of that classic Reaganism, “mis-speaking”. Reagan was a fool and a figurehead who only looks good by comparison with the Republicans who came after him.

Spotted in the early 60s by a bunch of California machine politicians, at a time when his career was tanking, the one-time liberal Democrat and actors’ strike leader was competent enough as governor of California – although even then news footage suggests that he was more playing a role, of the no-nonsense conservative, than expressing any deep insight or opinion.

By the time he was elected he was mostly over, and the 1981 assassination attempt pushed him further over the hill. By 1986 it seems pretty clear, in retrospect, that Alzheimer’s had begun (how can we tell? Because he was getting smarter), and may have been responsible for one of the few positive moves in his presidency – the disarmament deal with Gorbachev in Rejkyavik. Quite possibly they came about because he simply forgot his act, and responded to Gorbachev’s proposals with a measure of plain common sense.

Nothing indicates the frankly fantastic nature of the Republicans today than the god-ancestor worship with which Reagan as regarded. “What would Reagan do?” Became a refrain during the GOP primaries when any crisis issue was suggested for debate. We all know what he’d do – consult his astrologer, eat some cookies, tell a story about Jimmy Stewart and have a nap while his staff dealt with the situation, but that wasn’t what was meant. Reagan is referred back to because he is redolent of an era when conservatism was monolithic and stable, its identity defined by its purported foe, communism.

Now that there is no consensus – the American Conservative magazine’s paleocons damn the Iraq war, uncritical support for Israel and much more, while the neocons speak of “permanent revolutions” in international affairs, a funny thing for conservatives to speak of. Reagan would be no less at sea than any of them in the here and now, but he gives the reassuring sense that these are just minor troubles, not the permanent breakup of conservatism under new global conditions. (The pro-war left do the same with Orwell, trotting out St George whenever some new military atrocity needs to be justified, which is, when you come to think of it, pretty ironic).*

Anyway at the time it was necessary to protect Reagan from his unending series of appalling gaffes, told with deep sincerity, his factoids usually gained from a clipping of readers digest columns he kept in a shoebox. Stuff like trees emitting more pollution than factories, or “America has much to offer the third world war” (he meant to say “third world nations”) and thus the idea of “mis-speaking” was invented. No-one ever really asked what was meant by mis-speaking – was it meant to indicate mental fuzziness, or telling the truth when you meant to lie? But in the manner of the nascent soundbite media, the mis-speak was enough to cover any embarrassment until the topic moved on.

That the Clintons – in some ways evolved forms of Reagan, in the sense that we are evolved forms of fish – are now getting nailed on the mis-speaking thing, while McCain isn’t, speaks volumes about the current situation.

Hillary is now having to resort to the concept, because she recklessly told reporters that part of her foreign policy experience was having to dodge sniper fire at a Bosnian airport in the 90s, news footage suggesting that Serbian irregulars using her what-was-she-thinking preppie hairdo as a bead to draw fire on.

As it turned out, the snipers had a tougher job than that – the most that happened was that the plane she was arriving in had to take action because of sniper fire, an aircraft being a pretty good bulletproof jacket.

She deserves to be called on it – though the idea that getting fired on makes you a better foreign policy president is something she deserves to be called on more.

The discrepancy is over the treatment she’s getting, the equally close reading of Obama’s story of his white grandmother, and how he put up with hler not untypical mid century racist attitudes, is getting – and the virtual absence of any serious discussion of McCain’s multiple statements – three or four by some counts – suggesting that Al-Qaeda was being financed by Iran.

Only the last of these was the subject of the correction by Joe Lieberman. It is clearly something McCain believed, or simply didn’t care wasn’t true, suggesting either a Dubyesque grasp of the region, or an indifference to the truth.

Given that four thousand American troops have died turning Iraq into a Shia republic safe for the Iranian president to visit, you’d think that such statements coming from a “foreign policy president” would be laid out and bleeding from every orifice. So far? Virtually nada.

Why? Well the networks are happiest when an uber gaffe is a matter of identity politics or character – what Obama said about whites, whether Hillary lied – than comparing statements with actual facts, a process which would require analysis independent of personal character. To have the candidate already defined as the foreign policy president demonstrate total ignorance and poor judgement is to have someone stepping out of character. McCain is an old fart who knows what he’s doing, Obama is Mr Hope with no experience. That Obama’s grip of the politics of the region is more sophisticated does not compute.

But above and beyond all of that, the answer is that simple patriachy is reasserting itself ideologically. McCain is the natural president – the old rich white warrior. His opponents have to prove that they’re legitimate candidates for the job – all McCain has to do is to have his claim not disproved.

Increasingly, McCain is appearing to many as the president presumptive, especially as the Democrats give every appearance of being a disorganised, degenerate, perjuring, bed hopping rabble. So day by day, and despite the fact that a lot of conservatives loathe him, McCain is morphing into the memory of Reagan, memory of a time Americans remember – falsely, in many cases — as one of security and certainty.

Is Old Dutch, by now, for the first time, thinner than Nancy, about to perform one last service for the Grand Old Party?

*Less than full irony, but more than Morrisette-irony. Say an Alanis score of 0.6 (Alanis score 0 = genuine irony, Alanis score = 1 is defining “rain on your wedding day” as ironic).

Peter Fray

Help us keep up the fight

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey