THE PLANK AUGUST 1, 2008
I blogged (very) briefly about this last night, but I think it's worth unpacking in slightly more detail. In its "Troops" ad last weekend, the McCain campaign charged that on his overseas trip "[Barack Obama] made time to go to the gym, but canceled a visit with wounded troops. Seems the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras."
The pushback was swift and unequivocal. NBC's Andrea Mitchell, who was present on the trip, called the suggestion that Obama canceled the visit because he couldn't bring cameras, "literally not true." The Washington Post said that there was "no evidence that the charge is true." When the Post asked the McCain campaign to offer any evidence to support the charge, "[McCain spokesman Tucker] Bounds provided three examples, none of which alleged that Obama had wanted to take members of the media to the hospital."
On Wednesday, the McCain campaign finally retracted the allegation. As campaign blogger Michael Goldfarb wrote, "Earlier today, we conceded there was no evidence that Senator Obama canceled his visit with the troops simply because the media was not be allowed to accompany him."
Yet later Wednesday, the McCain campaign stumbled upon evidence they thought might support their initial allegation (more on this "evidence" in a sec), and un-retracted the allegation. It's hard to overstate how low a standard for truthfulness this represents. The McCain camp admits that they made the allegation despite having absolutely no evidence that it was true. Subsequently, when they ran into a shred of evidence conceivably supporting their fabricated allegation, they reasserted it, saying they were right all the time. By this standard, any allegation that has not been preemptively disproven--that McCain supported the war because he was bribed by oil companies, say, or that the reason he's so close to Phil Gramm is that he and Cindy are evading taxes by hiding assets in Gramm's Swiss bank--is fair game to throw out there, on the off chance that, somewhere down the road, some evidence that it's true might be uncovered.
But back to the "evidence" the McCain campaign cites to support the idea that the smear it made up might actually be true. Goldfarb quotes an exchange between Fox News's Major Garrett and Obama communications adviser Robert Gibbs:
Q: The schedule was for this plane, with us in it, to fly to Ramstein. By the way we were expected to pay for the flight, what were you suppose to do with the entourage then?
Gibbs: You would have stayed on the plane.
Q: We would have stayed on the plane, would there have been any pool report?
Gibbs: There may have been, I don’t know if we ever came to a decision on that.
From this, Goldfarb infers, "We can't really know what Senator Obama's thinking was at the moment he canceled the visit, but we know that the campaign was at least considering sending a reporter with him, and when the Pentagon said that wouldn't be allowed, he decided against making the visit. It seems fair to ask whether Obama canceled because he'd been denied another spectacular photo-op on a trip that was about nothing but photo-ops."
First, notice the sudden wiggling: The McCain campaign wasn't "asking" whether Obama canceled because he couldn't bring reporters--if that were the case, the Obama camp's unequivocal answer should have settled the question--they were asserting that it was the reason.
Next, note that Gibbs did not say affirmatively that the campaign was "considering" bringing a pool reporter. He said he didn't know if there'd been a decision--implying, if anything, that he was not a part of any discussion that took place. I don't know if John McCain has come to a decision on whether to pick Ted Stevens as his running mate; that doesn't mean he's "considering" it.
Further, while the possibility that a pool reporter might have been brought along may seem at first to support the idea that Obama wanted the troop visit to be a big media event, in fact it contradicts it. A pool reporter (who, as Ben Smith noted, does not typically bring a camera at all) is what you bring with you as a presidential candidate when you want the minimal media presence possible, not, as the McCain camp disingenuously implies, when you want "another spectacular photo-op." This is apparent from the brief excerpt cited by Goldfarb (Gibbs tells Garrett that "You"--i.e., the traveling media--"would have stayed on the plane"), but it is still more apparent from the full transcript, the primary subject of which is the Obama campaign's desire not to use the troops as a political prop.
Finally, Goldfarb invents a causal chain of events for which there is not a shred of evidence, claiming "the campaign was at least considering sending a reporter with him, and when the Pentagon said that wouldn't be allowed, he decided against making the visit." As the transcript shows, the possibility that a pool reporter might be present came up in the explicit context that the rest of the media would remain on the plane. There is no evidence of any kind that there was some subsequent discussion with the Pentagon on the question of whether a single pool reporter could attend--and even if there had been, no evidence that this was a, let alone the, reason for cancelling the trip. Goldfarb has simply made all of this up.
This isn't just remarkably dishonest for a campaign that promised to hold itself to a high ethical standard. This is remarkably dishonest for any campaign.