According to Michael Tomasky in the New York Review of Books, the press has been too kind to John McCain. They have given him an easy time because he is a Republican even liberals can like, because he suffered President Bush's racial campaign smears in 2000, and because he is an amiable and humorous fellow who deliberately sets out to charm reporters.
As Chris Matthews put it, "The press loves McCain. We're his base." According to David Brock and Paul Waldman of Media Matters, Senator McCain has "cracked the media code." He gets along so well with the press that it has prompted some conservatives to suspect he harbors secret liberal lusts.
It is true that Mr. McCain goes out of his way to befriend the press. He gives them time, treats their mostly repetitive concerns with sympathy, looks straight into their eyes, and suggests he is telling it straight. He takes the role of the press seriously and in return they lay off his mistakes.
Mr. Tomasky offered a recent example to portray the weak-kneed press when it comes to Mr. McCain: the proposed gas tax holiday that was widely ridiculed. Economists pointed out it was a cheap stunt that would not work. The tax cut was unlikely to be passed and provided oil companies with a way of inflating their profits. In any case, high gas prices are the market's way of saying we are using too much gas. Cut consumption and prices will fall; keep consumption steady and prices go up.
Both Mr. McCain and Mrs. Clinton nevertheless pressed on with their gas tax cut plans. As there was no effort to enact the tax break in Congress, this example of populist pandering was going nowhere. But by backing the scheme both candidates looked as if they were in tune with common voters, who are more than smart enough to know their own interests.
It was Mrs. Clinton, not Mr. McCain, who became the victim of the gas tax. It was she who was said to be knowingly exploiting the supposed ignorance of the voters. It was she who defied learned economists who saw no merit in the plan. It was she, and she alone, who was ridiculed for being prepared to say anything — anything — to get elected.
Mrs. Clinton has few friends in the press. After 12 years as the governor's wife in Arkansas, after eight years as first lady, and after eight years as the junior senator of New York, she has surmised, with some justification, that the press has developed a common narrative and has come to a collective judgment about her and her husband. In the first weeks of her campaign she kept the traveling press firmly in the back of the bus and only offered them scraps from her table.
She has learned from hard experience to be wary of the press and to believe she can ignore reporters' demands. It is no surprise, then, that there are few prominent columnists who support Mrs. Clinton. Worse, Mrs. Clinton's relations with the press have become so sour that her each successive gaffe is greeted with glee.
Her reference to the assassination of Robert Kennedy last week is her latest and perhaps her terminal slip. Although she made a similar remark some weeks ago, which attracted little press attention, this time commentators turned on her and concluded she must be subliminally conjuring the dark forces of assassins everywhere to take a pot shot at Barack Obama. It is the press's violent reaction more than the tenor of what she said that is so damaging to any claim she might hope to have to the nomination.
The press's unanimous verdict was that Mrs. Clinton was again saying anything to win, even citing murder as a means by which she could make it to the White House. The accusation is so hard to credit that it can only result from a pungent antipathy toward Mrs. Clinton. If the press is so vehemently hostile to her during the primaries, what is the chance it will ease up during the general election, or if she should reach the executive mansion? Superdelegates may rightly ask whether Mrs. Clinton can overcome such hatred between now and November.
Senator Obama, meanwhile, continues to ride a wave of indulgence and bonhomie. There are many reasons to question the suitability of Mr. Obama as the Democrats' standard bearer, but the press finds it mostly distasteful to do so. The rantings of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright were well documented, by Rolling Stone magazine among others, months before the video storm about his former pastor engulfed his campaign, but the print press was reluctant to follow up.
The same can be said of his profitable dealings with the shady Chicago South Side developer, Tony Rezko. Again the press has remained mostly silent. Despite his rock star status and the record numbers who come out to hear him, Mr. Obama has had a hard time winning key elements of the Democratic coalition: the white working class, women, those older than 40, and Hispanics. Yet to raise statistics that suggest he may be heading for defeat is to invite accusations of racism.
The Clintons know that politics is played through the press above all, but this time they have proved unable to get their story told. When the embers of Mrs. Clinton's campaign are raked over to discover why she lost, her inability to woo the press as effectively as her rivals will loom large.
By fighting like a vixen in recent weeks, she has attracted grudging praise, even from reporters who dislike and distrust her. Had she set out to charm the press from the start, rather than stand on her frail dignity, the race for the Democratic nomination may have been quite different. But that was her choice.