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The celebrity seer

Why does anyone pay attention to John McCain?

Another Sunday morning, and lo and behold, there he was again: John McCain.

It's amazing, the kind of air time this guy still gets. Yesterday marked his fourteenth Sunday chat show gig of 2009 - this, despite the fact that (a) he is not part of the Senate Republican leadership, (b) he therefore is basically a rank-and-file member of a 40-seat minority, (c) he's not a major player on any significant pending legislation, (d) he led his party last autumn to its worst presidential election defeat since 1964, (e) he therefore can't presume to speak for the party, given the fact that he is detested by much of the conservative base, and (f), most importantly, during the past seven years he has been repeatedly, consistently wrong on the crucial issues of war and peace.

Rather than ponder why the mainstream media continues to beat a path to his door - that's a larger discussion, which I have conducted in the past - I want only to focus on his latest alleged wisdom about Afghanistan, which he shared yesterday morning on CNN. Because this episode was a classic illustration of the celebrity seer syndrome.

McCain believes that President Obama should escalate as swiftly as possible ("he needs to use deliberate speed"), by signing off on the military recommendation for an additional 40,000 American troops. No surprise there. I was more intrigued by a separate exchange with host John King.

King: "What has gone wrong, and what is the United States doing wrong, when it comes to the fundamental challenge of getting the Afghans ready to do this (war) themselves?"

McCain: "First of all, rightly or wrongly, we were focused on Iraq. I happen to believe we had to win there. Whether we should have gone in or not, and weapons of mass destruction - you've covered on other days."

Quite by accident, McCain in his response nailed our biggest problem with what has gone wrong with Afghanistan: Neoconservative hawks like him screwed things up.

Back in 2002 and 2003, McCain and his brethren took their eye off the ball (al Qaeda in Afghanistan) and "focused" instead on cheerleading President Bush as he launched a war of choice in the wrong country for phony reasons. "Rightly or wrongly," McCain concedes now. And I love how he slides away from the phony WMD issue by noting that CNN has covered it "on other days." (Translation: He didn't want CNN to bring it up again yesterday, lest it remind viewers that he helped march us to war without asking nary a skeptical question about the purported evidence.)

Anyway, while McCain stressed on CNN that he doesn't wish to "rush the president" into escalating the Afghanistan war," he nevertheless is convinced that if Obama turns down the recommendation for another 40,000 soldiers, it "would be an error of historic proportions."

Naturally, CNN didn't make the slightest effort to challenge McCain, and ask, in effect, why we should reflexively heed his dark warnings (much less put them on the air) when the record clearly demonstrates that his prewar prognostications about Iraq were so grievously wrong. A small sampling:
Here he was on CNN in September of 2002, talking about how Iraq would be a cinch: "I believe that the success will be fairly easy."

Here he was on MSNBC, March 22, 2003: "We will win it easily."

Here he was on MSNBC, on March 24, 2003, four days into the war: "There's no doubt in my mind that once these (insurgents) are gone that we will be welcomed as liberators." Peace would come soon, he insisted, because - yes, he really said this - "there's not a history of clashes that are violent between Sunnis and Shias."
Here he was on ABC, 20 days into the war: "I think it's clear that the end is very much in sight."

Yesterday on CNN, he argued that we need a massive troop hike in Afghanistan because Iraq has demonstrated the pitfalls of going to war with an undersized force. But he never mentioned (and CNN never pointed out) that he himself had originally forecasted that we'd win in Iraq with a small force, just the way Donald Rumsfeld envisioned it. As McCain declared on Sept. 15, 2002 - on a Sunday morning on CBS, naturally - "The fact is, I think we could go in with much smaller numbers than we had to do in the past. But I don't believe it's going to be nearly the size and scope that it was (during the first Gulf War) in 1991."
Yeah, I know, McCain got it right on the Iraq troop surge of 2007. But I would argue that this was akin to finally discovering a workable hose that would douse some of the flames ravaging the house that he'd wrongfully help set ablaze in the first place.

So the question remains: Given McCain's egregious track record and hawkish predilictions (in summer '03, extolling our "magnificent victory" in Iraq; in '05, extolling our "remarkable success" in Afghanistan), why should we continue to treat him as a peerless seer on war and peace?

In the end, this puzzlement probably says more about the insular Beltway thinking of the Sunday TV shows than it does about McCain. No matter how often he gets it wrong, the mere prospect of landing him continues to trigger a Pavlovian response at the networks. With apologies to Field of Dreams, if they book him, he will come.


Speaking of broadcasting: Fifteen days from now - Oct. 27, 2009 - marks the 30th anniversary of the death of a pivotal broadcasting pioneer, Father Charles Coughlin. If you've never heard of this guy, the short version is that, back in the '30s, he blazed the hate-radio trail for Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. The longer version can be found online today, in a freelance piece about Coughlin that I just wrote. Click on the big headline.