Election 2008

Mary Altaffer/AP
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, participates with pastor
Rick Warren in the Compassion Forum at the
Saddleback Church, Saturday, Aug. 16, 2008
in Lake Forest, Calif. (AP)

Can McCain Silence the ‘Cone of Silence’ Chatter?

August 21, 2008 01:26 PM
by Josh Katz
The “controversy” over John McCain’s alleged cheating during the Saddleback debate still has legs. But such episodes are common in presidential debate history.

‘Cone of Silence’ Talk Grows Louder

Although the “winner” of Saturday night’s presidential forum at Saddleback megachurch in California has been subject to debate, many agree that Ariz. Sen. John McCain did, at the very least, a fairly good job.

A number of analysts commended McCain for his clear, direct answers to the morality questions posed by best-selling author Pastor Rick Warren. And, although many have called Ill. Sen. Barack Obama’s performance a success as well, others thought he appeared somewhat caught off-guard by the questions.

The next day on “Meet the Press,” NBC’s Andrea Mitchell threw a wrench into the debate. Warren had interviewed Obama first and then McCain, saying that McCain was offstage in a “cone of silence” during Obama’s portion, The New York Times reports. The “cone of silence” is a reference to the show “Get Smart” and the use of a soundproof chamber.

On “Meet the Press,” Mitchell said that some people on the Obama campaign thought “that McCain may not have been in the cone of silence and may have had some ability to overhear what the questions were to Obama. He seemed so well prepared.”

The McCain campaign would later admit that the candidate was not in a “cone of silence,” but was instead traveling to the church at the time in his motorcade. The matter has stirred debate because Obama and McCain were asked essentially identical questions.

McCain spokeswoman Nicolle Wallace said that McCain did not hear any of the questions before his interview. Wallace also stated, “The insinuation from the Obama campaign that John McCain, a former prisoner of war, cheated is outrageous,” according to The New York Times.

Opinion & Analysis: Did he cheat? And if so, does anyone care?

The allegations of cheating have created a stir and, some say, much more then they should have. A piece from Martin Schram, a political analysis for Scripps Howard News and a syndicated columnist, appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer complaining that “The noise over the so-called ‘cone of silence’—and whether John McCain was really hermetically sealed in it during last week’s evangelical civility summit—grew in intensity and idiocy.”

Columnist Jim Shea expressed a similar sentiment in The Hartford Courant. The “cone of silence” issue comes on the heels of reporting on Obama’s “man boobs” and John Edward’s illegitimate child, according to Shea. “We are in the political doldrums.” He goes on to mockingly discuss the gravity of McCain’s possible prior knowledge: “This, of course, would be a distinct advantage. I remember once watching an episode of ‘Jeopardy!’ after seeing the same show earlier in the day. I can’t begin to tell you how much I impressed my friends.”

Others have chosen not to downplay the situation. An entry in the Daily Kos blog refuses to let McCain off the hook for his actions. “CNN says they talked to McCain’s camp and they said no one in his camp was listening. The honor system, are you kidding me?” the entry writes. “I think it is pretty clear at this point McCain did indeed know the questions in advance.”

The Augusta Chronicle disagrees, arguing that the situation is evidence that the media is biased in favor of Obama. The newspaper contends that Obama appeared “unsure and tentative” at the Saddleback forum, yet the media spun it so the senator was  “introspective,” “thoughtful” and “nuanced.” As such, the mainstream media was quick to spread the “scurrilous lies” about McCain, or “anything else that might help explain away Obama’s, uh, you know, ‘nuanced’ answers.”

But columnist Rick Horowitz’s issue is not the media frenzy or even whether Sen. McCain is to blame. Horowitz focuses instead on one sentence of the response by McCain’s spokeswoman, in which she said that McCain, a war hero, would never cheat. “Talk about a non sequitur! What exactly does the fact that John McCain was a prisoner of war in Hanoi some 30-odd years ago have to do with the suspicion that he might have colored outside the lines last weekend in California?”

Historical Context: Presidential debates gone wild

The recent altercation with McCain is in good company with a number of other presidential debate controversies over the years.

Just four years ago cameras caught an unusual “bulge” on the back of President George W. Bush’s suit during a debate in Miami with John Kerry. Several bloggers accused Bush of receiving the answers to debate questions through a transmitter. The Bush team denied such accusations, blaming the bulge on a wardrobe malfunction. “People have been spending too much time dealing with Internet conspiracies. It’s ridiculous,” Bush campaign manager Scott Stanzel said, according to the BBC.

Rewind to 1980 when Jimmy Carter battled Ronald Reagan in the debates. Reagan was considered the victor in the debate thanks to his the quick, clever responses to Carter and his use of the phrase “There you go again,” to embarrass the president. There are rumors, however, that the Reagan campaign obtained Carter’s notes beforehand and made his well-planned replies appear spontaneous.

In 1988, vice presidential candidates Democrat Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and Republican Sen. Dan Quayle went head to head. Bentsen had reportedly learned beforehand that Quayle would compare his experience in Congress to that of John F. Kennedy. Quayle didn’t disappoint during the debate, and Bentsen fired back with the now famous response, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.”

Perhaps the first-ever televised presidential debate led the way when it comes to trickery. In 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy sparred with Vice President Richard Nixon. Nixon appeared pale and sweaty with a five o’clock shadow, lacking makeup, while Kennedy was tan and composed. The Republican-leaning Chicago Daily News responded to the debate with the title: “Was Nixon Sabotaged By TV Makeup Artist?”

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