Beltway journalists -- so long in love with John McCain -- seem to have trouble accepting this, but John McCain owns his campaign. He's responsible for it. Its actions are his actions. It is him. You can like it, dislike it, whatever. But it's his campaign. Journalists and pundits shouldn't give him credit for leaving the extra-nasty lines to his minions.
But that's just what David Gergen did on Wednesday's Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN:
ANDERSON COOPER: David, "The New York Times" published a scathing editorial about the McCain campaign today and saying in part "They have gone far beyond the usual fare of quotes taken out of context and distortions of an opponent's record into the dark territory of race baiting and xenophobia."
McCain campaign says, "Look this is just standard fair from 'The New York Times' what else do you expect?" Do you think the "Times" is on to something?
DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think "The New York Times" has a serious point and it should be considered.
The good news, Anderson, is that over the past 24 hours or so there have been very encouraging signs from John McCain himself.
He did not bring out Bill Ayers last night. He has put Reverend Wright off limits for his campaign. And after the debate last night his top aides told "Politico" that he did not intend to bring up Bill Ayers. He wasn't going to go down that road. And he wanted to keep Reverend Wright off the -- out of the campaign.
The issue has been what's been going on at Sarah Palin's rallies. That's where the real trouble is because it's the combination of her rhetoric, which is whipping up these crowds, and these ugly scenes that have occurred in these rallies.
And when Obama's name has been used it not only brought these boos, but we've had reports now of somebody yelling out "terrorist," about Obama. And at another rally somebody yelling out "kill him, kill him." At another rally people shouting racial epitaphs --
COOPER: You can't control though what people say in a crowd though, can you, David?
GERGEN: Yes, you can.
MADISON: Oh yes.
GERGEN: And it is up to Sarah Palin at her rally and for John McCain to tell her if she doesn't start doing this, to stop right there and take issue with what's been said and say this has no place in our campaign and we do not condone this and please let's show more respect.
COOPER: That's a fair point.
GERGEN: I think it's up to her.
GERGEN: Again, I think we should give credit to John McCain for not going down this road himself last night in the debate. And for making it clear he does not want to go down the road in the next few days.
Last night, Gergen seemed to stop giving McCain credit:
COOPER: There's also the question of ruling after this, and bringing the country together. It's going to be all the more harder to do that whoever wins with all this anger out there.
GERGEN: This -- I think one of the most striking things we've seen now in the last few day. We've seen it in a Palin rally. We saw it at the McCain rally today. And we saw it to a considerable degree during the rescue package legislation. There is this free floating sort of whipping around anger that could really lead to some violence. I think we're not far from that.
GERGEN: I think it's so -- well, I really worry when we get people -- when you get the kind of rhetoric that you're getting at these rallies now. I think it's really imperative that the candidates try to calm people down. And that's why I've argued not only because of the question of the ugliness of it.
But I think McCain ought to get his campaign off the road and look at the -- and get the best economic minds in the country together and come back Monday, Tuesday, with a really serious speech. He's the one who ought to be buying TV time, talking to the country.
It's actually very important that journalists recognize that John McCain is personally responsible for what he and his campaign are doing, for better or worse. Journalists who think John McCain's campaign is honorable and virtuous and honest should recognize that campaign is McCain's doing, and their reporting should reflect that. But journalists who think McCain's campaign is behaving dishonorably or recklessly but let McCain himself off the hook (by insisting this isn't the real McCain, and he's better than this, and claiming that he isn't personally "going down this road") are, in effect, excusing these tactics. They're sending a signal to future candidates that they won't be held responsible for their campaign tactics.
One of the key incentives to run a clean campaign is the desire to avoid being thought of as sleazy. But if the media insists that candidates who run sleazy campaigns are not themselves sleazy, that incentive disappears.