Reporting from what anchor Amy Robach called Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) "Straight Talk Express" bus tour, on the March 15 edition of MSNBC News Live, NBC News congressional correspondent Chip Reid asserted that "the kind of straight talk [McCain] is doing now is very different" from 2000, later adding, "It's straight talk about Iraq and his support for the war." Similarly, on the March 15 edition of NBC's Today, Reid aired a clip of McCain's comments about Iraq at a forum hosted by the International Association of Fire Fighters and added: "That is the kind of straight talk John McCain is delivering today." However, in reality, McCain's rhetoric on the Iraq war has been anything but "straight." As Media Matters for America has noted, McCain has been inconsistent in his public statements on the issue. While he has assailed the White House's execution of the war, he has also asserted that the United States is on "the right course" in Iraq, said that President Bush "has a good team around him" on national security issues, and as recently as August 2006 expressed his confidence in Bush's ability to "lead the war."
McCain has made some statements criticizing the White House's management of the war, but he has also repeatedly praised the wartime performance of the Bush administration during this period, as Media Matters has documented. For example, while campaigning for Bush in New Hampshire in 2004, McCain said: "I believe that he's strengthened our military. ... I think he strengthened our national defenses. I think he has a good team around him." On the March 7, 2004, edition of ABC's This Week, McCain told host George Stephanopoulos: "I'm confident we're on the right course. ... I am confident that an imperfect democracy is what we'll get out of Iraq will be vastly superior to what the people of Iraq had prior to this." But as the Associated Press reported, McCain said at a February 20, 2007, campaign rally that "the war in Iraq has been mismanaged for years and that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will be remembered as one of the worst in history."
In 2006, McCain sometimes expressed confidence in President Bush's leadership and stressed the importance of staying optimistic about the prospects for American victory in Iraq. On the March 1, 2006, edition of MSNBC's Imus in the Morning, host Don Imus commented that Iraq "already looks like a civil war," to which McCain responded: "I keep trying to look at the bright side of this, because we have to -- because the consequences of failure are catastrophic. But the gathering of the seven most respected religious leaders the day before yesterday calling for calm and calling for some kind of reconciliation, I think, was important. I think, at least we're on the right track here." On the August 20, 2006, edition of NBC's Meet the Press, guest host David Gregory asked McCain if he had confidence in Bush and his administration to "lead the war" in Iraq. McCain replied: "I do. I do. I have confidence in the president and I believe that he is well aware of the severity of the situation."
But just two days later, at an August 22, 2006, Republican fundraiser in Ohio, McCain said the Bush administration had "not told the American people how tough and difficult this task would be." Then on August 25, McCain backtracked, releasing a statement saying, "I commend the President for his public statements offering Americans an honest assessment of the progress we have made in Iraq and the challenges that still confront us there, and, of course, for his determination to defend American security and international peace and stability by succeeding in this arduous and costly enterprise," as Media Matters noted. But in January 2007, McCain again criticized the administration for presenting "rosy scenarios" about the situation in Iraq, which he said "exacerbated" public "disillusionment" with the war.
From the 9 a.m. hour of the March 15 edition of MSNBC News Live:
ROBACH: This morning, John McCain is back on the Straight Talk Express for a bus tour that is inevitably raising comparisons between the McCain of 2000 and the McCain of today. The trip starts in Des Moines, Iowa, and ends tomorrow in Cedar Falls, and he then heads to the other key primary state of New Hampshire.
NBC's Chip Reid is in Des Moines. So, Chip, back in 2000, Time magazine put McCain on its cover with the headline "The McCain Mutiny." Well, he's now much more of an establishment figure, so does McCain hope this bus trip can help him recapture that maverick energy he had back in 2000?
REID: I think so. It's hard to say. You know, the kind of straight talk he's doing now is very different. It's straight talk about Iraq and his support for the war. It's a very different mood.
By the way, let's take a look at the bus behind me. There it is, the Straight Talk Express, pulled out of mothballs, where it has sat someplace for the last seven years. Actually, I'm sure it's not the same bus. The bus driver is right there. No, the bus driver says different bus.
But Amy, I tell you, it's going to be tough to recapture that kind of magic. He has spent seven years turning himself into kind of the establishment candidate.
REID: They [the McCain campaign] believe that people will eventually say, "Hey, John McCain is straight talking about the Iraq war. And it's not pleasant, but at least it's straight talk."
From the March 15 edition of NBC's Today:
REID: In a speech to the firefighters union Wednesday, McCain made clear he will not tone down his support for the war for political purposes.
McCAIN: I believe the situation is too serious and our troops deserve much more than a debate that is little more than political theater intended to embarrass the president --
REID: That is the kind of straight talk John McCain is delivering today. So getting back that kind of giddy energy that the Straight Talk Express had back in 2000 will be very difficult.