CNN.com article asserted Obama may have raised issue of McCain's age without noting context or campaign's denials

››› ››› BRIAN LEVY

In an analysis, CNN.com asserted that Sen. Barack Obama "may have" launched "[t]he first salvo of the general election's age war" when he "argued in an interview ... that [Sen. John] McCain had 'lost his bearings' while pursuing the Republican nomination." But CNN.com did not provide the context of Obama's remark, which would have made clear that Obama was responding to a smear by McCain and was accusing McCain of violating his pledge to avoid negative campaigning when he made the statement.

In a June 15 CNN.com analysis titled "Age an issue in the 2008 campaign," political producer Alan Silverleib asserted: "The first salvo of the general election's age war may have been launched in May, when Sen. Barack Obama argued in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer that [Sen. John] McCain had 'lost his bearings' while pursuing the Republican nomination." However, Silverleib did not provide the context of Obama's remark, which would have made clear that Obama was responding to a smear by McCain and was accusing him of violating his pledge to avoid negative campaigning when he made the statement. Silverleib also wrote that "[t]he McCain camp claimed that Obama's use of that phrase was 'a not particularly clever way of raising John McCain's age as an issue,' " without noting that Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton denied Obama was referring to McCain's age when he made the statement.

As Media Matters for America has documented, during Obama's interview on the May 8 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, Blitzer quoted McCain as saying, "I think it's very clear who Hamas wants to be the next president of the United States. I think that people should understand that I will be Hamas' worst nightmare. Senator Obama is favored by Hamas. I think people can make judgments accordingly." In response, Obama told Blitzer that McCain's assertion was "disappointing, because John McCain always says, well, I'm not going to run that kind of politics." Obama went on to say: "I've said that they are a terrorist organization, that we should not negotiate with them unless they recognize Israel, renounce violence, and unless they're willing to abide by previous accords between the Palestinians and the Israelis. And, so, for him to toss out comments like that, I think, is an example of him losing his bearings as he pursues this nomination. We don't need name-calling in this debate."

Additionally, Silverleib wrote that Obama campaign foreign policy adviser Susan Rice "said that McCain had demonstrated a 'pattern of confusing the basic facts and reality that pertain to Iraq' " and that Rice later "said she was simply highlighting the fact that, in her opinion, McCain has his facts wrong" [emphasis added]. However, when asked to explain what she meant by the assertion that McCain was "confused" about Iraq, Rice referred to demonstrable falsehoods by McCain, not simply "her opinion" that McCain was wrong on the facts.

Rice cited the following demonstrable falsehoods by McCain during the same conference call with reporters in which she accused McCain of being "confused" about Iraq:

  • McCain's statement on "the number of forces remaining in Iraq."

As Media Matters noted, McCain's May 29 statement about the U.S. troop level in Iraq, "We have drawn down to pre-surge levels," was, in fact, false. As The Washington Post reported on May 31, contrary to McCain's assertion, "the troop level in Iraq is at about 155,000, well above the 130,000 that would mark a return to levels preceding the 'surge.' "

  • McCain's "Sunni-Shia confusion"

As Media Matters noted, during an April 9 hearing, McCain asked Gen. David Petraeus: "Do you still view Al Qaeda in Iraq as a major threat?" Petraeus replied: "It is still a major threat, though it is certainly not as major a threat as it was, say, 15 months ago." McCain then asked "Certainly not an obscure sect of -- of the Shiites all -- overall --" Petraeus replied, "No," as McCain said: "or Sunnis or anybody else?" In fact, Al Qaeda in Iraq is a Sunni group, not a Shiite group.

McCain also made the admittedly false claim that "[i]t's common knowledge and has been reported in the media that Al Qaeda is going back into Iran and is receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran." McCain made the misstatement twice during a press conference on March 18 and also the previous day while being interviewed by radio host Hugh Hewitt. U.S. officials have reportedly claimed Iran is training Shiite militants; Al Qaeda is predominantly a Sunni organization.

From the June 15 CNN.com analysis:

Is Sen. John McCain too old to be president?

Listen to some Democrats, and you'll think the 71-year-old Arizona senator is a man lost in a perpetual fog. He is "confused" and has "lost his bearings" or is "out of touch."

Listen to the McCain campaign, and you'll be convinced that Democrats are using those terms to exploit concerns that the presumptive Republican nominee is too old to effectively serve as president.

For his part, McCain tends to answer questions about his age with quips such as, "I'm older than dirt and have more scars than Frankenstein, but I've learned a few things along the way."

The first salvo of the general election's age war may have been launched in May, when Sen. Barack Obama argued in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer that McCain had "lost his bearings" while pursuing the Republican nomination.

The McCain camp claimed that Obama's use of that phrase was "a not particularly clever way of raising John McCain's age as an issue."

Last Wednesday, the issue reemerged when McCain appeared on NBC's "Today" Show and argued, as he has before, that "it's not important" when troops return from Iraq as long as casualties are held to a minimum.

Sen. John Kerry, an Obama supporter, said in a hastily arranged conference call that McCain is "unbelievably out of touch" and that it "is really becoming more crystal clear ... that John McCain simply doesn't understand [the conflict]. He confuses who Iran is training, he confuses what the makeup of al Qaeda is, [and] he confuses the history ... of what has happened between Sunni and Shia."

Susan Rice, one of Obama's top foreign policy advisers, said that McCain had demonstrated a "pattern of confusing the basic facts and reality that pertain to Iraq."

When asked if he was trying to highlight the age issue through his choice of words, Kerry said it was "unfair" and "ridiculous" to make such an assertion. Rice said she was simply highlighting the fact that, in her opinion, McCain has his facts wrong.

For its part, the McCain camp says Obama is the one who is confused.

"Clearly their use of the word 'confusion' had more to do with Barack Obama's complete inability to make sense of his failure to go to Iraq in over 870 days and have a one-on-one meeting with Gen. Petraeus while portraying himself as being informed on the topic," said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds.

Whether or not the Democrats are playing word games, it is abundantly clear that, for many voters, McCain's age is a real concern.

Roughly one-third of respondents in most recent national polls say that McCain's age could impede his ability to effectively govern the nation.

These percentages are in line with historical trends. Approximately one-third of voters expressed similar concerns about Bob Dole's age in 1996 and Ronald Reagan's age in 1984. (Dole was 73 years old in 1996. Reagan was 73 in 1984.)

From the Obama campaign's June 11 conference call:

LEWIS: Yeah, Finlay Lewis of the Copley News Service. I noticed that the word "confused" or "confusion" was woven throughout the early comments you spoke in your statement, and I'm just wondering if that's somehow a code word for suggesting that Senator McCain is just simply too old to understand these things.

RICE: This is Susan Rice. I think I was among those who used the word --

LEWIS: Yes, you were.

RICE: -- "confused." And what I meant by that was very simple: that on critical, factual questions that are fundamental to understanding what is going on in Iraq and the region, Senator McCain has gotten it wrong -- and not just once, but often repeatedly. He's often argued with journalists who've tried to point out that perhaps he had his initial statement wrong, for example, on the number of forces remaining in Iraq, or in another instance about whether the supreme leader was in fact the supreme leader in Iran. And, you know, rather than note a -- note a mistake and move on, he's pressed the point, indicating that this wasn't simply a misstatement, but rather a misunderstanding. Same with the Sunni-Shia confusion.

I'm not ascribing it to any particular function. I have -- I'm completely unable to do so. I'm simply pointing out what is a pattern that is notable. And to just add one more element to the bill of particulars: As Senator Kerry pointed out that on this question of whether a Germany- or South Korea-style deployment was desirable that, indeed, Senator McCain took a very different position several months back, and indeed, on more than one occasion, that that sort of long-term deployment would inflame sentiment in Iraq and the region that would be counterproductive. And then, when people pointed out his comment that he would be willing to have an American military presence in Iraq for as long as a hundred years, he took great umbrage and referred back to the Korea-, Germany-style deployment, which of course is a very long-term one.

And then in a speech -- his sort of "I have a dream about how the world will be great and America will be great by the end of my first term" -- he threw out 2013 as the date by which he expected American forces to be out of Iraq. And today, he says he has no idea when American forces will be out of Iraq, and that that's not important. So there's a -- there's quite a different -- quite a great deal of landscape that he's covered in the course of his comments on the region, and they do beg the question of whether he has a firm grasp of the issues and an understanding of the complexities at stake.

Network/Outlet
CNN
Person
Alan Silverleib
Show/Publication
CNN.com
Stories/Interests
Barack Obama, John McCain, 2008 Elections
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