My boss, Michael Kinsley, defines a "gaffe" as a politician accidentally saying something truthful. John McCain committed a classic one of these on Sunday, when he said on Face the Nation that the Confederate flag is "a symbol of racism and slavery" and that it "is offensive in many, many ways, as we all know." After stating these obvious truths, McCain spent the next couple of days "clarifying" his position: that the Confederate flag is not a symbol of racism or slavery but rather of "heritage" and that there's nothing offensive about it at all.
What explains this rather extraordinary flip-flop? As a Republican campaigning in South Carolina, where the flag flies controversially over the Capitol, McCain has to know this issue cold. At first blush, it appeared that he was doing that thing that makes him so rare and appealing as a politician--telling a powerful constituency within his party to get stuffed. As we all know, McCain does this rather gleefully on such issues as tobacco, ethanol subsidies, and campaign-finance reform. Sacrificing the crucial South Carolina primary to make another such courageous point would have been an act of self-abnegation on par with his refusal to be released from prison camp in Vietnam.
But in fact, I think the flag answer was the reflection of a different and less laudable tendency on McCain's part: his instinct to play up to the press. On Face the Nation, Bob Schieffer had just finished telling McCain that he didn't think his letters to the FCC on behalf of contributors were scandalous, when McCain delivered an answer designed to warm every liberal journalist's heart--especially coming on the heels of Bush's pusillanimous kowtowing on the issue in the South Carolina GOP debate. McCain just couldn't resist charming an audience of reporters.
McCain does this on a daily basis on his campaign bus. But the last time it got him in serous trouble was back in August, when he told the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle that despite his 17-year pro-life voting record, he didn't really support banning abortion. "Certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe vs. Wade, which would then force X-number of women in America to undergo illegal and dangerous operations," McCain said. As on the flag, he was roundly attacked by conservatives and beat a hasty retreat to a more orthodox Republican position.
I suppose there are two possibilities here. The first is that McCain is a secret liberal trapped inside the voting record of a conservative. The other, probably more realistic, is that the guy just hates to disappoint his pals in the press.