What is John McCain’s Mark Salter Thinking? Explodes at “Why We Fight”


Senator John McCain comes off as a major political star in Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight which is opening soon in Washington, but his chief of staff, Mark Salter, has blown a gasket over a cute clip in the film in which Vice President Cheney calls him during that interview. At that moment, McCain is saying that Americans deserve a serious investigation into contracting improprieties surrounding the Iraq War.
According to Mary Ann Akers in Roll Call‘s gossip column, Heard on the Hill, this morning:

Attention, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.): You’re not the only punching bag for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). The 2008 presidential hopeful is also really mad at the producer of the Sundance Film Festival award-winning film “Why We Fight.”
Forget about his nanosecond blip on Monday night’s episode of “24.” McCain — and especially his chief of staff — think the movie producer intentionally twisted McCain’s few lines in the film so that he comes off as critical of Vice President Cheney.
“We’re actually pretty mad about it,” McCain’s chief of staff, Mark Salter, told HOH. He accused the producer, Eugene Jarecki, of “doing manipulative editing” to make it look like McCain is questioning Cheney’s involvement in the awarding of military contracts to Halliburton, the company the veep used to run.
McCain says in the movie: “It looks bad. It looks bad and apparently Halliburton, more than once, has overcharged the federal government. That’s wrong.”
Then, asked how he would tackle the problem, McCain says, “I’d have a public investigation of what they’ve done.” At that very moment, coincidentally, the phone rings in McCain’s office … and an aide announces the vice president is calling. Scene ends.
While McCain said nothing about Cheney in the context of Halliburton, Salter is angry because McCain’s scene immediately follows one in which Richard Perle is defending Cheney, saying the veep wouldn’t dare use his power to help Halliburton get contracts.
Then McCain pops on the screen saying, “It looks bad” — as if he’s talking about Cheney, when in fact he’s not, Salter argues. To the contrary, Salter said — McCain has “complete respect for Mr. Cheney’s integrity.” “It’s editorial manipulation,” Salter said of the film.
Jarecki can’t believe that McCain’s office is so upset. He says McCain didn’t impugn Cheney in any way, nor did he, as the filmmaker, intend for it to look that way. “I’m mystified by the whole thing,” he said. “My view of John McCain is extremely glowing.”
A big part of the film is about Dwight Eisenhower, who, in his 1961 farewell address as president, warned America about the “military-industrial complex” — a term he coined in that speech. “If there’s anybody today who carries that spirit … it’s John McCain,” Jarecki said, adding, “What I see when I see John McCain in the film is a good man in a weary world. He’s working so hard every day to make Washington a better place.”
The love, apparently, only goes one way. Salter calls Jarecki a “a slippery son of a gun” and says that McCain doesn’t like the film, at least not the part involving him. “He thought it was dishonest,” Salter said.
The miffed chief of staff said Jarecki was misleading from the get-go. McCain thought he was doing an interview on Iraq with the BBC. “Turns out to be a theatrically released film in the United States.”
Well, it turns out that Salter is right. Jarecki originally made his film for the BBC. Then he hit the big screen.
“I never imagined we’d win Sundance and be picked up by Sony [Pictures],” he said. With that, he headed over to the Motion Picture Association of America for a second Washington, D.C., screening.

The “first screening” obliquely referred to was co-hosted by TWN.
I’ve seen the film three times now, and Senator McCain comes off as a 21st century Eisenhower in the movie — the type of potential President who can be a ‘big national security president’ but not let the military-industrial complex, a term coined first in Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 Farewell Address, run amok.
Salter, who has been a key aide to McCain for many years and has written with McCain Faith of My Fathers and Why Courage Matters, is someone who understands the importance of editing. Not everything makes it into the book, or the film in this case. Salter’s demands veer dangerously close to thin-skinned censorship. Not good for any team considering a run at the most admired, feared, pilloried, and lampooned job in the world — the Presidency of the United States.
TWN has gone to some effort to learn about some of the background on the interview, what was in the larger interview — tough to get as the director has not wanted to release the material because it would undermine his editorial prerogatives.
TWN has confirmed that the McCain office essentially ignored Jarecki for months, despite calls, a mailed DVD of the film, and various interactions as Jarecki had hoped to involve McCain in the roll-out of the film (figuring that he would like it).
It wasn’t until the film became “big” that Salter and the McCain staff paid any attention to the director. They called Charlotte Street Films in a huff, according to one source, demanding a copy of the film. As it turned out, McCain’s office had had one already on their shelves, unwatched.
So, while I do not have (yet) the text of the McCain interview, some of the things he said were extremely provocative.
My apologies to both Senator McCain and Eugene Jarecki for sharing some of this, as I admire both, but in my view, Jarecki actually protected McCain’s interests in this film — and Mark Salter is behaving in a surly, oppressive way — not what Senator McCain deserves.
And this blog has gone way out of its way in the past to underscore its respect for McCain (though a good chunk of TWN readers let me know how misplaced my respect is).
That said, “flaming out” makes people look small, emotionally rather than rationally driven, and out of control. When someone like McCain, or Mark Salter on his behalf, flames out — it better be about something huge.
In any case, my source has shared with me some of the other talking “nodes” in the McCain interview. As I said, I’m trying to sneak out text, but Jarecki is not allowing it out from his office.
These were some of the things that McCain allegedly uttered in a long interview:

John McCain said he was in fundamental agreement with the neocons, that spreading democracy and freedom in the world was vital in this time — but not spreading it through pre-emptive strikes and unilateralism
He said that neoconservatism evolved during the Vietnam era and in some ways McCain admitted that he was one. He said that the roll backs against military capabilities occurred during this period, and the neoconservatives organized to counter this trend.
McCain said that Bush was out of step with core conservative values on the international front. He said that domestically tax cuts and fiscal responsibility were core Republican values and Bush hit those buttons, but on the international front, Bush’s aggressive internationalism was beyond core Republican values. McCain didn’t offer a positive or negative assessment of this — just stated that this was the case.
McCain said that the government was rife with contributors giving millions of dollars to the Party, buying access with this money, seeking favors in contracting, and getting it. He said that Halliburton style no-bid contracts were part of this picture and that Americans should be worried. He said that Americans deserved a serious public investigation.
McCain also said that if there was a serious, imminent threat directly threatening to Americans that a preemptive strike could be understood, but if American lives are lost on something that was not an imminent threat, well. . .that can’t stand.
McCain said that Bush ran on a platform of disengaging from a lot of American commitments and was opposed to nation-building. Now Bush is for nation-building. McCain just noted that the Bush America voted for is not the Bush they got after he’d been in office.
McCain also said that while he supported the Iraq War, Americans were “not fully informed” and deserved to have been.
McCain stated that while he didn’t think America could precipitously leave Iraq, the war will have been won even when we see “a badly functioning democracy” there.

There’s more, but I don’t have it yet.
McCain’s commentary above is sensible, thoughtful. I don’t agree with all of it, and frankly — I see McCain as more of an ethical realist than I do a neoconservative, but that’s irrelevant.
What is significant is that any editor with anywhere near the amount of information above could clip and edit McCain in a number of different ways.
The neocon material or the commentary on Bush, or shady defense contractors seducing his own Party, the comment about Americans not being appropriately informed — all of that — could have been far more damaging to McCain’s efforts to appear to the Republican establishment that he is behaving, so to speak.
For some time, McCain has been working hard to charm the mainline Republican establishment and not needlessly provoke Bush and Cheney, which makes sense as McCain has said in the past that it was not the Republican right wing that beat him in his last presidential run, it was the fact that the mainstream Republican establishment had pre-positioned itself with Bush.
Politically, this sensitivity matters — and tactically, perhaps McCain and Salter see it as beneficial to beat up a film that actually makes the Senator look good, but perhaps too good.
The reason that Salter is probably testy about this is BECAUSE Cheney DOES represent in the minds of many Americans the kind of politician who hides behind veils of official secrecy. Before McCain took on the administration over corruption in the Boeing air-tanker deal, McCain was one of the major behind-the-scenes players exposing the Bush administration’s nefarious dealings with Enron and other energy companies. And who was in the middle of that escapade? Dick Cheney.
Eavesdropping last night, one of my sources reports that a Republican Senator — and close friend of McCain’s — said that the Cheney-McCain call was cute but that the film shows McCain as close to Bush and also close to Eisenhower. “What could be better?” this Senator said.
McCain is an American hero in my book. Despite the critique that comes from many on the left and the right (and which will no doubt come towards me from some of my well-intentioned readers after I post this) — McCain ought not to “lose it” when he gets to play Eisenhower, when he is lauded for being the white knight in national security affairs who can keep the military-industrial-complex under some form of democracy-preserving scrutiny.
And if Cheney calls him during an interview, then Cheney calls him during an interview — that’s how Washington works. It was a cute moment that did nothing but show that even major national leaders like Cheney and McCain who probably disagree about defense-contracting ethics must still work together in this town.
I’ve known Mark Salter from a distance for a long time, ever since I worked at the Nixon Center in Washington.
I admire his passion for his Senator and friend, John McCain, and for the country. He supports the Iraq War, as Senator McCain does; I do not. We move on — but I still feel that McCain’s voice is vital as we sort out what kinds of “norms” this nation really holds true during times of national stress.
Mark Salter, on behalf of his boss John McCain, is losing it over the wrong issue — and frankly — as a friend of the McCain camp — they are “losing it” too much lately.
Senator McCain is reportedly appearing on the Late Show with David Letterman on Thursday evening — and this clip of McCain and Cheney may run (I am told…but you know how things can change).
Let’s hope by then that we see humor and insight rather than the boiling over we have seen of late.
More later.
— Steve Clemons

Joe Gandelman has a thougtful response at The Moderate Voice.