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Yet Another Conegate Thread

I caught Rick Warren on the re-broadcast of his Larry King Live interview right now. When pressed by King on the fact that John McCain had not in fact been in the so-called “cone of silence” during the first half-hour of Barack Obama’s interview, Warren raised the point that McCain had been in the company of the Secret Service, and implied that the Secret Service would have informed him if McCain had done anything untoward.

Um, what?

Saying that John McCain was in the company of the Secret Service is no more informative than saying that John McCain was breathing air.

And when did the Secret Service become the Secret Police? The Secret Service personnel assigned to McCain have exactly one duty: to protect John McCain. It is not their duty to rat on John McCain; in fact, you can argue that it is explicitly their duty not to rat on John McCain.

…Looks like CNN just put the transcript up; here is the exact quote:

KING: From Lake Forest, California, we welcome — it’s always great to see him, a frequent visitor to this show. Not frequent enough, by the way. Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback Church, best-selling author of “The Purpose Driven Life.” and on Saturday, he conducted those interviews with Senators Obama and McCain at the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency.

Let’s take care of one thing right away. You introduced Obama and said that Senator McCain and said he was in a cone of silence.


KING: Now, obviously, Rick Warren would never tell a mistruth.

Did you not know that he was in an automobile?

WARREN: I didn’t know they had put — hadn’t put him into the Green Room yet. No, I didn’t. When we walked in, I knew he hadn’t been in about 10 minutes earlier. And I figured within the 10 minutes we got there, they had put him in.

The whole thing is really kind of bogus, Larry. The Supreme — I mean, the Secret Service were with him the whole time. Then our facility’s staff — our security staff were with him. And he was put in a building completely separate from everybody else. And there’s no way he could hear. I’ve been talking about this all day. There was a rumor going around that he watched the program on a monitor in the Green Room that we had him in.

Well, there’s only one problem with it. My staff, Chuck Taylor, disconnected that thing two days before it happened. So if he — if they had happened to turn it on, it would have been all just static.

And both Barack and John agreed to the terms that said we will not listen to the other’s, we will not get the questions in advance.

Actually, what happened is I did give Obama one in advance that I didn’t get to Senator McCain because he wasn’t there. Right before we started, I wanted to tell them there’s going to be one question that I’m going to ask you for a commitment on. And I didn’t think that was fair to ask for a commitment publicly without setting them up. And it had to do with orphans.

And so I did get to tell Senator Obama about that question. But because Senator McCain wasn’t there, he hadn’t — he didn’t have that question yet.

KING: All right.

Well, could he have heard it in the car, though, if he was still arriving at the event?

WARREN: You know what, if — not a chance. The Secret Service would have reported it. When he showed up, there were — and he says he didn’t. You know, I…

KING: All right.

WARREN: …I just have to accept his integrity on that.

Warren finally gives the right response at the end: “I just have to accept his integrity on that”. That’s all any of us really can do, I suppose.

But why, then, all this crap about the Secret Service? Why all the bluster from McCain? Why not a simple denial?

The assertion that McCain had the opportunity to cheat is undeniable; the suggestion that he actually did cheat is probably unprovable. But paradoxically, the McCain campaign have focused all their attention on addressing the former question, while not really bothering to refute the latter.

It is a dishonorable and shifty little thing to do.

But you know what? Politically speaking, it was probably wise. Two of the generally feistier Democratic surrogates that I saw on MSNBC today, Claire McCaskill and Steve McMahon, wouldn’t touch the issue with a ten-foot pole, lest they be accused of being whiners. This attests to the strength of McCain’s brand — they weren’t about to point out the dishonorable actions of an Honorable™ man.

Now, fundamentally, you can really only swim upstream if you know that you’re going to have the wherewithal to complete the journey. It may already be too late in the election — after months of disclaiming at every possible opportunity that they honor and respect Senator McCain’s service — for the Democrats to try and impeach certain elements of his brand. In which case, McCaskill and McMahon were right to punt on the question.

But it’s worth remembering that McCain won the Republican primaries in large part because the other candidates were so deferential to him. Rudy Giuliani praised McCain incessantly during the debates of last summer, at which point McCain’s campaign was in tatters and didn’t seem like much of a threat. But guess where Rudy’s supporters went once McCain won New Hampshire?

The Republicans, of course, have no such inhibitions when it comes to Democrats, which is why they went right at Al Gore’s strengths, and right at John Kerry’s strengths, and are going right at Barack Obama’s strengths — and, importantly, did so early in those respective campaigns. It’s one of the big reasons that they win elections.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.