August 18, 2008—Millions of Americans who watched Barack Obama and then John McCain respond to nearly identical questions from evangelical minister Rick Warren were surely impressed by McCain’s quick and sharp answers. Supposedly he had been in a “cone of silence” while Obama was getting grilled during the preceding hour.
However, as it turned out, TV viewers and other Americans were misled. McCain had not been in any “cone of silence” shielding him from hearing Warren’s questions and Obama’s answers.
On Saturday night as Obama was on stage, McCain was in his motorcade on the way to the church and thus would have had access through his staff to the questions and how Obama had answered them.
When McCain came on the set, he played along with the fiction about being in a “cone of silence,” joking that “I was trying to hear through the wall.”
McCain then proceeded to knock the questions out of the proverbial park, impressing not only the audience at Rev. Warren’s Saddleback Church in California, but the political pundits who spent the next two days praising McCain’s performance and judging him the clear winner over Obama.
For instance, New York Times columnist William Kristol declared that it was “McCain’s night” and marveled at how “McCain, who went second, was crisp by contrast [to Obama] and his anecdotes colorful.”
Kristol also mocked grousing from Obama’s aides that McCain may have had access to the questions beforehand. “There’s no evidence that McCain had any such advantage,” Kristol wrote in his Monday column.
However, in the same newspaper, New York Times reporters discovered that the assertion by Warren that McCain had been in some “cone of silence” wasn’t true.
“Members of the McCain campaign staff, who flew here Sunday from California, said Mr. McCain was in his motorcade on the way to the church as Mr. Obama was being interviewed,” wrote reporter Katharine Q. Seeyle.
Still, McCain’s staff bristled at suggestions that McCain listened to the broadcast while en route to the church.
“The insinuation from the Obama campaign that John McCain, a former prisoner of war, cheated is outrageous,” said McCain spokeswoman Nicolle Wallace. [NYT, Aug. 18, 2008]
What McCain’s Vietnam War-era POW status had to do with this wasn’t clear. But it was clear that Warren’s assurance that “we have safely placed Senator McCain in a cone of silence” wasn’t true, nor was McCain’s light-hearted remark about trying to hear through the wall.
If McCain did get pre-briefed on what questions to expect, it would be reminiscent of the presidential debate in 1980 when someone from Ronald Reagan’s campaign stole President Jimmy Carter’s debate briefing book and allegedly used it to coach Reagan’s responses.
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This story was published on August 19, 2008.