"What, the Mexican rebels?" I asked.
"No, that's the Zapatistas," she reminded me. "Zapatero, prime minister of Spain."
My wife proceeded to describe the Wednesday interview with Miami's Spanish-language Caracol 1260 AM in which Senator McCain appeared to confuse the Spanish prime minister with the Mexican indigenous separatists.
Ah, easy mistake, I thought. Heck, at first mention, I made it. And if the interviewer had a Spanish accent, all the more possible McCain might have mis-heard the question. What's the big deal?
Then my wife played me the CNN coverage of McCain's comments. Later I listened to the full interview. Here are both of them:
Even in context, I couldn't believe what McCain was saying. At the start of the final cycle of questions, the reporter says, "Let's talk about Spain." (Note that the reporter gets it wrong and refers to Zapatero as President, not Prime Minister.) McCain talks about Mexico. To the reporter's first gentle redirect about meeting the "Zapatero government," McCain talks about standing up "to those who want to do harm to the United States." He mentions working with leaders "in the hemisphere... in Latin America and the entire region."
Now this reporter doesn't sound like a liberal hack trying to play gotcha with McCain. But after a minute and a half and two gentler redirects, she finally she has to ask, "What about Europe? I'm talking about the President of Spain."
O.K., stop here. At this point, if I'm McCain, I say, "Oh! Spain! I thought you were asking about the Zapatistas in Mexico. My apologies. As for Prime Minister Zapatero, I said back in April that I'm interested in improving relations with our ally Spain." Minimal harm: the reporter does indeed have an accent, and her preceding questions were about Venezuela, Bolivia, and Cuba. Perfectly understandable that McCain's brain was in Latin America mode. He corrects, reacquires the target, fires off a few details, no harm no foul.
Instead, McCain says he'll "meet with any leader who is dedicated to the same principles and philsophy that we are, for human rights, democracy, and freedom, and I will stand up to those that do not."
So, interview's done. If I'm McCain, I still have a choice: apologize, blame the accent, the headphones, being tired, whatever. It's o.k. to make a mistake, and it's o.k. to apologize and set the record straight. Take a small hit for inattention. The liberal bloggers bloviate about a mostly non-issue and the story disappears in a few days.
Instead, the McCain campaign, with time to consider the response, blows a raspberry at an entire country:
The questioner asked several times about Senator McCain's willingness to meet Zapatero, and ID'd him in the question so there is no doubt Senator McCain knew exactly to whom the question referred.
Senator McCain refused to commit to a White House meeting with President [making the same mistake as the reporter] Zapatero in this interview. In this week's interview, Senator McCain did not rule in or rule out a White House meeting with President Zapatero, a NATO ally.
If elected, he will meet with a wide range of allies in a wide variety of venues but is not going to spell out scheduling and meeting location specifics in advance [a bit more than what the reporter was asking, and odd, given McCain said he would invite leaders like Calderon to the White House].
He is also not going to make reckless promises to meet America's adversaries. It's called keeping your options open, unlike Sen. Obama who has publically committed to meeting some of the world's worst dictators unconditionally in his first year in office.[Randy Scheunemann, McCain adviser].
Never mind that the last sentence completely distorts Obama's position. We can argue that later. The big point here: why on earth would a candidate for the Presidency of the United States even mention "reckless promises to meet America's adversaries" in a conversation about Spain? Rattle that diplomatic saber at Chavez and Castro, that's fine. But at Zapatero? At Spain? A democracy? A NATO ally with troops in Afghanistan? What good does that do?
Imagine if British Prime Minister Brown or French President Sarkozy had given a similar answer to a question about meeting the American President: "I won't rule in or rule out a meeting, but I am also not going to make reckless promises to meet with our nation's adversaries." We'd be throwing tea in the harbor and ordering Freedom Fries.
Words matter. Diplomacy matters. There's a fair debate over the benefits of talking to dictators like Chavez and Kim Jong Il. But do we really want a President who resists talking to our allies? In an era when the major problems we face require global collaboration, and when we lack the spare military capacity to respond to any new major threat, alienating our allies is truly reckless.