McCain on Meeting with Zapatero: Misunderstanding or Gaffe?

The liberal blogosphere is making a lot of hay with John McCain’s recent interview with Radio Caracol Miami in which he appears to dodge a question about meeting with Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

Below is the audio, via TPM. The relevant passage starts around 2:58.

Contrary to the assertions of most bloggers, it’s perfectly clear to me that McCain’s dodging of the question is a result of his not understanding the interviewer rather than his not knowing who Zapatero is (though the latter remains a possibility).

He clearly doesn’t hear the translator say “Spain” in her first mention of that word, because he continues talking about Latin America, which had been the subject of the conversation up to that point. (While it’s plausible that McCain doesn’t know, or forgot, the name of the Spanish prime minister, it’s not plausible that he thinks Spain is in Latin America.) It’s also clear from the tape that McCain doesn’t understand the translator’s properly-accented pronunciation of Zapatero’s full name. Later, when the translator says, “What about Europe, I’m talking about the president of Spain,” swallowing the second syllable of the name of the continent, it’s clear that McCain instead thinks she has said, “What about you,” and again doesn’t hear the word “Spain” clearly, as he responds “What about me, what?”

Bizarrely, however, instead of just admitting that McCain had trouble understanding the translator, which would have been perfectly understandable, McCain campaign foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann wrote a letter to media outlets saying that in fact McCain “knew exactly to whom the question referred” and meant to avoid committing to meeting with Zapatero.

Leaving aside whether that is an advisable policy or not, why is the McCain campaign pretending that the senator understood when he didn’t? In my eyes, this just turns what would have been an understandable misunderstanding into a further undermining of McCain’s reputation for straight talk. Maybe the campaign is so worried about questions about McCain’s age that they don’t want to acknowledge that he didn’t hear what the translator was trying to say. Or maybe his advisers didn’t have access to the tape of the interview and so couldn’t judge for themselves whether it was a real gaffe or one that could be easily explained.

The larger problem of course, is that our politics has become so obsessed with this or that “gaffe” — by the candidates themselves or indeed anyone remotely associated with them — that the most important questions too often get short shrift, or don’t get addressed forthrightly by the candidates.

More World Politics Review