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One of the major story lines to emerge in the presidential race over the past few days is the McCain campaign’s depth of dishonesty. Their serial lying has compelled the media (despite its longstanding affection for the GOP nominee) to raise serious questions about McCain’s and Palin’s evident contempt for the truth.

In fact, a growing chorus of op-ed writers, straight news analysts, widely read bloggers like the conservative Andrew Sullivan, and even Karl Rove (albeit tepidly), have fired shots at the Arizona Senator for crossing the line from hardball political tactics to plain, basic dishonesty.

This is something of a departure from long-standing norms of balance, especially for mainstream media. Those norms have routinely compelled political journalists to forsake context and informed judgment for the easier, less courageous position that “all sides take liberties with the truth” and therefore, it’s the media’s job to find examples to illustrate that reality—however unalike those examples might be.

But, old habits die hard, and the reflexive tendency to remind readers that Obama’s hands are also dirty have led many commentators to perpetuate as “distortion” what is, in fact, a serious weakness for McCain and one of his most disturbing positions: Iraq.

In today’s Washington Post, writer and long-time McCain sympathizer Ruth Marcus became the most recent writer to suggest that McCain’s serial lying compromised his fitness for the presidency. But in the course of her otherwise incisive piece, she couldn’t resist noting that Obama has been guilty of cheap shots, most notably, the presumably false claim that McCain wants to stay in Iraq for a hundred years. This weekend, a lengthy New York Times piece cataloguing McCain’s lies also noted this Obama “distortion.”

But how much of a distortion is it?

At a New Hampshire town hall meeting last January, a crowd member asked McCain about Bush’s statement that we might stay in Iraq for fifty years. McCain replied:

“Maybe a hundred. As long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed, it’s fine with me. And I hope it would be fine with you if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world where al Qaeda is training, recruiting, equipping and motivating people every single day.”

The McCain campaign has been crying foul for months about attacks on his position, arguing that he meant that we might have the kind of military presence we have in Japan or South Korea. And, since the spring, the media have largely accepted that the criticisms are unfair. But that, in itself, is unfair.

Back in April, Dave Tiffany, who happens to be the guy who asked McCain the question in New Hampshire, wrote: “While splitting hairs over the meaning of campaign rhetoric, all ignore the fact that McCain advocates an open-ended presence in Iraq and the consequences that would follow from such a commitment. McCain’s words left little room for interpretation. By saying that he was fine with staying in Iraq for a hundred years, he made clear his commitment to ‘staying the course’ and to remaining in Iraq for years after the country is pacified, assuming that’s ever possible. Everyone who was there that night got it: we weren’t getting out anytime soon.”

In fact, the outcry about this distortion serves a significant and insidious purpose: to obscure the fact that John McCain has repeatedly rejected a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq before the “job is done.” The unmistakable premise of this position is that we must stay in Iraq indefinitely, even if that means being there for a hundred years.

The premise of the claim that McCain’s words are being taken out context is that if Americans were still taking significant casualties, we would leave. But that has not been McCain’s position. His position has been that we will not leave merely because our presence in Iraq is exacting a high price, in casualties and dollars. In fact, McCain has no answer to the question of how a high a price is too high: however many more thousands of deaths and however many more hundred of billions of dollars in costs we might incur, we must stay until Iraq is secure, can defend itself and doesn’t pose a threat to the region.

How long might that be? John McCain doesn’t know, and neither does anybody else.

As Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in the New Yorker this Spring: “what the context shows, I think, is that yanking that sound bite out of context isn’t really all that unfair. McCain wants to stay in Iraq until no more Americans are getting killed, no matter how long it takes and how many Americans get killed achieving that goal—that is, the goal of not getting any more Americans killed.”

For years now, the GOP mantra has been either we stay indefinitely or we “cut and run.” And McCain has been 100% on board. Even if he doesn’t want us to be there, can he honestly say how long we will be if he were President? Wouldn’t it contradict his own position to concede defeat and bring the troops home prior to that time, if that’s how long it took?

Accepting the “hundred years” comment as an example of a distortion allows John McCain to continue sticking to an incoherent, destructive, untenable and deeply unpopular position. More importantly, it allows him to get away with it.

Watch McCain’s infamous comment about a “hundred years war” in Iraq: