n This Presidential Contest, There's Little Left of the Charming McCain of 2000
Sen. John McCain, American war hero and admired political maverick, as well as presumed Republican nominee for president, had a message for Elisabeth Bumiller, the venerated New York Times reporter, along with the rest of the media assigned to travel with him the week of July 20.
"What do you want, you little jerks?" McCain said to Bumiller and those behind her, as the press surged forward on the "Straight Talk" Boeing 737 on July 21.
No one ever accused the Arizona senator of not being blunt. But he had come a long way from the media-friendly, boyishly charming, brazenly honest, free-wheeling McCain that so many in the media had come to love during the 2000 Republican primary. That man was now gone. Vanished.
Over the past few years McCain had done what was expected of a GOP favorite son. He courted the conservative base of the Republican Party, embracing the evangelical wing while inching closer and closer to President George W. Bush. Moreover, his jabs have stopped being quite so friendly. He'd become curt, even rude. Those images of McCain chatting freely and easily with reporters seemed the narrative of an entirely different person.
"When he ran before he was the maverick running away from the establishment, and now he's running towards it," said Republican campaign consultant Ed Rollins, the national campaign director for Ronald Reagan's 1984 victory, and more recently the national campaign chairman for Mike Huckabee's Republican primary run. "He was jovial and fun and now he comes across as a grumpy old man."
This seemed especially true at that moment last week. It was early on the evening of July 21, on a tarmac in Buffalo. For a good chunk of that afternoon, those journalists not assigned to cover McCain's fund-raising efforts in this forsaken city had been cooling their heels in a hotel ballroom. Then word came across the Internet, from the prince of darkness himself, Robert Novak, who reported that campaign sources had said McCain was ready to announce his vice presidential pick.
McCain's comment to Bumiller and the assembled media right behind her revealed the man transformed. It seemed to sum up his new persona. Within a day, Novak admitted he'd been used by the campaign, spun around like a whirligig, and now thought no announcement was coming.
But that didn't matter for us in the living moment, as we tried to get some statement, any statement, about the report from Mr. Straight Talk himself. Leaving us with what can only be described as a mischievous grin, McCain settled into his seat, letting his senior adviser and alter-ego, Mark Salter, do the non-denial denials for the rest of the flight from Buffalo to Manchester, N.H. It was, in many ways, an Anakin Skywalker moment for McCain. Whatever good, decent qualities he'd brought to the 2000 race had been wiped away, eclipsed by a new figure we'll call Darth McCain.
It's hard to believe that McCain was championed in 2000 as the man who could bring balance to the Republican Party, not plunge it into further darkness. He had entered the 2008 Republican race as its front-runner, as the man who stood up to George W. Bush and the party's more extreme elements. In the 2000 campaign, McCain had repudiated Bush's visit to Bob Jones University in South Carolina and called out the late Jerry Falwell as one of the "agents of intolerance." He had apologized for not taking a firm stand against the Confederate flag flying high above the South Carolina capitol dome and continued to press for bi-partisan efforts like comprehensive immigration reform, including some path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
But most of that was before McCain's apparent slide into the dark side. It's unclear whether this aspect has always been present in McCain, or whether he developed it as he saw his own moral and intellectual beliefs trampled by Bush and Karl Rove.
One could argue that this transformation began in 2004, when he said nothing as the agents of the Republican Party tore down the war record of McCain's friend and fellow Vietnam hero, Sen. John Kerry, to smoldering rubble. Or perhaps it began when he agreed to give the commencement talk at Falwell's Liberty University in 2006. During the course of the Bush administration, McCain drew ever closer to the unpopular president, despite his early criticism of how the war was planned and his tax cuts in time of war. Now McCain seems hand-in-glove with Bush on the troop surge in Iraq and the need to retain Bush's tax cuts. In fact, McCain's tax plan does the president one better. If he were to win, McCain perhaps reasoned, he would do so in the fashion of his once rival. He would fashion himself into the GOP favorite, and was willing to pay the price.
There had been one last bright moment, that I saw first-hand. This was in July 2007, after McCain had fired most of his national staff and his campaign was struggling to survive. To resuscitate not only his presidential ambitions but himself, he'd come back to the place where he'd found political redemption -- New Hampshire. It was there where he defeated Rove and Bush back in 2000, where he traveled the state in the "Straight Talk Express," standing for many as a symbol of hope. I was a political reporter for The Washington Post then, and McCain sat in an office of a law firm, a man in desperate need of caffeine. Still, the talk of 2000 brought a big grin to his face as he said, "We're gonna get the bus out sooner rather than later. And I promise you'll be invited on board and we'll have some fun."
Now all of us in the media travel in a separate bus from the increasingly distant candidate. There are those who believe there is still some of the 2000 McCain left, but as a member of the campaign press corps, it's increasingly hard to see. Press conferences after events--which we cool kids call "avails" -- have all but vanished from his daily schedule. The area on the plane meant for "straight talks" with the press generally goes unused. I had a question for two days, that I never got a chance to ask him.
Moreover, McCain increasingly seems like a man who, while breaking bread with the Christian right, is prone to holding grudges. Nowhere was that more apparent than in Columbus, Ohio, when Elizabeth Holmes from The Wall Street Journal tried to ask something, only to have McCain look right past her and say, "Who else has a question?" This had followed a couple of pieces in The Journal that Holmes had either written, co-written or contributed to that explored the anger of the McCain camp.
In many ways, that's what it comes down to, doesn't it? Anger. As we learned from Yoda. in "The Empire Strikes Back," the moment when one begins to act out of hate, instead of peace with the force as his ally, is precisely the moment when one begins down the path from Jedi to Sith. And there's no doubt that's what McCain has become--full of rage, particularly at the press left to cover him.
To drive home the point last week about McCain's actions being completely overshadowed by the coverage of Sen. Barack Obama, the McCain staff issued fake press badges featuring the Statue of Liberty on one side, saying "McCain Press/Corps/JV Squad/'Left Behind to Cover America.'" On the other side was a French-looking man, with the same words translated into the language o' love. While that was a moment of levity, it was just a moment.
At the end of last week, McCain's camp went as far as to send an email to reporters comparing the differences in coverage between the local and national press. It was more than an expression of contempt. It was insulting. Of course the coverage and headlines between a local and national outlet will be different. We've heard his jokes, his stump speech, his loooooove for nuclear power. They haven't. Our job is to put an event in national context; theirs is to serve their local constituents.
Of course. McCain had reason to complain. His campaign efforts were indeed overshadowed by those of his opponent. It should be noted that the press covering Obama have had their own difficulties. But on the day Obama addressed 200,000 people in Berlin, McCain visited a German restaurant in Columbus and then talked about the importance of sunscreen and "light exercise" with Paula Zahn and Lance Armstrong at the biker's "LIVESTRONG" cancer summit on the campus of Ohio State University. If you were a news director or editor with limited editorial space, which would you choose?
But McCain's real transformation occurred when he began to attack his opponent. There was a time when McCain labeled Obama as "naive," for wanting to sit down with the leaders of Iran and put together a definitive 16-month pullout from Iraq. Last week, however, the GOP's likely nominee grew increasingly angry at Obama, then on a well-chronicled and supremely-successful tour of the Middle East and Europe. Last Monday McCain indicated that Obama had no right to the Oval Office, dismissing him as "someone who has no military experience whatsoever." The following day McCain went even further, saying, "It seems to me Sen. Obama would rather lose a war to win a campaign."
With that, it felt like the McCain of 2000 had disappeared entirely. His rage has blinded him to missed opportunities, to moments where he could make people remember who he was during that long-ago golden primary race and, more important, what his domestic agenda will be. Should he win, he will do so as a man unrecognizable from the one that made himself into a beloved political figure eight years ago. If any of the man that was John McCain still exists, it will be a long and difficult struggle to find him.