This article will appear in this Sunday's Times Magazine.
On the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 24, John McCain convened a meeting in his suite at the Hilton hotel in Midtown Manhattan. Among the handful of campaign officials in attendance were McCain’s chief campaign strategist, Steve Schmidt, and his other two top advisers: Rick Davis, the campaign manager; and Mark Salter, McCain’s longtime speechwriter. The senator’s ears were already throbbing with bad news from economic advisers and from House Republican leaders who had told him that only a small handful in their ranks were willing to support the $700 billion bailout of the banking industry proposed by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. The meeting was to focus on how McCain should respond to the crisis — but also, as one participant later told me, “to try to see this as a big-picture, leadership thing.”
As this participant recalled: “We presented McCain with three options. Continue offering principles from afar. A middle ground of engaging while still campaigning. Then the third option, of going all in. The consensus was that we could stay out or go in — but that if we’re going in, we should go in all the way. So the thinking was, do you man up and try to affect the outcome, or do you hold it at arm’s length? And no, it was not an easy call.”
Discussion carried on into the afternoon at the Morgan Library and Museum as McCain prepared for the first presidential debate. Schmidt pushed for going all in: suspending the campaign, recommending that the first debate be postponed, parachuting into Washington and forging a legislative solution to the financial crisis for which McCain could then claim credit. Exactly how McCain could convincingly play a sober bipartisan problem-solver after spending the previous few weeks garbed as a populist truth teller was anything but clear. But Schmidt and others convinced McCain that it was worth the gamble.
Schmidt in particular was a believer in these kinds of defining moments. The smartest bit of political wisdom he ever heard was dispensed by George W. Bush one spring day at the White House residence in 2004, at a time when his re-election effort was not going especially well. The strategists at the meeting — including Schmidt, who was directing the Bush campaign’s rapid-response unit — fretted over their candidate’s sagging approval ratings and the grim headlines about the war in Iraq. Only Bush appeared thoroughly unworried. He explained to them why, polls notwithstanding, voters would ultimately prefer him over his opponent, John Kerry.
There’s an accidental genius to the way Americans pick a president, Schmidt remembers Bush saying that day. By the end of it all, a candidate’s true character is revealed to the American people.
Had Schmidt been working for his present client back in 2000, he might have disputed Bush’s premise. After all, in McCain’s first run for the presidency, “true character” was the one thing the Vietnam hero and campaign-finance-reform crusader seemed to have going for him eight years ago in the Republican primaries. Bush had everything else, and he buried McCain. What campaigns peddle is not simply character but character as defined by story — a tale of opposing forces that in its telling will memorably establish what a given election is about. In 2000, the McCain effort played like that of a smart and plucky independent film that ultimately could not compete for audiences against the Bush campaign’s summer blockbuster. Four years later, in the race against John Kerry, Schmidt and the other Bush strategists had perfected their trade craft. With a major studio’s brutal efficiency, they distilled the campaign into a megabudget melodrama pitting an unwavering commander in chief against a flip-flopper, set in a post-9/11 world where there could be no room for error or equivocation.
Schmidt has been in charge of strategy for the McCain campaign since early this summer, and his effort to prevail in the battle of competing story lines has been considerably more problematic. The selling of a presidential “narrative” the reigning buzz word of this election cycle has taken on outsize significance in an age in which a rush of visuals and catch words can cripple public images overnight. Mitt Romney, it is said, lost because he could not get his story straight. Hillary Clinton found her I’m-a-fighter leitmotif too late to save her candidacy. By contrast, the narrative of Barack Obama has seemed to converge harmonically with the shifting demographics and surging discontent of the electorate. It may well be, as his detractors suggest, that Obama is among the least-experienced presidential nominees in our nation’s history. But to voters starved for change, the 47-year-old biracial first-term Democratic senator clearly qualifies. That, in any event, is his story, and he has stuck to it.
John McCain’s biography has been the stuff of legend for nearly a decade. And yet Schmidt and his fellow strategists have had difficulty explaining how America will be better off for electing (as opposed to simply admiring) a stubborn patriot. In seeking to do so, the McCain campaign has changed its narrative over and over. Sometimes with McCain’s initial resistance but always with his eventual approval, Schmidt has proffered a candidate who is variously a fighter, a conciliator, an experienced leader and a shake-’em-up rebel. “The trick is that all of these are McCain,” Matt McDonald, a senior adviser, told me. But in constantly alternating among story lines in order to respond to changing events and to gain traction with voters, the “true character” of a once-crisply-defined political figure has become increasingly murky.
Schmidt evidently saw the financial crisis as a “true character” moment that would advance his candidate’s narrative. But the story line did not go as scripted. “This has to be solved by Monday,” Schmidt told reporters that Wednesday afternoon in late September, just after McCain concluded his lengthy meeting with his advisers and subsequently announced his decision to suspend his campaign and go to Washington. Belying a crisis situation, however, McCain didn’t leave New York immediately. He spent Thursday morning at an event for the Clinton Global Initiative, the nonprofit foundation run by former President Bill Clinton. As McCain headed for Washington later that morning, he was sufficiently concerned about the situation that Schmidt felt compelled to reassure him. “Remember what President Clinton told you,” Schmidt said, referring to advice Clinton had dispensed that morning: “If you do the right thing, it might be painful for a few days. But in the long run it will work out in your favor.”