A Handshake, Not a Hug
Without great enthusiasm, McCain throws his support to Bush
May 22, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 34 • By TUCKER CARLSON
THE FIRST CLUE that the Bush-McCain press conference will be more Bush than McCain comes at the front door, where a group of Bush staffers have set up an identification checkpoint. The 100 or so journalists who arrive are told to produce "credentials" before entering the ballroom of the William Penn Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh. Once the ID check is complete, the weapons detection process begins. A burly man with an earpiece and an electromagnetic wand gives each reporter a full-body frisk. With the perimeter secure, the event begins.
Bush and McCain arrive around 10:30. The two have just spent an hour and a half together in a suite upstairs talking. They are famous for disliking each other, but with a dozen television cameras in the room they pull off a fairly good imitation of friendliness. (For a straight talker, McCain can be impressively phony when he wants to be.) Bush thanks McCain for making him "a better candidate." McCain indicates that he likes Bush, too. Does this mean you endorse him for president? a reporter asks. "Yes," McCain says tersely.
The reporters throw out a few more questions. Suddenly a voice calls out from the back of the room. It's Karen Hughes, Bush's communications director. The press conference, she declares, has ended. A few moments later it does. Bush heads to the next campaign event. McCain leaves to catch a flight back to Washington. Neither says anything else.
The event had been billed in press accounts as a summit meeting, and in the end it turned out to be about as lively and surprising as a plenary session in Helsinki. But it came close to being a lot more exciting. Less than a week before he went to Pittsburgh, McCain was still planning to delay his endorsement of Bush. It's not clear what changed his mind, though Bush himself may have helped. The Sunday before the meeting, Bush called McCain at the senator's weekend house in Arizona. McCain's 14-year-old son Jack answered the phone, told Bush his father wasn't home, and asked him to call back later. Bush did, and the two had a short, pleasant conversation.
While his staff denies the call had anything to do with the apparent change of heart, McCain can be strongly influenced by personal gestures. (Bush aides, meanwhile, spun the call as more evidence of the governor's uniting, not dividing.) In any case, McCain at some point decided to throw his support to Bush. Then he told the press about it. At a book signing last Monday in a mall outside Pittsburgh, McCain was asked if he planned to endorse his former rival the next day. "Sure," McCain said.
Some in the Bush camp were irritated. The news, which made it onto the wires in about 20 minutes, drained the suspense -- and therefore deflated the headlines -- surrounding the summit. From Austin, it looked like simply another example of John McCain the impulsive bigmouth recklessly chattering with the media. Bush advisers spread the word that the news was not news, since an endorsement in Pittsburgh had been planned all along. Someone told McCain what the Bush people were saying. McCain got mad. By 11:00 the night before the meeting, rumors were circulating that McCain was ready to change his mind once again.
McCain managed to choke back his irritation, and by the end of the meeting both he and Bush emerged with something. McCain didn't receive concessions on campaign finance reform (or anything else), but he did please some of his allies back in Washington who had been urging him to hurry up and endorse the party nominee. McCain is thinking about running for president again in 2004. If he does, it will be helpful to have demonstrated that he can get along with Republicans.
Bush got to pretend that he and McCain agree on more than they actually do. "It's very helpful to have John embrace reform," he said at one point, as if McCain had finally caught on to the Bush Reform Agenda. Bush also used McCain's presence to defend his Social Security plan, a favorite target of the Gore campaign. Investing Social Security funds in the stock market makes sense, Bush said. "John and I agree strongly in that area." None of this may convince voters, but at the very least McCain's endorsement might prevent Al Gore from invoking the Arizona senator's name every time he slams Bush.
The public portion of the summit went smoothly, but what did the two talk about upstairs for 90 minutes? Unfortunately for history, there were no observers present. (The Bush campaign's request that Karen Hughes be allowed to sit in was laughed off the table by McCain advisers.) At the press conference, both McCain and Bush refused to characterize their conversation. It's a private matter, they both said firmly.
An hour later, standing at the US Airways gate at the Pittsburgh airport, drinking his fifth cup of coffee of the day, McCain was a bit less tight-lipped. It was a friendly enough meeting, McCain recalled. Bush avoided topics that "might be contentious," and instead chatted about his father, Ronald Reagan, and "how it's important for a president to inspire America." He complimented Cindy McCain on her role in the campaign. He didn't say much about campaign finance reform, though McCain came away with new insight into Bush's feelings about fund-raising. "I don't think he likes it," McCain said earnestly. "I don't think he likes it at all."
Actually, Bush seems to like fund-raising just fine. He's good at it, for one thing. (Bush is never more charming and impressive than when he's circulating from table to table greeting donors.) He has never appeared ashamed of raising money. Last year, as his campaign set new fund-raising records, Bush bragged that the donations were a measure of his popularity. Bush's finance staff describe their candidate as cheerful and tireless, an extremely effective fund-raiser who rarely complains.
Where did McCain get the idea that Bush doesn't like fund-raising? Evidently, Bush told him so. In other words, Bush used his 90 minutes in Pittsburgh to spin his former rival -- and perhaps successfully. George W. Bush may turn out to be a wilier candidate than anyone expected.
Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.