On the Road
From New Hampshire to California, a diary of the real McCain campaign
Mar 27, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 27 • By TUCKER CARLSON
It's Super Bowl Sunday and John McCain is sitting on his campaign bus finishing off the second of two hamburgers. McCain has just given a rousing speech to a packed VFW hall, and he's hungry. An aide has arrived with an appliance-sized cardboard box of McDonald's food. As McCain eats, dripping ketchup liberally on his tie, the aide tosses burgers over his head to the out-stretched hands of reporters. One of the burgers comes close to baning George "Bud" Day, a 70-ish retired Air Force colonel who has been traveling with McCain. Around his neck Day wears the Congressional Medal of Honor, which he won for heroism during the years he spent with McCain in a North Vietnamese prison camp. "Where's the booze?" Day growls. Someone gestures to the back of the bus, and Day soon disappears to rejoin a group of fellow former POWs who, by the sound of it, have already located the bar.
"Senator," says a reporter who came on for the first time at the previous stop, "can I ask you a couple of questions?" McCain laughs. "We answer all questions on this bus. And sometimes we lie. Mike Murphy is one of the greatest liars anywhere." McCain points what's left of his hamburger at Murphy. "Aren't you Mike?" Murphy, a 37-year-old political consultant who is both McCain's message guru and his comic foil, nods solemnly. "Murphy has spent his life trying to destroy people's political careers," McCain says. "I'll have yours done on Tuesday," Murphy replies.
The reporter looks a little confused, but goes ahead and asks his question, which is about McCain's strategy for winning the New Hampshire primary. Before McCain can answer, Murphy jumps in with an insult. "The problem with the media," he says, "is you're obsessed with process, with how many left-handed, Independent soccer moms are going to vote." McCain translates: "You're assholes, in other words," he says, chortling and grinning so wide you can see the gold in his molars. About this time, one of the POWs sticks his head into the compartment where McCain is sitting. Sounds of clinking glasses and raspy old-guy laughter follow him from the back of the bus. "We're picking your cabinet back there, John," he says.
It takes only a day or two of this sort of thing for the average political reporter to decide that John McCain is about the coolest guy who ever ran for president. A candidate who offers total access all the time, doesn't seem to use a script, and puts on a genuinely amusing show? If you're used to covering campaigns from behind a rope line -- and virtually every reporter who doesn't cover McCain full time is -- it's almost too good to believe. The Bush campaign complains that McCain's style and personality have caused many reporters to lose their objectivity about him. The Bush campaign is onto something.
There are reporters who call McCain "John," sometimes even to his face and in public. And then there are the employees of major news organizations who, usually at night in the hotel bar, slip into the habit of referring to the McCain campaign as "we" -- as in, "I hope we kill Bush."
Primary day has arrived, and the final distinctions between McCain's mobile primary campaign and your average sophomore road trip to Vegas are breaking down. By 8:00 A.M., the last of the coffee, bottled water, Diet Coke, and candy have disappeared from the bus. All that remains is beer and donuts. McCain is eating the donuts. He's in a sentimental mood. Late polls have shown him likely to beat Bush today, but he doesn't seem particularly jubilant about it. Instead McCain mentions three times how much he will miss rolling through New Hampshire in a bus. He seems to mean it. With McCain you get the feeling that the pleasure is in the process -- that he considers the actual election a signal that the fun part is over. "It's been the great experience of my life," he says. "I'm feeling a little wistful."
McCain returns to his hotel suite and spends most of the afternoon chatting with his POW friends. At 7:00 the networks declare him the winner. The room erupts in cheers. All except McCain, who stands by himself, arms folded in front of him, unsmiling and not saying a word.