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.
After his speech a few hours later, McCain and his wife are hustled into a conference room in the hotel for their first round of post-victory television interviews. Outside, the scene in the lobby looks like the end stages of a particularly rowdy wedding reception. The campaign has hired a couple of heavily tattooed Manhattan nightclub DJs to run the sound and lights. One of them -- the guy with five earrings and control of the CD player -- recently came off tour with the Foo Fighters and Nine Inch Nails. He's blasting a tune by Fatboy Slim. Hundreds of people are dancing and cheering and yelling.
Inside, where McCain is, the room is dark and still. Cameramen and sound technicians are fiddling with coils of wires on the floor. A photographer, exhausted from days on the road, has taken off his boots and is lying flat on his back asleep surrounded by camera bags. A CNN crew works to dial up the satellite link to Larry King Live.
McCain seems oblivious to it all. He has his eyes locked, unblinking, on the blank camera in front of him. His teeth are set, his chin thrust forward in go-ahead-I-dare-you position. Between interviews, he maintains the pose. McCain looks on edge and unhappy, not at all like a man who has just achieved the greatest political triumph of his life. There is no relief on his face.
It's a dramatic change from a week or two before. Back then, before he had seriously considered the possibility that he could become president, McCain seemed determined to run the most amusing and least conventional campaign possible. His style became more free-form by the moment. In the final days before the New Hampshire primary, McCain took to pulling wackos out of the crowd at his town meetings and giving them air time. "Anyone who makes the effort to show up in costume deserves the microphone," McCain explained when a reporter asked what he was doing. At one point he handed the mike to a man dressed like a shark. A few days later he turned the stage over to a guy with a boot on his head and a pair of swim fins glued to his shoulders like epaulets.
For a politician it was risky, almost lunatic behavior -- imagine if the shark man had started raving about Satanism, or the pleasures of child pornography. McCain appeared to thrive on it. Now, sitting in the dark waiting for Larry King, he seems burdened, or at least bewildered. Something unexpected has happened to John McCain: He won. He is the dog who caught the car.
It's close to midnight when the staff bus leaves the hotel for the Manchester airport. There's a case of champagne on the floor near the driver, but everyone is drinking beer. The whole thing is so amusingly improbable -- the joke that came true. A few minutes later, Mike Murphy scans the AP wire and learns that McCain's lead has grown to 19 points. He chuckles. "What a caper," he says.
The bus finally pulls onto the tarmac and comes to a stop beside an elderly-looking jet with Pan Am markings. Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has spent all week stumping for McCain, peers out the window and spots it. He looks slightly concerned. I think I can tell what he's thinking: Didn't Pan Am go out of business years ago? "What kind of plane is that?" he asks Murphy. "It's a Russian copy of a 727," Murphy says. "It was decommissioned from Air Flug in the 70s. The Bulgarian mechanics checked it out and said it runs fine. We're not wasting precious campaign dollars on expensive American-made, quality aircraft. A minivan full of vodka and a sack of potatoes and we got it for the whole week."
Murphy seems to be joking, though over the next month, as the campaign travels from coast to coast and back again and again, the plane does take on a certain Eastern European feel. The flight attendants speak in hard-to-pin-down foreign accents. The paint around the entryway is peeling. The bathrooms are scarred with cigarette burns. The right engine periodically makes loud, unexplained thumping noises. Occasionally, in flight, the plane lists dramatically to one side for no apparent reason. Almost every landing ends with at least three bounces along the runway. As the plane touches down at a private airstrip in rural Ohio one afternoon, a voice comes over the intercom with a disconcerting announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Indianapolis."
None of this bothers McCain, who has successfully bailed out of four airplanes and knows he's not going to die in one. (Nervous reporters joke that if the plane does start to go down everyone on board will try to hop into his lap.) He spends most of his time in the air asleep. Presidential candidates traditionally sit at the front of the plane, behind a curtain where they can confer privately with their staffs. McCain does very little in private. After each event he reboards the plane like any other commuter, opens and closes a series of overhead bins in search of a place to store his coat, then finds a seat in economy class and sprawls out, head back and mouth open. Before long he is snoring quietly.
If it's after four in the afternoon, just about everyone else has a drink. Cocktails are a recurring motif on the McCain campaign. The candidate himself rarely drinks more than a single chilled vodka, and then only in private. Members of his staff are almost always in the bar till closing. (When the bar at the Copley Plaza in Boston finally stopped serving one night, one of the campaign's traveling press secretaries went to his room, emptied the contents of the minibar into a pillow case and returned to keep the festivities going.) At the front of the plane, right outside the cockpit and across from the cigarette-burned lavatory, are coolers of beer and wine, surrounded by baskets of candy bars and plates of cheese cubes. At the back is a bar -- not a rack of miniature airplane bottles, but a table laid out with quarts of booze, ice, and mixers. Minutes after takeoff a crowd gathers near the rear galley.
A cable news producer works to wrench the cap off a beer bottle with a cigarette lighter as a group of cameramen sit nearby chatting and drinking horrible airplane champagne out of two-piece plastic cups. John Weaver, McCain's taciturn political director, stands at the bar pouring himself an unusually large drink. In the row next to him is the campaign's advance team, which is busy stuffing confetti guns -- thick plastic pipes with CO canisters at the bottom -- with orange streamers in preparation for the next rally. They're drinking, too. Cindy McCain, the candidate's wife, approaches, a glass of wine in hand, only to be intercepted by an MTV correspondent who looks about 15. "Could I get a quick interview?" asks the MTV girl. "Sure," says Cindy. Sitting off to the side, watching it all, is Greg Price, the guy who will drive the bus when the plane lands.
Price has been with McCain since the beginning of the New Hampshire campaign, when he was hired from a charter bus company in Ohio. He is 30, a laid-back, chain-smoking Navy veteran with no previous interest in politics. Price initially expected to be back home within a couple of weeks. That was in August. In December, he returned to Columbus briefly, got married, then left to rejoin McCain two days later. He has seen his wife for a total of 24 hours since. She is seven months pregnant. The New Hampshire primary changed Price's life.
Like a lot of former fighter pilots, John McCain is superstitious. He wears lucky shoes, eats lucky food, makes certain to get out on the correct side of the bed. His pockets are filled with talismans, including a flattened penny, a compass, a feather, and a pouch of sacred stones given to him by an Indian tribe in Arizona. He jokes about all of this, but he's not really kidding. At some point, McCain began to suspect that Price was a lucky bus driver. The campaign's rising poll numbers seemed to bolster this theory; the subsequent 19-point New Hampshire blowout proved it.
In the weeks since, Price has gone everywhere with McCain. Campaigns typically hire new bus drivers in each city. Those who travel stay in inexpensive hotels near the rest of the campaign staff. Price has stayed in McCain's hotel every night, sometimes in a suite. On some trips he has been a passenger rather than a driver. He has come to know McCain's family; on the night of the Arizona and Michigan primaries he sipped cocktails in the candidate's living room in Phoenix. ("You're never going home again," Cindy McCain told him when CNN announced that her husband had won both states.) And despite a long night at the bar in the Dearborn Hyatt, he is at the wheel of the bus at 8:00 A.M. Sunday morning to take McCain over to Meet the Press.
McCain lost the South Carolina primary last night, but you'd never know it from the way he's acting. He's in a great mood. As the bus rolls past miles of rubble-strewn vacant lots on the way to the television studio, McCain is laughing and telling story after story -- about the late Rep. Mo Udall, about the Naval Academy, about the time he watched an Indian woman give birth in the corner of a bar in New Mexico. He doesn't seem upset about South Carolina. He hasn't come up with any talking points to explain his loss there. He doesn't appear to be preparing for Meet the Press in any way. McCain's aides aren't even sure how long he's going to be on the show this morning. Half an hour? Fifteen minutes? No one seems to know. (The full hour, McCain discovers when he gets to the studio.) It's obvious that no one really cares, least of all McCain.
McCain has never had a reputation as much of a detail guy. He can do a pretty good campaign-finance-reform rap. He can talk forever about the need to open up Reagan National Airport to long-haul flights to the West Coast. He seems to know everything about American Indian tribes in Arizona. Venture far beyond those topics and the fine print gets blurry. As he explained one morning a few weeks ago, there's no reason to get sucked into "Talmudian" debates over policy. "I won't bother you with the details," McCain often says when a member of the audience at one of his speeches asks about a specific piece of legislation. "That's a very good question," he'll respond, and then neglect to answer it.
It's an effective technique on the stump. Most people don't really want to know the details. But it is also a reflection of the candidate's personality. McCain can be kind of reckless. In fact, he enjoys being kind of reckless, and so does his staff.
Not surprisingly, McCain is having a pretty rough time on Meet the Press. One of his most prominent supporters in South Carolina, it turns out, is affiliated with a magazine that has been hostile to the organized civil rights movement. Tim Russert is hammering McCain on the subject. McCain looks like he isn't sure what to say. In the next room, McCain's aides are watching the show by remote. John Weaver is eating a piece of melon and chuckling about the campaign's unofficial slogan, "Burn it Down." "It's like Stokely Carmichael," Weaver says. "Power to the people!" He throws his fist into the air. "Burn it down -- I love that." A few days later, at the bar on the plane, Weaver comes up with a new slogan: "Eradicate Evil." "We're going to have T-shirts printed," Weaver says. "They're going to have 'E<2>' above crossed light sabers."
McCain seems to be taking his own slogans to heart. At a rally this morning in Traverse City, he spent more time than usual beating up on the Republican party. "My friends," he said gravely, "my party has lost its way. My party has become captive to special interests." In conversations with reporters, he has begun to make disparaging references to the "Christian right," the "extreme right," and the "bunch of idiots" who run Bob Jones University. On the bus from Saginaw to Ypsilanti, he goes all the way, recalling with a smile "that old bumper sticker: The Christian Right is Neither."
Part of this is calculated rhetoric: McCain knows most evangelicals aren't planning to vote for him anyway. Bashing them might bring him more votes from moderates. But part of it is heartfelt. During the race in South Carolina, leaflets were distributed at political events that savaged Cindy McCain for her early-90s addiction to prescription painkillers. McCain blames conservative Christian groups (and to some extent, the Bush campaign) for the flyers, as well as for a series of ugly push polls. For the first time, he talks about his opponents in a way that seems bitter. "They're going around saying Cindy's a drug addict who's not fit to be in the White House," McCain says, his fists clenched. "What am I supposed to do? Come out and make a statement that my wife is not a drug addict?"
He is still mulling the question a couple of weeks later when the campaign plane touches down in St. Louis. McCain is in town for a few hours to participate by remote in a televised forum with Bush and Alan Keyes. It is the last scheduled debate. McCain knows he must do well. He and half a dozen advisers gather in the conference room of a television station downtown to eat barbecue and prepare. McCain is resigned to appearing tonight with Alan Keyes ("If we tried to keep him out of the debate, he might chain himself to my front door"), but it is clear that the very thought of George W. Bush makes him agitated. McCain is angry at Bush. Very angry.
I happen to be standing next to the coffee maker when McCain walks over to pour his ninth cup of the day. He's thinking about what he needs to do in the debate, and about mistakes he has made in weeks past. "I've got to try not to get down into the weeds tonight," he says, to himself as much as to me. Bush may be a dishonest candidate running a vicious campaign, but in the end . . . McCain looks up from his coffee. "Nobody gives a shit."
It's a good point, and absolutely true. Voters say they dislike attacks ads, but they generally believe them. They may feel sorry for a candidate who is being bashed over the head, but they tend to assume he must have done something wrong. And no matter how they feel about the accuracy of an attack, voters almost always perceive complaints about negative campaigning as whining. McCain knows all this. He also knows that the public doesn't believe that his campaign has behaved any more honorably than Bush's -- particularly after McCain was caught lying last month about calls his campaign was making to voters in Michigan. Still, he is finding it hard to choke back how he feels. And how he feels is aggrieved.
McCain feels aggrieved fairly often, but for some reason his aides hate to admit it. One morning in New Hampshire, a reporter asked McCain what he would do if his 15-year-old daughter Meghan were raped and became pregnant. Would he allow her to have an abortion? McCain's face reddened as he listened to the question. After a family discussion, he replied slowly, "the final decision would be made by Meghan." Reporters pounced. But isn't that a pro-choice position? No it's not, barked McCain. He looked furious.
Except he wasn't, it was explained later. Moments after McCain got off the bus, Todd Harris, the campaign's traveling press secretary, loped to the back where half a dozen reporters were still sitting, replaying their tapes and checking their notes. Harris had heard that someone, probably a wire-service reporter, was planning to describe McCain's response to the pro-choice question as "angry." Harris was determined to stop the adjective in its tracks. "Who's calling him 'angry'?" he demanded. No one confessed. McCain wasn't angry at all, Harris explained. He was merely "tense."
An hour and a half later, McCain's mood was upgraded. A friend and I were sitting in a diner in downtown Manchester having breakfast when Todd Harris walked up to our booth carrying a statement from McCain on the abortion question. "I misspoke," it began, and went on to explain that if Meghan McCain were to get pregnant, the entire family, not Meghan alone, would decide what to do next. Dutifully retrieving our notebooks, my friend and I took this down. What about McCain's state of mind on the bus this morning? I asked. If he wasn't angry, is it fair to say he was irritated? That's acceptable, said Harris, nodding. "The AP's going with 'irritated.'"
With three minutes to go before air time in St. Louis, McCain is standing in the make-up room with a small group of advisers practicing his final comments. Rick Davis, his campaign manager, is humming "Ode to Joy" and pacing in the corner. McCain is using a thick blue marker to jot down some final revisions on a piece of scrap paper. His arm hooks in the shape of a sickle when he writes. His script is terrible. Looking out across an imaginary audience, McCain tries to recite what he has written. "I am a proud Reagan conservative," he says. "I am . . . " He stumbles, stops, then closes his eyes. For an instant he looks defeated, like he may not be able to continue. "I'm drawing a blank," he says. Mike Murphy leans forward until he is inches from McCain's face. "It's okay," he says softly.
And in seconds, it is. Soothing McCain is a large part of Murphy's job. McCain loves funny stories, and during lulls in the conversation on the bus he often asks Murphy to tell the one about the candidate he worked for who seemed to have Alzheimer's. Or about the campaign ad he claims he once made that accused an opponent of selling liquor to children. As Murphy tells the story, no matter how old it is, McCain breaks into hysterical, chair-pounding, hard-to-breathe laughter. McCain is genuinely amused by Murphy -- he calls him "Murphistopheles," "The Swami," or simply "008," James Bond's little-known political consultant brother -- but he is also calmed by his presence. A minute later, McCain grabs a final cup of coffee and heads into the studio.
The debate goes fairly smoothly for McCain, despite the obvious disadvantage of appearing by remote. Afterward, as he sits in a chair having his make-up removed, Murphy renders the verdict. "You were better than last time," he says. "You were good." "Do you think so?" asks McCain. It's not a rhetorical question. McCain honestly wants to know. "You were better and he was better," replies Murphy, "so it was sort of a blur."
It soon becomes clear that a blur was not good enough. Two days before the California primary, it is obvious to virtually everyone that McCain will not win the nomination. His poll numbers have stopped rising. On the bus McCain seems, by turns, happier and more frustrated than ever. His is probably both. McCain prefers a righteous fight to almost anything, and Bush has given him new reason for outrage. A pair of rich Bush supporters in Texas have paid for an ad that attacks McCain's record on environmental issues. The ad is nasty and misleading, but what really incenses McCain is the idea of it. Billionaire Texans attacking my integrity? Outrageous. McCain gets hotter with every campaign stop.
"Tell Governor Bush to tell his cronies in Texas to stop destroying the American political system!" he shouts to a crowd in Ohio the Sunday before the primary. "If they get away with it," McCain tells reporters on the bus in California that night, "then I think it will change the nature of American politics forever. It will destroy it." The following morning, Bush's Texas Cronies have become "Governor Bush's sleazy Texas buddies." By afternoon, McCain is accusing Bush and his supporters of trying "to steal this election." Stopping them, he says, "is a race against time." Finally, on what turns out to be one of the campaign's final bus rides, from LAX to the hotel, McCain's rhetoric reaches the boiling point. "If this is allowed to go unchecked," he says, "there's never going to be another young American who's ever going to vote again, over time."
McCain sounded about as angry as a presidential candidate can, or for that matter ever has. Except that in real life, he didn't. McCain is one of those people who have to be seen to be properly understood. On paper he can come off as a red-faced blowhard. In person the effect is far more complicated. McCain can accuse a person of subverting democracy and grin as he says it, all without being phony or disingenuous. He can rant about the evils of the special interests as he cheerfully attempts to eat an eclair with a plastic spoon. I've seen him do it. John McCain is a happy warrior, maybe the only real one in American politics.
With defeat a day away, McCain is becoming even looser. He no longer seems mad about losing. He seems to feel vindicated. To McCain, a loss to the massive Bush machine is proof that everything he has been saying for the past year is true: That money is the decisive factor in politics. That the system is rigged to exclude outsiders and mavericks. That the Establishment felt so threatened by his honesty that it mobilized to crush him. Most of all, McCain considers his defeat evidence that he ran an honorable campaign -- he lost because he would not do anything to win.
In speeches, he continues to swing wildly at Bush. On the bus, his jokes are getting more outrageous. ("We ought to call this The Bullshit Express," he says to Murphy. "Get someone to paint 1-800-BULLSHIT on the side.") Members of his staff are taking pictures of each other, presumably to capture a moment that is about to end. There is no longer much reason to pretend. Or for that matter to be polite about the opponent. Murphy has taken to wearing a pin that says "W stands for Wuss."
By quarter to eight on the night of the California primary John McCain's presidential campaign has minutes to live. Tim Russert has just told McCain's guys that the latest round of exit polls from California looks bad. McCain is going to lose. He has already lost New York and Ohio and a couple of other states. The networks haven't called the race yet, but the official pronouncement is imminent. McCain isn't one to drag things out. "All right, Johnny," he says, looking around the Beverly Hilton Hotel suite for John Weaver, the campaign's political director. It is Weaver's job to arrange concession calls to the Bush campaign. Weaver hates doing it, and for the moment he has disappeared.
"Johnny," McCain calls again.
Weaver's voice floats out of an adjoining bedroom. "Do I have to?" he asks. "Yep," says McCain.
A few minutes later, Weaver appears with a cell phone. His mouth is puckered, like he just took a shot of something sour. Bush is on the line. McCain takes the phone without hesitating. Then he leans back in his chair, feet on the coffee table in front of him, chilled vodka in hand, and congratulates the man he has come to despise. "My best to your family," McCain says. The conversation is over in less than 30 seconds.
And that's it -- the end of John McCain's run for president. Now it's time to face the reporters waiting in the lobby, and from there on to the concession speech. For a moment the room is silent. A few of McCain's aides look like they might cry. Not McCain. He is buzzing with energy. "Let's go," he says, bouncing out of his chair. "Onward."
Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.