The Magazine

It's More Than Just a Campaign

There are a lot of ups and downs along McCain's high road

Mar 6, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 24 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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Phoenix, Ariz.


THERE ARE FEWER THAN 24 hours to go before the South Carolina primary when Rep. Mark Sanford rises before a crowd in Litchfield Beach to introduce John McCain. Sanford, a 39-year-old member of the class of 1994, was one of the first members of Congress (and still one of the few) to support McCain's candidacy. Smart, charming, and conservative, he is affluent, popular in his district, and has a terrific-looking family. Mark Sanford has a lot of talents. Gauging the sensibilities of an audience is not one of them.


Voting for John McCain, Sanford tells the crowd, is more than an exercise in civic duty. It is, says Sanford, a lot like what happens in the movie The Hurricane. In the film, a group of political activists decides that Ruben "Hurricane" Carter has been railroaded by a racist justice system and convicted of a murder he didn't commit. Carter's supporters are so convinced of his innocence that they move to the town where he has been imprisoned and stage a kind of continuous vigil until he is released. That's what a vote for John McCain is like, Sanford says. A blow for justice.


Sanford doesn't mention that the people who agitated for Hurricane Carter's release were left-wing radicals who lived in a commune. (Or, for that matter, that they were Canadians.) But it's clear that some in the largely white, middle-aged crowd have seen the movie. They look confused.


The candidate himself doesn't do much to reassure them. McCain seems tired, and he delivers his stump speech in an uncharacteristically flat tone, as if he has finally grown weary of repeating the same words. Perhaps to add variety, he throws in a new line. In the middle of his usual rap about inspiring the young to pursue causes "greater than their own self-interest," McCain mentions the trip he made last year to Boston, where he received the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award. Accepting the award with him, McCain remembers, was his good friend Sen. Russ Feingold, a liberal Democrat from Wisconsin.


For about five different reasons, this is not the sort of thing Republican candidates normally tell South Carolina primary voters. McCain compounds it by making an explicit pitch to Democrats and independents. As he leaves the stage, the music starts, loud as always. It's not rap -- the campaign saves that for the next event -- but a song by Queen, the late-'70s supergroup whose flamboyantly gay lead singer died several years ago of AIDS. Outside the room, several George W. Bush supporters are waving signs and waiting for McCain to emerge. One has tacked a full-color, poster-sized reproduction of the New Republic to a broom stick. The cover has McCain's picture on it. The headline says, "This Man is Not a Republican."


By any measure, it's an exaggeration. Judging by the positions he takes on most issues, McCain is a conventional Republican, even a fairly conservative one. Yet in primaries, issues usually matter less than symbols, something the Bush campaign seems to have figured out early. In addition to his now-famous trip to Bob Jones University, Bush blanketed radio and television in the state with ads that depicted McCain as the creepiest sort of NPR liberal -- a free-spending elitist who probably can't wait to raise taxes on the middle class in order to subsidize abortions and homosexual pornography. Less than a week before the primary, a PAC called Keep It Flying materialized out of nowhere and in its only recorded act sent a couple of hundred thousand letters to white voters pointing out that George W. Bush's wife, Laura, has publicly defended the right of South Carolina to fly the Confederate flag over the statehouse.


McCain's wife Cindy, meanwhile, was repeatedly attacked on radio call-in shows -- and in the northern part of the state, in push polls -- as a drug addict unfit to be first lady. One afternoon in Hilton Head, a man who said he did not work for the Bush campaign was spotted at a rally passing out flyers savaging Cindy McCain. A McCain aide chased the man, caught him, and was moments away from making the newspaper when Rep. Lindsey Graham stepped in to prevent violence.


Graham has traveled with the McCain campaign for weeks, and often acts as a calming influence. In television interviews, Graham can sometimes seem simple. He's not. On stage, Graham is a compelling speaker, inspiring and cuttingly witty. (At a rally in Myrtle Beach he described McCain as "a short man who looks good in a leather jacket.") On election night, in a hotel ballroom in North Charleston, Graham takes the podium to introduce the candidate, the night's loser. Behind him on a wall is an enormous hand-painted banner with the campaign's informal slogan: "Burn It Down." Across the room, above an alcove where soft drinks and popcorn are sold, is a permanent sign. In foot-high letters it reads: CONCESSION.


But Graham isn't ready to concede. The McCain campaign, he tells the crowd, is not simply a campaign. It is not merely a political movement. It is a kind of spiritual process. "One thing we've learned," he says, "is that if you're supporting John McCain you're better for the experience. You're a better person."


McCain supporters, of course, believe that McCain is a better person, and if politeness is a measure of virtue, they may be right. Minutes after CNN called the race in South Carolina, McCain called Bush from his hotel room to offer congratulations. Bush was in a jovial, talkative mood. Two days later, when the networks declared McCain the winner of the Michigan and Arizona primaries, McCain's staff kept a cell-phone line open for Bush's call. It never came. According to Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes, Bush's silence wasn't an act of pettiness or petulance or bad sportsmanship. He simply couldn't get to a phone. "He was on an airplane," she explains.


Actually, as Hughes admits moments later, Bush wasn't on an airplane at all, but at a rally in Kansas City when the news of his defeat appeared on television. It turns out he simply didn't feel like calling. "I don't think Sen. McCain called Gov. Bush to commend him on Delaware, or on Iowa for that matter," says Hughes, referring to two states in which McCain never campaigned.


If McCain's feelings are hurt by Bush's rudeness, he isn't showing it on election night in Phoenix. McCain has spent most of the day in the living room of his house chatting with friends and watching television. The race is called at 6:30 local time, and 90 minutes later, McCain is back on the bus on the way to his victory party. Next to him is John Weaver, the campaign's political director. A tall brooding Texan who has a five o'clock shadow by breakfast, Weaver usually looks like a man who has just received horrible news. McCain, who likes to needle him, calls him "Sunny John." Tonight Weaver is obviously delighted. McCain looks at him and grins. "Even Sunny is smiling," he says, "and when that happens you know it's a cataclysmic event. I don't expect it to last more than an hour or two."




Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.