The Magazine

What Happens in Vegas . . .

Is reported here: A McCain campaign postmortem.

Nov 17, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 09 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Las Vegas
As she dealt one losing hand after another at Mandalay Bay's $10 blackjack tables early Wednesday evening, Trisha, a chatty dealer from Bloomington, Minnesota, changed the subject from cards to Barack Obama.

"Ohhhh ya," she said in a sing-songy northern plains accent, "me and my girlfriend are going to go to the Inauguration. It's so exciting. Did you watch that speech? Oh my God! Do you think he just made that all up as he went along? Oh my God! He's amazing!"

A businessman from Nashville, in town for a convention, rolled his eyes. "That's how Obama won," he whispered. The dealer did not hear him.

"It's just so exciting," she said, preparing to go on.

"Let's not talk about it," said Michael Goldfarb, taking a long sip from his Johnnie Walker Black on the rocks.

Another guy at the table agreed. "It's blackjack."

Until 18 hours earlier, Goldfarb had talked about little besides Barack Obama for a year. The brash Princeton graduate, a once and future colleague at THE WEEKLY STANDARD, had served as the deputy communications director for McCain's campaign. In that capacity he had been responsible for much of the aggressive response to reporters McCain staffers regarded as "in the tank" for Obama. He didn't make many friends in the media. He doesn't care.

Goldfarb made the five-hour post-election road trip to Vegas from Phoenix with two other youthful campaign veterans, Brian Rogers, who directed the campaign's rapid response, and Joe Pounder, who, as one of his colleagues put it, "actually did all of the work." They were hoping to leave the campaign behind. They couldn't.

Trisha turned over one hand after another of spirit-crushing cards. "Pounder's taking some losses," said Rogers. "Like Virginia or Nevada?" Goldfarb wondered.

I explained to Trisha that Goldfarb, Rogers, and Pounder had worked for McCain and had driven up from the McCain concession speech in Phoenix. She apologized for their continued bad luck, and someone asked if she thought she might be able to turn it around. She paused before answering.

"Yes, we can."

For these three McCain communicators, it had been a long 24 hours. They arrived in Phoenix on Monday and, after a leisurely dinner with some others on the staff, they awoke Tuesday and made several hours' worth of get-out-the-vote calls. It wasn't glamorous duty. But Election Days are the most painful days for campaign staff, who take turns fighting off anxiety and boredom.

By early afternoon, many on the campaign had learned that the first round of exit polls was bad. The loss they had anticipated was slowly becoming a reality.

McCain spoke at 11:15 P.M. Several people on his staff had lingered a bit too long at a private reception for staff and major supporters and had to scramble to get to the back lawn of the Biltmore Hotel for McCain's speech. The Secret Service had set up an elaborate screening process, and only some staffers had the special pin that allowed them to bypass it. Goldfarb assured the agent--the proverbial finger in the dike--that a couple of us following him were okay to get in. But our number grew quickly from two or three to two or three dozen. As others waited before the magnetometer, we clambered over some large metal boxes meant to keep us out and dashed toward the lawn.

McCain opened his remarks by acknowledging that the American people had spoken with their votes. And he smiled that slightly impish grin as he noted that they had spoken clearly. McCain's staff wore their disbelief--that their man had lost, that this all-consuming race was over--on their faces. Several of them nodded enthusiastically and exchanged knowing looks when McCain mentioned the "challenges" his campaign had faced in the current political climate.

A few young women in the crowd began to weep. One staffer close to the stage let out sobs so loud that she drew looks from those around her, concerned that her crying might have been audible to McCain.

McCain didn't seem to notice. His speech was magnificent, and he delivered it well:

I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together, to find the necessary compromises, to bridge our differences, and help restore prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger better country than we inherited. Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.