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.
After the speech, many of those on his staff gathered at a private VIP party in one of the Arizona Biltmore's lush green courtyards. There was a bar featuring a wide array of hard liquor and beer products from the Budweiser family, the company responsible for Cindy McCain's fortune. An adjoining room inside the resort featured a picked-over assortment of appetizers and desserts. In the courtyard, two oversized flat-panel televisions had been set up for watching returns, and in front of each one, ultra-comfortable resort chairs surrounded large fire bowls bringing welcome heat in the chilly desert night.
Jill Hazelbaker, McCain's exceedingly helpful communications director, sat in front of one television with some colleagues and her brother, who had joined her for the big night. Many of those on the communications staff she directed stood near the fire, watching panelists on Fox News chew over the results. The staff discussed surprising results (Indiana and North Carolina were too close to call), wondered about future job prospects (lobbying, statewide races in 2010, and, yes, the 2012 presidential campaigns), and evaluated the reporters covering McCain and Obama (NBC's Kelly O'Donnell, Reuters's Steve Holland, and the Chicago Tribune's Jill Zuckman were later mentioned as the most accurate and objective).
At one point, Goldfarb approached the television and pretended to throw a beer bottle at a smug-looking Jesse Jackson on the screen, and someone shouted at him, "Who's number two? Who's number two?" The group exploded in laughter.
In an appearance with Rick Sanchez on CNN in the final days of the campaign, Goldfarb had accused Obama of hanging out with anti-American and anti-Semitic figures and cited PLO sympathizer Rashid Khalidi as an example. Sanchez wanted more.
SANCHEZ: Can you name one other person besides Khalidi who he hangs around who is anti-Semitic?
GOLDFARB: Yes, he pals around with William Ayers who is an unrepentant domestic terrorist.
SANCHEZ: No, no, the question I asked you is can you name one other person who he hangs around with who is anti-Semitic? Because that is what you said.
GOLDFARB: Look, we all know there are people who Barack Obama has been in hot water--
SANCHEZ: Michael, I asked you to name one person. One.
GOLDFARB: Rick, we both--
SANCHEZ: You said he hangs around with people who are anti-Semitic. Okay. We got Khalidi on the table. Give me number two. Who's the other anti-Semitic person that he hangs around with that we quote, "All know about"?
GOLDFARB: Rick, we both know who number two is.
SANCHEZ: Who? Would you tell us?
GOLDFARB: No, Rick, I think we all know who we're talking about here.
SANCHEZ: Somebody who is anti-Semitic that he hangs around with?
SANCHEZ: Well, say it.
GOLDFARB: I think we all know who we are talking about, Rick.
Goldfarb had done the interview from a studio at the campaign headquarters in Crystal City, in suburban Virginia outside Washington, D.C. His exchange rocketed around the Internet and quickly became a favorite of left-wing bloggers--who alternately accused him of playing dirty by making charges he couldn't back up and wimping out by refusing to name a second anti-Semite. Others wondered whom Goldfarb was talking about.
If it wasn't obvious to them, the identity of "number two" was clear to those inside McCain headquarters: Reverend Jeremiah Wright. McCain had pledged last spring that he wouldn't use Wright's hate-filled sermons against Obama, who had listened to them for 20 years in the pews of Wright's church. But virtually no one on McCain's staff agreed with the candidate's restraint. Goldfarb had joked before the appearance that he was going to "go rogue" and bring up Wright's name in the interview. He didn't--barely--thereby preserving his job at the cost of looking a bit ridiculous. But when he walked into the campaign's common area after his exchange with Sanchez, his colleagues gave him a standing ovation.
The day after McCain's loss, these three McCain aides could not get beyond the campaign--in large part because of the frenzied postelection finger-pointing among their bosses. For months, McCain's staff received emailed "news alerts" with virtually every mention of the candidate or the campaign--receiving sometimes hundreds in an hour. After McCain's concession speech, the alerts slowed to a trickle. But as we drove from Phoenix to Las Vegas in a rented Jeep Commander, the campaign-issued BlackBerries began to buzz once again. By the time we were eating steak tartare at Stripsteak in Mandalay Bay, those emails were coming quickly.
On Wednesday afternoon, Carl Cameron had reported on Fox News that a McCain adviser had been "briefly fired" in the waning days of the campaign. That evening, on the O'Reilly Factor, Cameron reported that the aide was Randy Scheunemann, McCain's top foreign policy adviser and the stand-in for Joe Biden in Sarah Palin's debate rehearsals. Soon, other news outlets were reporting that Scheunemann had been fired, for excess of zeal in defending Palin against sniping by other staffers. Goldfarb, like many on the staff, understood that Scheunemann had not in fact been fired. Goldfarb excused himself from dinner to talk to reporters and correct the misimpressions. He was on the phone and on his BlackBerry for much of the night.
Earlier that evening, the sun was setting as we arrived in Las Vegas. The lights of the strip grew brighter against the darkening skies. We had been listening to classic rock for the entire drive, and as we prepared to exit onto Tropicana Avenue, a familiar song blared from the speakers. "Nah, nah--nah, nah, nah, nah--Hey, hey, hey--Goodbye."
I asked the McCain aides whether this--the arrival in Las Vegas and the odd timing of such an appropriate song--might signify that their campaign was finally done. A couple of chuckles--no real response.
No one was talking much, other than to wonder whether the Garmin nüvi, programmed just to direct us to Las Vegas, would take us to the hotel on the strip. After a few minutes passed in silence, Rogers, who was driving, was reflective.
"Isn't politics crazy? You work straight for two years nonstop and then you wake up one day and it's all over."
Or, given the postelection squabbling among campaign staffers, maybe not.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.