The Magazine

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
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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."