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The Boston Phoenix New Hampshire Diary

Is McCain a political cross-dresser? Is Bush letting conservative hatchet men fight his battles?

By Seth Gitell

JANUARY 17, 2000:  NEW HAMPSHIRE, JANUARY 6 -- George W. Bush is mocking me. We are in the post-debate spin room at the University of New Hampshire. He is on the stage. I am 10 feet from him, in a small pack of television cameras and reporters. I have just asked Bush about a subject raised during the Republican debate, when John McCain complained that a Bush "ally" is running ads in which McCain's face is "morphed" into Bill Clinton's. Picking up on that complaint, I ask Bush to respond to McCain's claim that the sponsor of the ads, Grover Norquist, is doing Bush's dirty work for him.

"McCain -- says -- Norquist -- is -- doing my -- dirty work," Bush says in a painstakingly slow cadence, looking at me incredulously, as if he's never heard the allegation before. He says this the way the coolest kid in school would respond to a question from a nerd. "Yeah," I say. "It just came up during the debate."

"I believe you asked me this before, and I told you then I haven't seen them," Bush chides. (In fact, I had asked him the same question the day before and he had insisted then that he knew nothing about the ads. I find it creepy and somewhat intimidating that Bush is able to remember me and my question from the pack of reporters following him around New Hampshire. Maybe he isn't as stupid as everyone seems to think.) Bush fails to change the subject, though. A minute later, another reporter raises the issue. "I'd hope that you'd seek out the independent groups that are running ads against me with the same zeal and indignation," Bush answers. He is looking right at me.

This rare breach in composure marks one of the few times in recent days that reporters have been able to pierce the shell of Bush's carefully stage-managed campaign. In this first week of January, Bush is hitting his stride in the presidential race. He is emphasizing his themes of leadership and tax cuts -- and heading toward a coronation.

But still, there is much talk in New Hampshire of two George Bushes. The good Bush is the "compassionate conservative" leader of the state with the second-biggest population in the union. The bad Bush, according to many in the McCain camp, is relying on conservative surrogates to chew McCain up and portray him as a crypto-Democrat -- an anti-tobacco, pro-campaign-finance-reform destroyer of the conservative way of life. The big question is how this will play with the natives.


Monday, January 3

The story of how I got under Bush's skin begins when I put out a round of calls to Washington conservatives, all classic insiders, to ask them about the primary race. Some were McCain supporters. Others liked Bush. But everybody was talking about someone else -- Grover Norquist. Norquist is the head of a group called Americans for Tax Reform. On December 22, he began running the ads that drew McCain's complaint. Norquist contends that McCain's plan for campaign-finance reform would weaken the Republican Party to the point of irrelevance. Because this is the same position that Bush holds, there has been much speculation (especially among McCain supporters) that Norquist is acting as a closet surrogate for the Texas governor.

The Bush supporters, meanwhile, believe that McCain's campaign behavior will help the Democrats. New Hampshire conservatives, who are suspicious-minded folk to begin with, think so too. President Clinton, after all, allowed McCain to speak at his gala millennium celebration at the Lincoln Memorial on New Year's Eve. And what reason would the Democrats have to promote McCain other than to hurt Bush? (For what it's worth, I once saw McCain and Clinton at a private gathering in Washington, DC. Clinton greeted McCain warmly, and the two men embraced.)

After numerous interviews with conservative operatives, I decide to venture up to the Granite State to survey the scene for myself.


Tuesday, January 4

My first stop is at Scudder Kemper Investments, located in a salmon-colored office park in Salem, where McCain is scheduled to give a speech. Before he talks, I make my way to the staging area, where I'm greeted by a man with a handlebar mustache and a Marine Corps tie pin. A Manchester firefighter, he is a volunteer advance man for McCain and a veteran of the Marines. Nearby is Paul Chevalier, who's decked out in a military-style garrison cap and ribbons identifying him as a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. His license plate reads GUNG HO. Chevalier tells me he is the New Hampshire chairman of Veterans for McCain. Veterans of all party affiliations have tremendous loyalty to McCain, who was a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam. They form a core of supporters that he can count on to attend events and provide a base of grassroots activism. In Merrimack, New Hampshire, there is a bridge called the Merrill's Marauders Bridge, which is named for an elite Army Ranger unit that fought in Burma during World War II. Call these vets McCain's Marauders.

Before McCain arrives, the Scudder workers sit quietly behind a yellow plastic-link chain in what usually serves as the employee dining area. When reporters try to ask them questions, they say, "We're not allowed to talk to you." It's like an audience of Dilberts. McCain arrives and is introduced by Lorie O'Malley, the president of Scudder's retirement division -- a blond woman whose face resembles a Matt Groening sketch. She invokes the need "to discuss issues key to the future of our firm and our nation." McCain gets up on the stage. The television reporters and camera people are upset: McCain doesn't look good in the light. But he forges on through his usual shtick -- campaign-finance reform, the military -- and adds a word about Social Security. Following his talk, the Scudder employees line up to greet the candidate. After a woman grasps his hand and says, "Thank you for your service to the military," I get the chance to ask my first question: how did it happen that McCain was able to deliver a high-profile address at Clinton's New Year's Eve extravaganza? "I was invited by [film producer] George Stevens. He was in charge of that," McCain tells me. The answer isn't satisfying. The event was Clinton's. Stevens just planned it, along with Quincy Jones. But McCain doesn't give me any more, and then the other reporters pounce.


Wednesday, January 5

Today McCain is scheduled to make what's being hyped as a "major speech on citizenship." When I arrive at the Manchester Boys and Girls Club, I find an old school gymnasium, an LED scoreboard, and six American flags. Marching music is playing in the background as the gym slowly fills. McCain and former education secretary William Bennett are sitting at a table, unmolested by reporters, signing books for a stream of students and old folks. Frequently on the campaign trail you see McCain groupies carrying copies of his autobiography, Faith of Our Fathers, for him to sign. The previous day I had met a screwball who'd driven all the way up from Worcester to get McCain to sign a blown-up photo of him with the candidate. Today, anyone who wants Bennett to sign his trademark Book of Virtues is in luck as well. Like movies and sports, these days politics seems to feature a merchandising element.

Between the groupies, I am able to draw Bennett's attention. I ask him what he thinks about McCain's campaign-finance position. "I think there will be a constitutional challenge," Bennett says. "I have concerns about the constitutionality of it. I think John McCain would welcome a challenge to clarify it." Then he stops. A blond, curly-haired high-school senior has stood to lead the Pledge of Allegiance.

McCain's speech follows some words from Bennett, who makes it clear that he's not giving McCain his official endorsement. McCain has done his marketing homework. He begins with a reference to Sir Ernest Shackleton, whose ill-fated 1914 expedition to Antarctica on the HMS Endurance is the subject of a new exhibit at the National Geographic Society. He praises the six firefighters who gave their lives in Worcester. He mentions Arlington National Cemetery. The strategists in McCain's campaign are plainly aware of two recent cultural trends: the newfound respect for the American veteran (evident in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation) and the craze for adventure stories, such as Shackleton's, Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm, and Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. After the junk food of the Clinton administration, McCain's people figure, Americans are in the mood for some old-fashioned meat and potatoes.

After McCain speaks, he is again mobbed by supporters. Waiting patiently is a group of students led by Andreas Reif, the principal of the Faith Christian Academy, who is wearing glasses, a tan trench coat, and a garish colored tie -- a Rush Limbaugh design! Reif tells me his institution is a Bible-believing academy. Outside the gym, I see a truck that has been servicing the event: Christian Party Rental, a division of Christian Delivery & Chair Service. Who says John McCain doesn't appeal to conservatives?

I drive to Fidelity's office complex in nearby Merrimack, where Bush will give a speech in a few hours. The office building abuts a finely manicured lawn with a pristine, artificial-looking pond. The setting seems fitting, because Bush's campaign is no less manufactured. One Fidelity flack meets me, and as another escorts me to the event area, I can hear the lead flack, Tom O'Rourke, saying of NBC's David Bloom and his cameraman: "No Fidelity people out of the building. If they [Bloom and his cameraman] want, they can go out." Upstairs -- again in the dining area -- I meet a reporter who's with the Nashua Telegraph. She tells me that the set-up for this event is much tighter than for a previous event Fidelity did with Steve Forbes. Texas Rangers, who provide security for Bush, are all over the place. The tight security, restricted access, and advance people give the proceedings a presidential feel; the Bush people are running their campaign as if he were the president in all but name. They've provided Fidelity employees with a little gray booklet, its cover bearing a creepy portrait of their man. A Fresh Start for America: Policy Addresses of George W. Bush. I expected it to be one of those joke books where all the pages are blank.

After much waiting and bitching and moaning on the part of reporters, the audience readies itself for Bush. Country music begins playing, and in he walks. "I'm runnin' for president because I got some things to do," Bush begins. "I believe free trade is good for America. I believe in NAFTA." During the foreign-policy portion of his talk, Bush refers to "accidental launches by madmen." This leaves me puzzled. The danger of accidental missile launches exists, as does the danger of missile launches by madmen, such as Saddam Hussein. But a madman wouldn't launch missiles at America or its allies by accident. A madman would do it intentionally. That's why they're called madmen. Perhaps this was just another of Bush's increasingly frequent slips of the tongue. Perhaps not. No one else seems to notice.

Bush concludes his remarks, and the country music starts up again. The candidate is mobbed by people who want to touch him and shake his hand. This is the kind of thing that happens to President Clinton. I get close, but a Texas Ranger stops me from getting close enough to ask a question. Instead I talk to Representative Charles Bass, a New Hampshire congressman who is supporting Bush. Bass, a moderate Republican, was a sponsor of the Shays-Meehan bill, the House version of campaign-finance-reform legislation. "I don't feel campaign finance should be an issue," he says when I press him on McCain's campaign-finance position. "There's a lot more to campaign finance than McCain-Feingold."

Then I ask Bass about McCain's performance at Clinton's New Year's Eve extravaganza. "They want to promote any challenge to George Bush," Bass says. "If I were Bill Clinton, I'd prop McCain up as best I could. They'll do anything."

By the time I'm done speaking with Bass, I've got a clear path to Bush. I slowly edge toward him. He's talking to a Fidelity jock about the Texas Rangers baseball team, which he once owned. "I was the guy who made a brilliant trade -- Sosa and Alvarez for Harold Baines," he says. The conversation wraps up, and that's when I ask Bush about those Grover Norquist ads. "I haven't seen them," Bush says.

"I'm just asking because a lot of people say that Norquist is just acting as a surrogate for you," I say.

"I haven't seen them," Bush repeats.

I wander away, and David Bloom leads the pack of reporters back toward Bush. This time it is Bush himself who is linking McCain to Clinton-Gore. "Senator McCain agrees with Al Gore that my tax plan is too much," Bush says. "I'm startled by the fact that Senator McCain and Al Gore are on the same page on this." There are at least 30 reporters around us at this point. Television cameras, too. Bush's lead spokeswoman, Karen Hughes, is standing about 12 inches from Bush. As Bush responds to reporters' questions, Hughes's eyes begin to shine. Her face is clenched, and she's staring right into his face. It's as if she were trying to give him the correct answers telepathically. If she were touching him, I'd think she was giving him the Vulcan mind meld. Somehow, Bush survives.

As the crowd disperses, I ask Hughes about the country music that seems to be serving as theme music for the Bush campaign. She says she hasn't heard it. I ask again, and she doesn't answer. Later, I ask the Fidelity people about it. They say the Bush campaign supplied the music. Someone thinks it was Travis Tritt. The Bush campaign is so stage-managed that the managers want to deny they are managing.


Thursday, January 6

I've had enough of the campaign trail. Setting off in search of real New Hampshire conservatives, I head to Madden's Restaurant, in Merrimack, where I meet computer programmer Bryan Williams. Williams's public life began in the '80s with a grassroots anti-gun-control effort called "Let Freedom Ring" that organized conservative activists to call Congress on April 19, the anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord (later, this would be the day Timothy McVeigh chose to bomb the federal building in Oklahoma City). Williams, a Forbes supporter, participates in a weekly gathering of conservatives modeled after the meetings Grover Norquist holds every week in Washington. He reviles McCain's proposals on campaign-finance reform, which, as he tells me over burgers, will "gut the Republican Party's ability to compete."

After lunch, I follow the trail of New Hampshire conservatives to the New Hampshire State House in Concord, where lawmakers are paid just $100 a year. I walk by a statue of Daniel Webster and into the building, which is filled with Civil War-era portraits and memorabilia. Inside I find one of the state legislature's most conservative members, Representative Richard "Stretch" Kennedy of Contoocook, who wears a tie pin in the shape of a revolver and keeps a miniature copy of the Constitution in his coat pocket. Kennedy has sued New Hampshire for violating the First Amendment with its campaign-finance laws. "I think McCain's a nut," says Kennedy, who supports Forbes. He adds that the Democrats seem to be promoting McCain: "If the Democrats like the campaign policies he's pushing, they'd be foolish not to build him up."

He calls Representative Kenneth Weyler of Kingston over to talk with me. Weyler, a Republican who supports Bush, recalls going to a "ladies' lilac luncheon" where McCain spoke. "We were surprised by his statement that we need to tax tobacco more," he says. He, too, thinks that the Clinton administration has been trying to build up McCain.

Later that afternoon, I leave for Durham, where a Republican debate will take place in just a few hours at the University of New Hampshire. When I arrive, supporters of the various campaigns are vying for attention in front of the debate site. Out front are the Bush supporters, chanting "G-W-B! G-W-B!" -- an appropriate chant for the most frat-boy-like of the candidates. The supporters could just as easily be chanting "S-A-E!" or "T-K-E!" The McCain people are here too, a mix of veterans and students. Then there are the Forbes people, clad in bright orange ponchos supplied by the campaign. Two of these Oompa-Loompas walk into the rally area carrying a huge Forbes sign.

Near debate time, the press room is filled with reporters -- including Grover Norquist himself, who is covering the debate for the American Spectator. Once the debate is under way, I watch him closely, especially when McCain challenges Bush about Norquist's ads. "Right now, a supporter of yours is running attack ads morphing Bill Clinton's face into mine," McCain says. "By the way, ask him to get a better picture, will you? And ask him at least, at least to disclose where the money's coming from."

I get up out of my seat and move one row, to where Norquist is sitting. Bush replies: "Hey John, this so-called supporter was running ads against me in the state of Texas." As the exchange takes place, Norquist sits calmly in his seat. He sips Pepsi from a plastic bottle, looks at correspondence, and puts it back into his planner. He opens and shuts his planner several times.

When the debate is over, I ask Norquist to disclose his donors as McCain requested. "We have 100,000 donors. We didn't use any money from anybody who gave me more than 100 bucks," Norquist says. "McCain would know this if he asked. He just wanted to make something out of this silliness."

For the record, Norquist denies having anything to do with Bush.

Following this encounter, I rush into the briefing room, where Bush then arrives. That's when I ask him about his connection to Norquist and he gets annoyed.

When McCain comes in, I tell him that Norquist is in the hall. I repeat Norquist's answer to McCain's request verbatim. Is McCain satisfied? No. "I would very much appreciate it if he would disclose the names of his donors. I would ask Governor Bush to ask him to disclose those names," McCain says. "And ask him again to get a better picture of me."

I rush back to Norquist and repeat what McCain just told me. "That's a pathetic response," Norquist says. He points out that if he publicized the names of his donors, liberal activists and the government would then have the names. The Internal Revenue Service could audit conservatives. There could be reprisals from the Clinton administration.

Norquist does back up Bush's claim that he once ran ads against Bush's position on taxes as Texas governor. "We spent $200,000 down there," Norquist says. "Bush wasn't a crybaby about it like McCain. He never took it personal, and he did the right thing in the end." And he says, by the way, that he got the McCain photograph from the senator's own campaign.

I leave Norquist in the hall alone and drive back down Route 95. My three days in New Hampshire have left me with the feeling that Bush's aggressive Granite State strategy has weakened McCain. Whether there is a direct connection or not, Bush will be able to bank on the fact that the conservatives -- in New Hampshire and elsewhere -- will hate McCain more than they hate him. His campaign will sit back and act presidential, leaving others to tar John McCain with the dreaded brush of Clintonism.


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