The Love Bus
On the road with John McCain -- and the media horde that adores him. Plus, trailing George W. Bush.
By Dan Kennedy
FEBRUARY 21, 2000: GREENVILLE, SOUTH CAROLINA -- The Straight Talk Express -- a bus that's expanded into a three-vehicle caravan since John McCain's unexpectedly large victory in New Hampshire -- has just pulled up in front of City Hall. A crowd of people has gathered, waiting expectantly for the candidate. Among them is Geno Church, a city employee who's holding his five-year-old daughter, MacKenzie, so she can get a closer look. She points to a huge sign on one of the buses that says MCCAIN and asks, "Daddy, why does that sign say MEDIA?"
The McCain campaign is many things. An insurgent effort by an underfunded challenger against an establishment candidate -- George W. Bush -- who's been anointed with more than $65 million in contributions. A crusade to clean up a hopelessly corrupt political system. A book tour to promote Faith of My Fathers, which, McCain jokingly but carefully notes at every stop, was published by Random House and is available from Amazon.com for $24.95. (It's working: Faith of My Fathers was Amazon's 36th hottest-selling book as of Tuesday.)
Above all else, though, the McCain campaign is a media moment. The press has fallen hard for McCain, harder than it fell for Bill Clinton in 1992, harder than it fell for Gary Hart in 1984 or George McGovern in 1972. Aboard the Straight Talk Express, it's clear that the reporters believe they're in the midst of something historic -- something akin, perhaps, to the 1960 campaign of John F. Kennedy, the last time a war hero with a sense of humor and a proclivity for mixing it up with the press ran for president.
"It's kind of a running dialogue that goes on on the McCain bus. The extraordinary thing about the McCain campaign is that everything is on the record. I've never seen anything like it," says veteran Boston Globe reporter Curtis Wilkie. Wilkie -- one of the characters who pops up in Timothy Crouse's classic on the 1972 campaign, The Boys on the Bus -- calls McCain's dealings with the media something of a "throwback" to the days when "you didn't have nearly as many press people running around, and in general the candidates were more accessible." And for the press, there is no higher value than accessibility.
It's not that the press is consciously in the tank for McCain, or that he escapes all critical scrutiny. The beat reporters say they're careful not to let their easy access to the candidate twist their coverage. But the cumulative effect of McCain's blunt candor, his nonstop, on-the-record chatter, his sense of brio and his insouciance, has been to create an aura of goodwill in which the candidate -- unlike perhaps any other national politician -- automatically receives the benefit of the doubt.
Collectively -- with, of course, certain exceptions (Time magazine broke from the pack last week with excellent pieces on McCain's ultraconservative ideology and lack of a substantive agenda beyond campaign-finance reform) -- the media have concluded that McCain is capable of transcending his unremarkable career in the Senate, his run-of-the-mill influence-peddling, and his doctrinaire conservatism to reform a political system that has grown hopelessly corrupt and out of touch with average Americans. Are they right?
To believe that McCain is the one who can break what he calls the "iron triangle" of lobbyists, money, and legislation is, in many ways, an enormous leap of faith. He claims he got religion after getting caught up in the Keating Five savings-and-loan scandal of the 1980s, yet Washington lobbyists who do business with the Senate Commerce Committee, which he chairs, continue to be among his biggest contributors. But McCain argues that he's got to play the game by the rules as they are now until he's in a position to change them. And the media have chosen to believe him.
There is, to be sure, a convincing argument for that faith: the stark fact of McCain's five and a half years in a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp, a hell he could have gotten out of at any time simply by telling his captors he'd had enough. A man who would submit to torture rather than hand his tormentors a propaganda victory is obviously someone who possesses remarkable courage and integrity. And if he has been a somewhat ordinary senator up until now, the fact is that he does seem to have undergone a battlefield conversion -- not in terms of ideology, as Jonathan Chait overheatedly argued in the New Republic recently, but, rather, in redefining the bounds of what is acceptable political conduct. Perhaps the appropriate analogy is not to John Kennedy but to Harry Truman, who, upon Franklin Roosevelt's death, found it within himself to rise above his mediocrity and become a near-great president.
Bush, meanwhile, is actually running a pretty good campaign in South Carolina. Freed of the constraints his handlers imposed on him in New Hampshire, he's doing hour-and-a-half rallies, speaking without notes, taking all questions, answering with a surprising degree of specificity and detail. But, at least as far as the media are concerned, it's not doing him much good: coverage of the Bush campaign has mainly focused on sleazy anti-McCain ads by the campaign and its allies, such as the right-to-lifers, and on charges -- denied directly by Bush -- that he's hired push-pollers who call potential voters and spread dirt about McCain.
It's a dramatic confrontation, and one that will climax this Saturday, when South Carolina holds its Republican primary. The polls show it to be a toss-up, but the truth is that the outcome may not be close. A big turnout among Democrats and independents could translate into a big McCain victory; on the other hand, if they stay home, Bush could win by a substantial margin. The only thing that's certain is that the winner will be in a strong position to roll to the nomination. If Bush wins, he'll stop McCain's momentum, depriving the insurgent of money and, more important, media. But if McCain wins, party elders who backed Bush because he looked like a winner may start to defect.
With Al Gore looking increasingly like a sure thing on the Democratic side, the McCain-Bush race is the year's biggest political story. What happens this weekend will go a long way toward determining how it's going to end.
It turns out that the trooper, Michael O'Donnell, is an ex-Marine who's been dying to meet McCain. Trouble is, McCain's not even with us: he stayed behind in Columbia to do an editorial board with the State, South Carolina's largest newspaper. A McCain aide hands the cop a bumper sticker. We all laugh, and we're back on our way. "The poor guy. He says, 'This isn't going to be on the news, is it?' Oh, noooo," jokes a TV producer as she returns to the bus. I ask a McCain aide if the senator will help the trooper get his job back after he gets fired. She smiles, but doesn't answer.
McCain's military service may win him respect from the media, but it makes him a five-star celebrity in South Carolina, a state chock full of veterans and active personnel. McCain knows how powerful that is. At an event at the Charleston Ice Palace, in North Charleston, McCain asks all the veterans in the audience to stand (it is an impressive showing), and promises them more pay and benefits. "There will be no food-stamp army when I am president of the United States," he says. At almost every stop, someone in the audience gets up and thanks McCain for his service, a gesture that is invariably followed by a standing ovation.
But stressing his military service isn't the only way McCain has tried to counter the Bush-camp spin that he's some sort of closet liberal and Clinton clone. This is Strom Thurmond country, and McCain has been tacking right since he landed here at 3 a.m. on February 2, the day after the New Hampshire primary. Everywhere he goes he's introduced by Representative Lindsey Graham, one of the House impeachment managers, who never fails to cite McCain's support for the Contract with America, which is still popular here, even if its author, Newt Gingrich, isn't. At a speech on education reform at the University of South Carolina at Spartanburg, McCain bashed "self-serving union bosses" and promised to appoint judges "who don't divine from our Constitution nonexistent prohibitions on basic rights such as voluntary school prayer, posting the Ten Commandments, or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance." During an appearance on MSNBC's Hardball, at Clemson University, McCain stressed his archconservative stand on social issues including gay marriage ("it's crazy"), abortion rights (he hopes the Supreme Court will someday overturn Roe v. Wade), and affirmative action (he's staunchly against quotas). McCain also wimped out once again on the controversy over the Confederate flag (South Carolina is the last state in the union to fly that symbol of slavery), calling it an issue that should be left to South Carolina residents. Some closet liberal.
These positions are perfectly consonant with the votes McCain's taken during his long Senate career, but they're not exactly what he chose to emphasize in libertarian New Hampshire, where he pretty much stuck to the populist-reformer theme. Then again, there aren't many university crowds in the Northeast that would applaud McCain's anti-gay-marriage remarks, as the kids at Clemson did. Indeed, if those students found anything McCain had to say about lesbians and gay men controversial, it was probably this statement: "I don't believe in discrimination."
Perhaps the biggest change in McCain's campaign, though, isn't in what issues he's choosing to emphasize, but in his much-vaunted accessibility. Months ago, anyone who wanted to ride with McCain was able to do so. Even during the final weeks of New Hampshire, reporters say, he was able to accommodate all comers. But in South Carolina, a hierarchy has clearly emerged. Someone like Alison Mitchell, of the New York Times, is with McCain virtually at all times -- she speaks of how exhausting it is to listen to him rattle on, hour after hour, while she takes notes, attuned continuously to whether he's making news or just marking time. The local media, too, are treated well: Rachel Graves, of the Charleston Post and Gazette, is a fixture on the lead bus -- squeezed, she jokes, into "this horrific place called the perch, because I fit there."
But reporters from smaller news organizations, who can't really do much to help McCain, are no longer invited to sit with the candidate. Take Melissa Charbonneau, of Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network. (Robertson, who's based in South Carolina, is backing Bush.) Charbonneau dropped in one day last week hoping to do a stint on McCain's bus. First she was told that perhaps she could get on, but not her cameraman. Then she was strung along for the rest of the day until she had to leave to catch up with the Bush campaign. "They should want to reach all the voters they can, instead of having the same reporters on continually," she says.
Indeed, Charbonneau points to a perverse effect of McCain's policy: Bush right now is actually more accessible to a broader range of media than McCain. McCain, unlike Bush, doesn't hold formal "media availabilities," where any reporter can ask a question. Sometimes McCain will pause to answer a few questions on the way back to his bus, but he's invariably surrounded by a tight pack of journalists, making it impossible to hear what he's saying if you're more than four feet away. Jim Pierpoint, who's covering McCain for Reuters, notes that this creates "practical problems," since some beat reporters -- him, for instance -- do not have constant access, and yet are expected by their editors not to miss anything. At the moment, such problems are being resolved informally: during a lull before an AARP appearance in Columbia, for example, an Associated Press reporter who'd just had an audience with McCain read back his notes to an eager audience of about a half-dozen other reporters. But it's clearly a problem McCain's staff is going to have to deal with if he wins in South Carolina, in which case the media horde will only grow.
I was luckier than Charbonneau. On the morning of my second day with the campaign, spokesman Todd Harris told me I wasn't going to get on the lead bus. Thus liberated from having to play nice, I hung around the elevator of the Greenville Hilton, waiting for McCain. I got between him and the bus and asked him a question I'd had on my mind for a couple of weeks: whether he was aware that 40,000 Pittsburgh residents were opposed to a television-license transfer that he had urged the Federal Communications Commission to act on and that would benefit one of his campaign contributors (see "Media," News and Features, January 28).
"No, what I had urged them [the FCC] was to act, not to take a specific position. And that was to order them to act after 700 days of not acting," he replied, repeating an answer he had given many times already. I pressed him on the fact that there was considerable opposition to the transfer, but he didn't drop a beat: "What the citizen activists wanted was an act against, some wanted an act for. I just wanted them to act, so I wasn't in any way harming the views of those citizen-activists. I was asking them to act. Now if I had been asking them to act affirmatively, then that would have somehow been in opposition to those activists. So I don't see how you draw the conclusion that I was in any way in opposition to them."
I wanted to ask a follow-up. His bus was waiting. I said, "Thank you." He said, "Thank you," smiled, asked where I was from, and was on his way, Cindy on one side, an aide on the other.
So much for Straight Talk.
He uses a lovely phrase -- "the soft bigotry of low expectations" -- to describe the pernicious effects of expecting too little of African-American and Hispanic students. He calls being a single mother "the toughest job in America." And he's not afraid to tell people things they don't want to hear. When a teacher tells Bush that public schools "need more national help," he responds: "Implicit in that question is the federalization of the school system." In other words, forget about it. Hey, he's wrong, but it's still an admirable show of backbone for someone who is often accused of trying to be all things to all people.
Then a man rises to his feet to ask Bush about the media. "What gives them the right of deciding who we should have for president when it's our vote?" he asks. Translation: why is the press sucking up to McCain and trashing you? Bush answers carefully, casting it mainly in terms of his opposition to campaign-finance reform, which, he argues, would take away the right of interest groups -- not just right-to-life organizations, but also liberal groups, such as the Sierra Club -- to get their message out, thus enhancing the power of the "opinion makers" in the news media. "People ought to have the right to advocate life," he says. "This is America. People ought to have the right to advocate positions." But he refuses to take on the media directly, saying, "Anyway, you tried to get me to say something bad about the press, and I'm not going to." He looks up toward the battery of TV cameras on a riser at the back of the hall and smirks, saying, "I love you all."
Nor does Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes take the bait when I corner her. "I do think because the governor has been a front-runner for eight or nine months, he's been held to a higher degree of scrutiny," she says. She does fault the media for not following up on charges that McCain has engaged in practices he has criticized, such as rolling money from his Senate account over into his presidential campaign. But pressed to be more pointed, she says simply, "I think that's a question for journalists themselves to sort out."
In fact, reporters who cover Bush say that campaign officials are obsessed with what they see as favorable coverage for McCain and brickbats for their guy. "The Bush people really feel that McCain has gotten a free ride, or an easier ride than Bush has," says Glen Johnson, of the Associated Press, who got his start in Greater Boston by working for the Salem Evening News and the Lowell Sun.
Newsweek's Martha Brant adds that Bush aides say of reporters on the McCain bus: "They've all drunk the Kool-Aid."
It's a perception that has trickled down to the volunteer ranks as well. Take Roxanne Wilson, who was holding a Bush sign outside the Columbiana Centre, an enormous shopping mall on the outskirts of Columbia, on an evening when Bush was meeting-and-greeting in the mall's food court. Wilson -- whose husband, Joe, is a state senator from Lincoln County -- is infuriated with the State, which, she says, has endorsed McCain and which she accuses of unfair coverage of Bush. "The State newspaper is the most biased newspaper in the South," Wilson complains. (In fact, the State endorsed Bush this past Tuesday.)
But the Bush campaign, to its credit, isn't just complaining -- it's pushing its man out of the bunker. Since New Hampshire, Johnson says, there has been "a lot more occasion for casual conversation and interaction." Bush no longer flies on separate airplanes or holds fundraisers or one-on-ones that the beat reporters aren't informed of, Johnson says.
Brant characterizes Bush as being "quick-witted and funny" when he comes to the back of the plane or the bus to chat up the press. But she adds, "A free-association free-for-all it is not, and it's rarely in an on-the-record context."
The media elite may not find Bush as accessible as McCain, but reporters who are further down the food chain benefit from his more formal approach. After his appearance in Ladson, it was off to Kiawah Island, a luxury retirement resort on the ocean that's surrounded by miles of trailers and shacks. Before speaking to the lunchtime crowd, Bush held a quickie news conference -- a "media avail," in campaignspeak -- in which all comers were welcome to fire away. He opened with a statement about McCain's alleged hypocrisy on campaign-finance reform, but the questions were all about something that had happened the day before, at McCain's education-reform speech in Spartanburg. A mother had gotten up to say that her 13-year-old, who apparently is something of a McCain groupie, had received a nasty call from a push-poller. "Mom, someone told me that Senator McCain is a cheat, a liar, and a fraud," she quoted her son as telling her, and McCain milked it for all it was worth, even to the point of telling a local reporter later that he was too overcome with emotion to talk about his education plan.
Bush repeated his earlier denials that his campaign has had nothing to do with such alleged calls. I asked whether he had checked with any of the organizations that are supporting him as to whether they had authorized the calls. He looked at me as if I had two heads, and for a moment I thought I had asked a stupid question. "I have no idea," he responded. But a couple of other reporters followed up, asking him whether the National Right to Life Committee, for instance, might have done any push-polling. "We are not working with people on my behalf," he answered. In other words, maybe they did, maybe they didn't, and he doesn't care one way or the other as long as they're not on his payroll.
He then signaled that the "avail" was over: "Okay, you ready for another 'One on One with George Bush'? Let's hear it." He flashed the smirk and was gone.
This is Kurtz's fourth trip with the Straight Talk Express, and he continues to marvel at McCain's openness. (Of course, as a media bigfoot who also does a CNN show, Kurtz can benefit from McCain's openness any time he wishes.) "I've never seen a phenomenon like this in all my years of covering politics," Kurtz says. "It's not simply that McCain answers questions on his bus for hours and hours and hours. It's that he plays out his daily drama in front of inquisitive, sometimes annoying, reporters in a way that no modern presidential candidate has ever attempted. Even when things are going badly there's no place to hide, so it's sort of like every journalist's fantasy."
Kurtz gets at something important: it's not just that McCain has subjected himself to far more media scrutiny than almost any other presidential candidate. It's that this scrutiny provides a window into a very different type of person than what's usually sent down from Candidate Central. Indeed, McCain, like any candidate, puts his foot in it from time to time, most recently when he bumbled upon being asked what he'd do if his 15-year-old daughter became pregnant. At first he said it would be her decision whether to get an abortion; he later corrected it to say it would be a family decision. That sounds suspiciously like a pro-choice statement, and he took some grief for it from the hard right.
"This notion that he's buying off the press with coffee and doughnuts misses the fact that he has to hit major-league pitching every day," Kurtz says. "Some elements of the press are clearly in love with John McCain, not necessarily for ideological reasons. But I think the best reporters admire what he's doing, but never forget to do their jobs by pressing him." As for whether his courtship of the media gives him an unfair advantage, Kurtz says simply: "There's nothing to stop the other candidates from playing the same game."
Yet though reporters may be on guard not to tilt their coverage toward McCain, the very fact that he's always talking makes it difficult not to give him a break, if only because they know so much about the way he thinks. Boston Globe reporter Yvonne Abraham, a former Phoenix writer, says, "I always worry" about going soft on McCain. She says she tries to balance the positive vibes generated on the bus by staying in frequent contact with the Globe reporter who's following Bush, Anne Kornblut, and by reading as much as she can about what's going on elsewhere on the campaign trail. Still, the fact that McCain is always talking can't help but work to his advantage, Abraham says, because he's "constantly revising" and putting his words in a context that politicians don't generally offer. For instance: Abraham says that McCain, on the bus, recently called Bush "an unwitting pawn." A short time later, though, he took it back, saying he had overstated the case, and few if any reporters used it. "With Bush," Abraham notes, "he says so little that when he drops a clunker or says something controversial, that's one of the few things he'll have said in the course of the day." And, thus, it will immediately become news.
The Weekly Standard's David Brooks, who's also spent his time with McCain, goes further than Kurtz or Abraham. In Brooks's view, many of the reporters certainly have drunk the Kool-Aid, and though they ask tough questions, he notices a lack of bite and follow-up that he doesn't see when the press questions other candidates. "Obviously he's just the coolest guy, and people like cool guys," Brooks says. "Reporters on his campaign enjoy being here, and they don't enjoy being with other candidates."
Of course, it can be argued that the media are merely reflecting reality, which is exactly what they're supposed to do. McCain is an articulate, refreshing, courageous, funny guy who, despite his conservative stands on social issues and his dalliances with lobbyists, seems genuinely committed to reforming the system. And he's the only interesting horse in the race: the Democratic Party, usually a hotbed of entertaining weirdness and intrigue, is down to two establishment types, one who can't tell people the truth (Al Gore) and one who can't keep them awake (Bill Bradley).
Sure, the media are being tough on Bush, but it's Bush who's running a negative, insider-driven campaign. It was Bush's allies who tried to keep McCain off the New York ballot. According to a report in Salon this week, the Republican establishment, desperate to stop McCain, is now planning to keep voting places in Democratic and African-American areas of South Carolina closed this Saturday, thus boosting the chances of a hard-core Republican turnout and a Bush victory. A truly ugly Bush radio ad in South Carolina last week linked McCain's push for campaign-finance reform to a racially charged labor riot that took place on the South Carolina waterfront several weeks ago (the tenuous connection: McCain's campaign-reform plan wouldn't do anything about union political contributions). An "independent" ad by an anti-choice group inveighed against McCain's alliance with pro-choice former senator Warren Rudman, who was essentially depicted as the Antichrist. It's all pretty tawdry stuff, and it might even work. It would be a shame to see McCain's insurgency end because of garbage like that.
But at some point, the normal scrutiny to which any candidate should be subjected has got to kick in. The Wall Street Journal, Time, and the Boston Globe, among others, have all done good reporting showing that McCain criticizes lobbyists out of one side of his mouth and cuts deals with them out of the other side. But there's little sense in the media of what kind of a president he would make, or how he would differ from Bush -- or from Bill Clinton. McCain, after all, is a foreign-affairs wonk who has publicly admitted that he's bored by domestic policy, who has feuded bitterly with the press in his home state of Arizona, who is loathed by Arizona's Republican governor and by many of his Republican Senate colleagues. He may be "just the coolest guy," but can he govern? And can he go all the way to November without any agenda other than campaign-finance reform and a promise to start paying down the national debt?
The media truly have experienced love at first sight with John McCain. Now the time has come to get over the initial crush and see whether this is someone we can all live with for the next four years. For better or worse, in sickness and in health.
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