The one thing W and Democrats can now agree on

All these years later, the left is finding out why John McCain irked George W. Bush so much

Topics: George W. Bush, War Room, John McCain, R-Ariz.,

The one thing W and Democrats can now agree onGeorge W. Bush and John McCain at a debate during their bitter campaign for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination

George W. Bush is back in the news — and so is his acrimonious relationship with John McCain.

In his new memoir, the former president criticizes McCain’s handling of the September 2008 financial meltdown, suggesting that the then-GOP presidential nominee — who famously “suspended” his campaign and demanded a White House summit with Bush and Barack Obama — did not conduct himself in a “statesmanlike” way. Bush also questions McCain’s refusal to ask him to hit the campaign trail on his behalf; recall that the McCain campaign kept Bush 1,000 miles away from the ’08 GOP convention in St. Paul, limiting him to a brief videotaped appearance.

And now, the Financial Times’ Alex Barker is offering details of a supposed Oval Office encounter between Bush and a group of British dignitaries, including then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown, “at the height of the 2008 presidential campaign”:

Naturally the election came up in conversation. Trying to be even-handed and polite, the Brits said something diplomatic about McCain’s campaign, expecting Bush to express some warm words of support for the Republican candidate.

Not a chance. “I probably won’t even vote for the guy,” Bush told the group, according to two people present. “I had to endorse him. But I’d have endorsed Obama if they’d asked me.”

It’s possible that this was just an awkward and failed attempt at humor — sort of like when Bush tried to make light of David Letterman’s heart surgery back in 2000. Maybe it was a reference to the old line, attributed to various politicians, that “I’ll endorse you or your opponent — whichever will do you more good.”  Whatever his intent, it seems clear that McCain still very much irks Bush. After all, Bush took pains in his memoir not to criticize Barack Obama, but he couldn’t resist taking a few swipes at his old GOP foe.



Oddly enough, this means that there’s now some common ground between Bush and many Democrats, who have come to view McCain as a spiteful, unprincipled and bitter old man. It’s a development that would have been unfathomable 10 years ago, at the height of the Bush-McCain war, when McCain emerged as every Democrat’s favorite Republican.

The animosity between the two men, of course, took root during the February 2000 GOP primary campaign in South Carolina. Just weeks earlier, on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, Bush and McCain had actually shared a warm, friendly conversation, complimenting each other on the positive nature of their campaigns.

“We’ve run a campaign that you and I and our families can be proud of,” McCain told Bush.

But when the New Hampshire results were reported, everything changed. With his stunning 20-point win, McCain instantly became a live threat to win the nomination — and an overnight national celebrity. Bush, meanwhile, whose massive cash advantage and endless pile of endorsements from elected and party officials had vested his campaign with an overwhelming sense of inevitability, was suddenly in real and grave danger of melting down and falling out of the race.

South Carolina, the next test, would be critical. And with so much on the line, Bush changed tactics. Positive campaigns are all well and good when you know you’re going to win. But when losing is a real possibility? Thus, Bush appeared with the leader of a veterans organization, who claimed that McCain came home from Vietnam and “forgot us.” Bush, the old Texas Air National Guardsman, just stood there. McCain fired back with an ad that accused Bush of reneging on his positive campaign pledge, accusing him of “twisting the truth like Clinton” — a charge that Bush bristled at, claiming it was the worst thing a Republican could say about a fellow Republican. Charges and counter-charges ensued, as did an ugly underground campaign that attacked McCain personally (and, in many cases, groundlessly). Before their final debate, Bush approached McCain backstage and offered his hand; McCain refused it.

At the time, this all made McCain a hero to Democrats and independent voters, who saw the Arizonan as a fearless maverick standing up to the powerful Republican Party establishment and its empty suit frontman. Bush won South Carolina, but in the next contest — Michigan — McCain pulled out a victory. Exit polls, though, showed that his win was the result of votes from Democrats and independents; among registered Republicans, Bush had come in first — easily. In GOP activist circles, a new talking point was born: McCain was a vehicle for “mischievous” Democrats who were looking to nominate the weaker candidate in order to help Al Gore win in the fall. (Never mind that one national poll found McCain running a staggering 21 points better than Bush in a head-to-head with Gore.) Bush’s standing with Republicans only improved and he blitzed McCain in the next wave of primaries and coasted to the nomination.

To Bush, whose family is no stranger to ugly political wins (ask Bob Dole about New Hampshire in 1988), this is where it was supposed to end. McCain, in defeat, would shake his hand, say some nice words and crack a few jokes, then join the Bush team going forward. But McCain wasn’t willing to let it go, and set out to make Bush’s political life — both as a candidate in the fall of 2000 and then as president — a living hell. Thus it was that McCain in early 2001 actually voted against Bush’s tax cuts — the same tax cuts that McCain now insists should be extended — bucked the president on healthcare, the environment and gun control and encouraged talk that he might run for president again in 2004, maybe as a Republican or maybe as an independent. He also, some Democrats still swear, explored the idea of switching parties — an idea he kept alive all the way through the spring of 2004, when John Kerry wanted to put him on that year’s Democratic ticket.

McCain only embraced Bush — literally — in the summer of 2004, when he calculated that he’d get one more shot at the White House in 2008 if he stayed in the GOP. At that point, it became imperative for McCain to throw himself into Bush’s reelection campaign. Only then did he become a loyal Bush soldier — a decision that marked the beginning of the left’s disaffection with McCain, which has only intensified in the Obama era (with McCain now tormenting Obama the way he once tormented Bush).

Bush’s low opinion of him used to make McCain attractive to Democrats. Now, though, they’d probably admit that it’s one of the few judgment calls that Bush actually got right.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 22
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Talking Heads, 1977
    This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
    Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Blondie, 1977
    This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
    They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
    Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bathroom, 1977
    This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
    Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977
    “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
    Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
    When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Dictators, Bowery 1976
    Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
    We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery view, 1977
    The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
    I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
    Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>