Senator from the fourth estate

Adored by the national media, criticized at home, John McCain has turned his reputation for candor into political capital.

Published December 2, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Can it really be this simple?

Traveling with Sen. John McCain on his seven-seater campaign airplane, puddle-jumping around his home state of Arizona, it seemed suddenly too obvious that he owes some of his status as front-runner among GOP second-runners to the care and feeding of people like me. McCain is certainly the media darling of the presidential candidates. The very week I was with McCain, he was the subject of a flood of glowing profiles in national magazines, and overtook George W. Bush in a New Hampshire poll.

Watching McCain at work -- cracking Bob Novak jokes, impersonating Jay Leno, teasing his wife, barking mock orders at his staff, making me feel intelligent and full of insight -- it seemed clear that if he succeeds in toppling George W. Bush, it will be due to his cultivation of that crucial bloc of the American electorate: political reporters.

McCain is infinitely accessible to any member of the press who wants to tag along. As one national reporter joked, "If you asked McCain if you could sleep over, he'd probably let you." In fact, that's exactly the offer he extended to Michael Lewis, as the reporter revealed in a Nov. 21 New York Times Magazine piece. In the piece, Lewis confessed a personal affection for McCain, and how the senator even offered to allow Lewis to bunk with him in Washington. A huge Carl Bernstein profile in the December Vanity Fair tried to be a little more distant, but still fell for the McCain magic. Dorothy Rabinowitz took a crack at explaining the media's love affair in Monday's Wall Street Journal, but her thesis -- that reporters love McCain because they look up to the former prisoner of war as a bona fide hero -- predominantly reflected, rather than adequately explained, the hero-worship she sought to illuminate.

"I like talking to reporters," McCain told me. "I like shooting the breeze with intelligent people. And the people have the right to know what a candidate thinks and feels, and what he believes in."

But is that candor, or canned pandering? Nobody who's spent time around reporters thinks we're, on average, any more intelligent than anyone else involved in political campaigns, and some would argue less. But McCain, like political reporters, is an insider, and McCain appears to like talking shop. And the notion that talking to reporters equates to a high democratic responsibility meshes perfectly with the press's self-important view of itself. Like Machiavelli's Prince, we believe we are the ones who can communicate with both the kings and the commoners. Right or wrong, most reporters feel that they are doing some sort of public service, and equate their access to world leaders with the public's.

Still, McCain's approach to the media could only be so successful because of the contrast with front-runner Bush. If McCain is the friendly local diner of presidential candidates, Bush is the tony new restaurant of the moment where nobody can get a table. Reporters who follow the Texas governor routinely kill time by complaining about the lack of access to Bush.

While requests for an interview with the GOP front-runner turned into a series of unanswered formal written requests, with McCain, an interview request was immediately granted. In fact, three of the seven seats on the plane were reserved for reporters as he and his wife, Cindi, campaigned around Arizona. Traveling with the Bush campaign means joining a media circus, securing a seat in the three-bus caravan, and a spot behind the velvet rope, as if the press were screaming teenagers and Bush a member of the Backstreet Boys.

It's hard to find a reporter who doesn't have a gripe about covering the Bush campaign, whether it's perpetual complaining about a lack of face-time with the governor or getting jammed by Bush flacks for asking tough questions.

Bush's tension with the press escalated this week when the San Francisco Chronicle received a $2,600 bill for two reporters' brief use of a press filing center. Bush campaign spokeswoman Mindy Tucker defended the charge as "a common practice," but longtime political reporters said it was exorbitant.

Bush spokesman Scott McLellan said Bush is "continuing what he's done as governor of Texas, and that's being the most accessible governor in Texas history." McClellan said Bush conducts "30-40 one-on-one interviews a week, and has an average of four media availabilities a week." But media availabilities are usually brief affairs, lasting only 15-20 minutes as dozens of reporters struggle to get a question in, with no chance for follow-up.

Even in Austin, the Bush camp has earned a reputation for being hyper-selective of the reporters who get access, a reputation that is not without precedent among elected officials. And while he did earn a reputation as being more available as governor, he hasn't held a press conference in Austin since Aug. 18, when he was hit with questions about Funeralgate, and snapped at a reporter who pushed him on questions about his past.

At his recent foreign policy address, arguably the single most covered policy speech of the campaign to date, Bush stuck religiously to the script, and did not take a single question from the hordes of reporters in attendance. A standard McCain stump speech, by contrast, consists of a 10-minute monologue, and 30-45 minutes of questions from the audience.

Of course, McCain has his critics, and they happen to be most numerous in Arizona, the state that knows him best. McCain has even taken to re-registering Arizona Democrats as Republicans for the February primary, a sign of his appeal among moderate Democrats, perhaps, but also an indication that the candidate isn't counting on united support from Republicans in his home state -- because he can't. Traveling around the state with him, watching how hard he's working to secure a victory in his home state primary, it's hard to miss the paradox of the media-beloved senator hustling for votes at home.

On the stump in conservative Arizona, McCain evokes as many Democrats as he does Republicans, citing Jack Kennedy, Harry Truman and former Democratic Rep. Mo Udall as often as he does Teddy Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan. At a surreal moment in an otherwise ordinary campaign stop at the Mesa Arizona Rotary Club, McCain even quoted Chairman Mao. When asked about his policy on education, McCain ticked off his normal list of states-rights slogans and ended with a twist. "Like Chairman Mao, I believe we should let 1,000 flowers bloom."

Visiting sprawling Maricopa County, which is home to nearly 60 percent of all Arizonans, is like visiting the teenage son of Los Angeles. People who haven't seen it in a while will hardly recognize it because of its exponential growth, but they can see the family resemblance.

In 1990, Arizona had 3.7 million residents, according to U.S. Census statistics. Now, the state's population is approaching 5 million, and nearly 80 percent of that growth has been in Maricopa County, home to the cities of Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe and Mesa. Like L.A., the county is built for automobiles. Seven-lane boulevards lined with palm trees and adorned with fast-food drive-thrus, gas stations and chain stores section off smaller, suburban streets. An intricate network of freeways connects the county, with billboards advertising Young Country and the New Rock. It is the prototypical New West boomtown.

It wasn't always this way. When the real estate market crashed in the late 1980s, Arizona was particularly hard hit. As the price of land plummeted, every savings and loan in the state went belly-up, and the state was hemorrhaging people and jobs. But as the recession lingered into the mid-'90s in neighboring California, Arizona was one of the first states to claim economic recovery, thanks in large part to new plants set up by Intel, Motorola and Honeywell. The state lured businesses and residents alike with aggressive tax cutting throughout the 1990s.

Arizona was one of the epicenters of the savings and loan crash, and its archetypal villain, Charles Keating, called Arizona home. McCain himself was one of the Keating Five; senators whose campaign coffers were padded by Keating -- McCain got over $100,000 -- allegedly in exchange for help in beating back government regulators.

When asked if the Keating Five scandal helped spurn his obsession with campaign finance reform, McCain said, "Sure, experiences [affect] things, but I worked on campaign finance reform in 1987, when I first came to the Senate. I was always involved in the issue. But my interest has steadily increased as the pernicious effects of [soft money] have increased and the Congress has become more gridlocked by it."

It makes sense that a candidate with an independent streak would come from Arizona. The state's very symbol, the three-pronged cactus, even resembles an extended middle finger. The state was the last of the continental United States to be admitted to the union, in 1912, because of the anarchy that reigned in the territory. Barry Goldwater, the iconoclastic father of modern conservatism, hailed from Arizona.

And over the last couple of decades, the state's governor's office has had a revolving door. Raul Castro stepped down as governor in 1977 to become Jimmy Carter's ambassador to Argentina. He was replaced by Wesley Bolin, who died of a heart attack less than a year later, giving Attorney General Bruce Babbit a crack at the job. In 1988, firebrand Evan Mecham was impeached by the Legislature and removed from office, and in 1997, Republican Fife Symington resigned after being convicted of fraud, bequeathing the job to current Gov. Jane Hull.

Now Hull runs a state dominated by women. All four statewide elected officials are women. All but one are Republican. Democrats here have yet to get over the shell-shock of the 1994 campaign, which simultaneously decimated and divided the party here. Arizona political scientist Zachary Smith was recently quoted in the Arizona Republic as saying it "takes something weird" for a Democratic candidate to be successful in the state.

In this context, a conservative Republican who advocates campaign finance reform seems a little less weird. If Arizona is a conservative state, it is also a state full of elected officials who do not fit neatly into labels. Hull showed her own independent streak, blasting McCain in a front-page New York Times piece and endorsing Bush. Arizona is also home to two of the most high-profile gay elected officials in the country: Jim Kolbe, the only openly gay Republican member of the House, and state Rep. Steve May, who is still a member of the Army reserves and gained national attention for violating the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

McCain has rallied around Kolbe and May, both of whom are supporting the senator's presidential bid. When McCain found out his colleague was about to be "outed," McCain reportedly told the congressman, "You don't have to say anything more." Kolbe told Salon earlier this year that McCain told him, "It doesn't make a goddamn bit of difference to me if you're gay. You're a good congressman and a good friend."

But if Arizona is full of friends like Kolbe, it's also home to McCain's toughest critics, including the Phoenix New Times and the Arizona Republic. In Vanity Fair, Bernstein made them sound almost cult-like in their attacks on the popular senator. But McCain is certainly not without his warts, and his hometown papers have done a better job than the national media at zeroing in on them.

For all of his talk about campaign finance reform, for instance, the Phoenix New Times recently laid out how many of McCain's most generous donors have business before the mighty Senate Committee on Commerce, Transportation and Science, which McCain has chaired since 1997.

Though he now rails against the Telecommunications Reform Act, the telecommunications industry has donated more than $1 million to McCain's coffers, and another $800,000 came from people who testified before the Commerce Committee since McCain took over the chairmanship.

With the state's booming growth, issues surrounding development, sprawl, environmental protection and water are central to Arizona politics. Many of the state's power brokers are developers, who are trying to appease the state's rapid population boom. Currently, only 13 percent of the land is privately held, and politicians have joined forces with developers to try to free up some of that land for development. "It's really the biggest issue in the state," Hull said.

But while McCain says the environment may be "the sleeper issue of this campaign," he has consistently low ratings from environmental groups during his 17 years in Congress. On a recent Senate vote, which activists dubbed a $66 million giveaway to big oil companies, McCain again tried to have it both ways, according to Anna Aurilio, a staff scientist for U.S. Public Interest Research Group. McCain provided the deciding vote to end a Democratic filibuster against the amendment, but later voted against the amendment itself.

"Our only chance was to stop that with a filibuster [where a measure can be blocked by 40 votes] and McCain knew it. Everybody knew we didn't have the votes to kill the amendment once it came up for a vote. Trent Lott specifically waited for McCain to come back into town to vote on killing the filibuster."

But stories about McCain's environmental record and fund-raising are vastly outnumbered by stories about his charm, his wit and the occasional semi-critical piece about his legendary temper. Ironically, the adoration of reporters has made the Republican primary a popularity contest, and the charming George W. is currently coming in second to McCain.

For all their differences, Bush and McCain enjoy striking similarities. Both come from families of high pedigree -- Bush the grandson of a former senator and son of a former president, and McCain the son and grandson of Navy admirals. Both McCain and Bush have famous tempers (Bush was known as the "Roman candle" for his outbursts during his father's presidential campaigns). Both were occupied with "extra-curricular activities" during their young and irresponsible college days. Neither is a brainiac: recent reproduction of Bush's Yale report card revealed a series of gentlemen's C's, while McCain graduated fifth from the bottom at the Naval Academy in 1958.

McCain and Bush both seem like the kinds of guys you could drain a six-pack with -- though Bush's would have to be O'Doul's, since he quit drinking 12 years ago. Though McCain is more gruff, he, like Bush, has the ability to charm, and they both enjoy a jocular rapport with the press and with voters that has helped propel both men to the top of the Republican field.

The difference, be it actual or perceived, is that reporters believe McCain has a substantive core, while speculation swirls that Bush is hollow. Reporters say part of that perception is created, consciously or not, by a frustrated media that has not had access to Bush. "That stuff definitely seeps into the coverage," said one Washington-based reporter covering the presidential campaign.

And yet, while access to reporters is what has helped propel McCain to the top tier of Republican candidates, that access may be the first thing reporters lose if his campaign begins to take off.

"You just can't press the flesh in as intimate a way when you're covered by everybody," said Kevin Sweeney, who was Gary Hart's campaign press secretary in 1984. Hart came from relative obscurity to win the New Hampshire primary, and take six of nine states on Super Tuesday.

After his victory in New Hampshire, Hart, for whom access to the media was critical, began to be mobbed by the press. "It's not really who you are, it's the position you occupy. When you become the only real alternative to the front-runner, something magical happens. Suddenly, everyone who did not want Walter Mondale to be president was invested in Hart."

While Hart was "open and engaging," Sweeney said, he was more stiff and aloof than McCain. But both candidates, as underdogs, used the media as a tool to build name recognition. Quite simply, McCain needs the press more than Bush, and it shows. "There's no substitute for [free] media," McCain said, adding that his honeymoon with the press has helped substitute for his lack of campaign funds relative to Bush. "No amount of money can buy that kind of advertising."

Now that the media is beginning to focus in on the two-man race, McCain spokesman Dan Schnur said the coming weeks will be pivotal for the McCain troops. Wednesday, McCain made a major foreign policy address, a speech that will be followed by a series of position statements. He will give a speech on Tuesday, Pearl Harbor Day, to talk about defense spending, followed a week later by Social Security and health-care speeches in South Carolina. He is scheduled to deliver an address on the environment in New Hampshire on Dec. 21, and lay out his education, tax and technology proposals in January.

McCain himself constantly talks about his campaign as "way ahead of schedule," both in terms of fund-raising and standing in the polls. So far this quarter, McCain has raised more than $4 million, far more than the campaign had anticipated, aides say. "Right now, things are going exactly according to the best-case scenario," said Schnur. "We figured we'd be [at our current fund-raising levels] in late December. We're already even with Bush in New Hampshire, we hoped to be even in January. The biggest danger now is peaking too soon."

Much of that money is being stockpiled for the big March 7 push, when California and 15 other states hold their primaries. Brian Nestande, former chief of staff for Rep. Mary Bono, and former Rep. Frank Riggs will be helping out with the campaign. McCain scored a minor coup earlier this week when former Reagan advisor Ken Khachigian announced he was joining the McCain effort.

"We believe that the Republican Party's nominee will be decided on March 7," Schnur said. "The candidate that wins California will be the nominee." But in order to survive until California, McCain has to get an early boost in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and continue to gain momentum in Arizona.

"A candidate peaks too early when he runs out of things to say," Schnur said. "During the next few weeks, you'll be getting a steady diet of John McCain."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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