Boy on the bus

John McCain's impulsive, inspired and angry ride misses a few turns before getting back on the road. But can he catch up?

By Jake Tapper
March 6, 2000 11:30PM (UTC)
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Little more than a week ago, all seemed well in the world of Doug McCain, Sen. John McCain's 40-year-old adopted son from his first marriage. His "old man" was coming off decisive wins in Michigan and Arizona, and as Doug McCain worked to mobilize veterans in his hometown of Virginia Beach, Va., the campaign seemed to have regained momentum.

He was even making inroads with the Christian conservatives his father would need to win the commonwealth -- those who it appeared might fall under the sway of televangelist/ Freemason conspiracist/McCain hater Pat Robertson.


Just that Sunday, Feb. 27, Doug McCain ran into Robertson's son, Tim, for morning services at the Galilee Episcopal Church. Tim's daughter Calle was a sixth-grade classmate of Doug's daughter Caroline. Instead of going into church, however, Doug McCain and Tim Robertson stood outside and talked about their fathers' feud. The junior McCain told the junior Robertson that their fathers probably had far more in common than he realized. He told him that the George W. Bush camp had misrepresented the McCain proposal for campaign finance reform to Christian leaders.

By the end of the conversation, Doug McCain says, Tim Robertson was on board and ready to support John McCain. Unbeknown to Doug, however, the McCain campaign had other plans that would make that impossible.

McCain and his chief aides, campaign manager Rick Davis, political director "Sunny" John Weaver, media strategist Mike Murphy and Senate chief of staff Mark Salter, were fuming about the dirty and, in their view, stupid campaign Bush was waging. The week was going well for them precisely because of Bush's mistakes. Bush had finally admitted his error in going to the segregationist-leaning, anti-Catholic Bob Jones University and not speaking out against the university's social retardation.


Bowing to political reality, Bush issued an apology that seemed nakedly insincere on its face. Reluctantly issued nearly a month after the Texas governor decided that compassionate conservatives have a duty to suck up to backward bigots, Bush finally put together a halfhearted mea minima culpa and sent it to Roman Catholic church leaders in key primary states with a strong Catholic vote. (No apology was sent to any members of the African-American community, a paltry number of whom vote in GOP primaries.)

Still, there was a rising -- and, based on McCain's history, surprising -- anger within the Arizona senator's campaign against the country club prejudice they saw from the Bush camp. Though he has tried to exemplify tolerance in his personal life, McCain has never made many public declarations of racial, religious or sexual tolerance before. But for whatever reason -- partly because Bush ran so quickly to the right, partly because of a new constituency of independent and Democratic voters who seemed to dig him, partly because of the strong support of a meritocracy left over from the military and partly because he seems to believe it -- he has assumed Bush's compassionate-conservative mantle.

"It's part of life," says Weaver, "and part of campaigns. You grow."


"I think I've changed," McCain told Salon on Sunday during a trip to Ohio. "I have a much broader vision of this country, and a much better understanding of where America needs to go. But isn't that rational after being exposed to a nationwide campaign?"

Much of his change stemmed from attacks Bush and his surrogates had launched against him in South Carolina.


In addition to the various attacks launched against McCain's wife and adopted daughter from Bangladesh, Bush and his allies had an interesting habit of lumping McCain with Jews and blacks. McCain was constantly decried for being supported by a former senator named Warren Rudman and a South Carolinian named Sam Tannenbaum. Bush himself kept alluding to an African-American state senator and the African-American mayor of Detroit, misrepresenting both as McCain supporters.

Then came the whole McCain-as-homo-lover attack. After telling a Christian radio audience that "an openly known homosexual is somebody who probably wouldn't share my philosophy" -- a naked appeal to the homophobe vote, as well as an affront to the myriad Bush delegates and staffers who are gays and lesbians -- Bush openly played the gay card during the South Carolina primary debate. Asked why he would speak to Bob Jones University and not Log Cabin Republicans, a gay GOP group, Bush falsely told the audience that he thought the Log Cabin Society had endorsed McCain.

Sitting in the pressroom, Weaver couldn't believe his ears. "What a piece of shit," he said.


"This has been going on in our party for a long time," says Weaver. "We always go to the dark side in order to wedge our way to victory. Like in California." He referred to a 1994 TV ad from Gov. Pete Wilson, who, in his promise to crack down on illegal immigration, showed "images of Hispanics scaling over walls."

"When the going gets tough, our party plays to people's fears," says Weaver. "What we saw in South Carolina was just the latest example."

The final straw came after McCain's surprising victory in the Feb. 22 Michigan primary, won with the support of Democrats and independents. Bush referred to the GOP primary as having been "hijacked" by these interlopers. To McCain, the sentiment represented the divisive views of the old-school Republican Party, those "who want to build walls around the country club," according to one McCain aide. This was the worst side of the GOP, aides said, and it was the side that lost the Republicans elections, congressional and presidential.


"It was their message," says Weaver. "That whole, 'Those people have no right to vote in our primary and they're not wanted in our primary.' It's almost as if [they're saying], 'Let's have elections behind walls.'"

So on the of morning Feb. 27, as Doug McCain found common cause with Tim Robertson, speechwriter Salter, the co-author of McCain's "Faith of My Fathers," labored in his Northern Virginia townhouse, writing the speech in which McCain would decry this intolerant, losing direction of the party. By 4 p.m., Salter brought it over to the campaign headquarters in Alexandria, Va.

It was tweaked, and not just by the staff. Gary Bauer, who endorsed McCain after ending his own presidential run, added a section the next day that paid respect to Chuck Colson, who runs the Prison Fellowship Ministries, and to Bauer's mentor, radio show host and Christian conservative titan James Dobson (even though Dobson had been a recent harsh McCain critic). The staff knew the speech they were planning was a political risk, and they were eager for the minimal political cover that Bauer would provide. (Vice President Al Gore would later point out, during Thursday's Democratic debate, that the presence of the virulently anti-gay Bauer during the speech undermined any message of tolerance.)

Still, McCain and his staff insist that politics -- or pragmatic politics, the kind that wins primaries -- was not the motivating factor of the speech. It was just the right thing to do.


Monday morning, Doug McCain -- sleeping soundly after securing the support of Tim Robertson, thinking maybe he would even get a campaign contribution from him -- was awakened by his wife, who had heard the news of her father-in-law's pending Robertson-bashing speech on the radio. "You're not going to believe this," she said.

Within a few hours, Doug and his wife had joined up with his father's campaign, where he pulled Salter aside and told him about the conversation with Tim.

"How hard are you going to go after him?" Doug asked Salter. He told him he'd hoped for a contribution from Tim Robertson.

"I wouldn't count on that," Salter said.


Then McCain strode to the podium at a Virginia Beach high school within spitting distance of Robertson's headquarters.

"I am a pro-life, pro-family fiscal conservative and advocate of a strong defense," he said. Yet despite these views, McCain said, Robertson, Jerry Falwell "and a few Washington leaders of the pro-life movement call me an unacceptable presidential candidate ... because I don't pander to them, because I don't ascribe to their failed philosophy that money is our message."

Calling Robertson and Falwell "mirror images" of "the union bosses who have subordinated the interests of working families to their own ambitions, to their desire to preserve their own political power at all costs," McCain denounced those who "prefer to build walls and exclude newcomers from our support."

And he decried "pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right."


At the back of the room, Weaver turned to Salter. "This is the high point of this campaign," he said.

McCain argued that his ability to attract non-Republicans was a strength, not a weakness. "My campaign is bringing new people into the Republican Party every day. I don't apologize for this. No, I wear it as a badge of honor. I will not padlock the Republican Party and surrender the future of our nation to Speaker [Dick] Gephardt and President Al Gore ... My friends, I am a Reagan Republican who will defeat Al Gore. Unfortunately, Gov. Bush is a Pat Robertson Republican who will lose to Al Gore."

"We are the party of Theodore Roosevelt, not the party of special interests," McCain concluded. "We are the party of Abraham Lincoln, not Bob Jones."

Bush wasted no time in deriding McCain's speech. "You can't lead America to a better tomorrow by calling people names and by pointing fingers," Bush said. "Ronald Reagan didn't point fingers. He never played to people's religious fears like Senator McCain has shamelessly done, ascribing views to me that I don't hold."

Republican luminaries held their fire for a day or two, with Bauer holding firm, defending McCain in an op-ed in the New York Times and pointing out Monday that "Gov. Bush came awfully close to suggesting that what Sen. McCain is doing is attacking Christian conservatives. He's not doing that at all."

But then, on Tuesday, a reporter new to McCain's "Straight Talk Express" and perhaps unfamiliar with McCain's frequent hyperbole with campaign reporters jumped on the bus and quickly caught McCain saying: "To stand up to the forces of evil, that's my job, and I can't steer the Republican Party if those two individuals [Robertson and Falwell] have the influence they have on the party today."

Calling reporters "Trotskyites" and staffers "scumbags" and referring to "Comrade [George] Pataki and Comrade [Bill] Powers" when those New York party loyalists appeared to be trying to keep McCain off the state's ballot -- those are one thing -- but referring to Robertson and Falwell as "forces of evil" was too much, at least politically and at least at that precise moment.

And it remains unclear whether McCain was joking. He does, indeed, view the world in terms of good and evil, and quite often those with whom he disagrees fall into the latter category. Soft money is "evil." Issue ads that skirt election laws are "wrong."

Quite often he's right, of course. But this time, McCain went too far.

By Wednesday, Bauer was suddenly publicly calling on McCain to take back his "unwarranted, ill-advised and divisive attacks" on Robertson and Falwell.

Even though he'd seen the speech -- even collaborating on it, with his air kisses to Colson and Dobson -- Bauer began to slam it, too. "The comparison of these respected conservative leaders to the demagogic race baiter Al Sharpton and the anti-Semitic Louis Farrakhan was unfounded and unwise. Such rhetoric serves only to divide the party and plays into the hands of the liberal elite to falsely depict Christian conservatives as intolerant extremists."

McCain apologized for the "forces of evil" remark. "I do not consider them evil, and I regret that my flip remark may have mistakenly created that impression."

"In my campaign," he said, "I often joke about Luke Skywalker, evil empires and death stars. It was in that vein that I used the phrase yesterday."

The damage, nonetheless, had been done. The conservative Greek choruses started to boo. Former Education Secretary William Bennett, who whirls between supporting Bush and McCain like a weather vane, and former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who has been damp on Bush from Day One, weighed in with Wall Street Journal op-eds slamming McCain. Journal columnist Paul Gigot astutely noted that "if the war hero does lose, one reason will be that he picked one too many needless fights with fellow Republicans."

With the combination of Feb. 29 primary losses in Virginia and North Dakota -- and the early, perhaps premature reports that he lost the popular vote in Washington to Bush -- McCain started watching his numbers drop. His disingenuous denial about whether his campaign had anything to do with "Catholic voter alert" phone calls in Michigan made it look as if he was playing the same game Bush was in South Carolina. McCain continues to this day to deny responsibility for phone calls that described Bush as "an anti-Catholic bigot" because, he says, his calls didn't say that. But McCain knew what Bush and reporters were referring to.

It was a stupid thing to lie about, since the calls accurately assessed Bush as having a rather high tolerance for haters. "Bush has stayed silent while seeking the support of Bob Jones University," the prerecorded message said. When asked what was wrong with the calls, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer could only decry the "impression" that the calls left "that Gov. Bush is an anti-Catholic bigot." But that impression also seems to have been left by the man calling himself a "uniter, not a divider," who nonetheless seems to have a rather curious proclivity for buddying up with dividers.

Still, the Bush campaign had caught McCain -- who had been steadily hammering Bush for playing dirty -- twisting the truth. McCain had surrendered the high ground, and began going down.

Yet ever since New Hampshire, Bush and his campaign have refused to take anything for granted. With the ruthless, mercenary fervor that marked so much of their ugly South Carolina campaign, Bush and his allies struck back with undue harshness. Every time McCain's self-comparison to Luke Skywalker seemed to be wearing self-servingly and tediously thin, Bush would decide it was a good time to start making like Darth Vader.

First up was a radio ad in which a breast cancer survivor named Geri Barish -- later identified by New York Newsday as a GOP hack and henchwoman for hire -- slammed McCain essentially for supporting breast cancer. Skimming two breast cancer appropriations items from long lists of projects McCain derides for not going through the normal appropriations peer-review process, Barish insinuated that McCain "opposes many projects dedicated to women's health issues. It's true."

Well, not really. On Thursday night, Salon reported that Bush's attack was offensive not only because of the scurrilous nature of the allegation but because (though McCain refuses to talk about it) McCain's older sister, Sandy McCain Morgan, is a breast cancer survivor.

The next day, as the Straight Talk Express made its way from New York to Connecticut, McCain again refused to talk about the ultimately personal nature of Bush's attack, not feeling comfortable using his sister's illness in a political arena.

When McCain makes decisions and statements based on emotion, his impulses are often politically damaging. His South Carolina TV ads, in which he snarled at Bush for "twisting the truth like Clinton" and for being as untrustworthy as a certain other smooth-talking Southern governor, were born from his gut and not his head and backfired, allowing Bush to portray himself as the victim of negative advertising.

In this case, it would seem McCain could have turned the breast cancer ad around on Bush in much the same way Bush had turned the Clinton ad around on him. But he wouldn't even try.

Later Friday, McCain's nonstop chatter with reporters on the bus came to a halt when ABC's "World News Tonight" came on and the entire bus turned to see how the race was playing on TV. Bush was shown at a press conference at a breast cancer treatment facility in New York. When asked if he would have run his breast cancer ad had he known about Morgan's illness (which is in remission), Bush remarked, "All the more reason to remind him of what he said about the research that goes on here." Even ABC News' normally down-the-middle Dean Reynolds felt compelled to characterize the comments as "rather cold."

A hush fell over the bus. McCain, gripping his seat, waved down the occasionally hotheaded Salter, who immediately began to boil. Take it easy, McCain's hand motions said; knowing that every reporter on the bus was studying his reaction, he stayed calm.

Cindy McCain sat in shock. "Every time I think I've seen it all ...," she said, her words trailing off.

Doug McCain, meanwhile, was just plain pissed off. While he hopes he and Tim Robertson can reconcile, he has another pal he may lose: Bush's younger brother, Marvin, who became a friend at the University of Virginia. After Marvin Bush's brother allowed his surrogates to attack Doug's stepmom and adopted sister, he wondered if their friendship could survive. Now, the governor's answer about his aunt sent a chill down his spine. He doesn't hold out much hope that he and Marvin will remain friends.

News from the Associated Press that morning made the sting even worse: A consortium of women's health organizations called the Texas Campaign for Women's Health noted that Bush's record on breast cancer was questionable. Four in 10 women over age 50 in Texas haven't received a mammogram in the past two years, the group said, noting that Bush hadn't supported the group's request for $40 million for breast cancer exams.

But the ABC News story, as well as a New York Times front-page story, focused on another ad, one with an even greater effect on the race.

It followed a trend first noted in South Carolina, in which the spontaneous generation of a supposedly impartial political organization that didn't endorse a candidate, providing "information" about its issue, slammed McCain and hugged Bush. In South Carolina it was a pro-Confederate flag group called Keep It Flying, which appeared out of nowhere the week of the South Carolina primary and distributed fliers bashing McCain and lauding Bush. That was after both men had squished it up on the Confederate flag issue, deeming it one best left decided by the state.

Now, in New York, Ohio and California, Republicans for Clean Air, a group no one had ever heard of -- indeed, one that also had never before existed -- suddenly purchased $2.5 million in TV time to soak markets with an ad calling McCain a polluter and Bush an environmentalist.

Because McCain voted against solar energy programs, the ad says, there will be "more use of coal-burning plants that pollute our air." Bush's Texas, conversely, was "one of the first states in America to clamp down on old coal-burning electric power plants." Bush is "leading so each day dawns brighter." The ad features a photo of McCain, the expression on his face suggesting someone has just opened a restroom stall on him, superimposed over smokestacks. That image is then replaced by a beaming mug of Bush superimposed over what seems to be a Claritin commercial.

Under Bush, Houston has become America's most air-polluted city. Texas is last among all 50 states on industrial toxic air pollution and toxic chemical spills. As Daniel J. Weiss, political director of the Sierra Club, explains, McCain might very well be bad on the environment, but Bush has been terrible. (Ironically, just the week before, Bush had hammered McCain in Washington for being an environmentalist for saying he'd consider breaching some dams that are interfering with salmon spawning.)

Worse than the charge itself, however, was the fact that no one knew who was funding the anti-McCain TV ads. Reporters traced the ad itself to MultiMedia, an ad placement subsidiary of Fabrizio McLaughlin & Associates, which is headed by Tony Fabrizio, a confidant of the Bush-backing Gov. Pataki. Bush, meanwhile, claimed he knew nothing about the ads.

Then CNN traced Republicans for Clean Air to a Herndon, Va., post office box also used by a political action committee chaired by Bush supporter Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas. Republicans for Clean Air and Bonilla's PAC share a treasurer as well, Lydia Meuret. Still, Bush said he knew nothing about the ads.

Actually, Bush went even further, calling the McCain campaign's assertion that the group had some connection with the Bush campaign an "outlandish allegation." Fleischer said that McCain was "once again running a divisive campaign, vilifying and attacking anyone with whom he has a principled policy difference. We have nothing to do with these ads."

Whatever the case, the ads were having an effect. McCain's numbers in the city markets where the ads ran -- New York, San Francisco and Columbus, Ohio -- sank.

Finally, after the McCain campaign filed complaints with the Federal Communications Commission, someone came forward to admit funding the ads: a Texan who, along with his brother, has given serious cash to Bush. According to Texans for Public Justice, a nonpartisan group that traces the role of money in Texas politics, Sam Wyly and his brother, Charles, are two of Bush's biggest supporters. Between them, the billionaire Dallas brothers with a surname straight out of Dickens gave Bush $210,273 for his two gubernatorial campaigns. In 1998, the Wyly brothers' investment firm, Maverick Capital, received a multimillion-dollar state contract to invest University of Texas funds.

In Texas there are no limits on the contributions individuals can make to a candidate (part of the reason why, when President Clinton named Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen secretary of the Treasury, Calvin Trillin penned this rhyme: "The man is known for pro quo quidness/In Texas that's how folks do bidness"). But federal campaigns have limits on individual contributions -- that is, unless you donate "soft money" to a third-party organization that doesn't literally support one candidate over another though it does run ads. As illustrated by Republicans for Clean Air, that distinction can be laughably vague.

As for the Wyly brothers, Charles is a member of the Bush fund-raising stalwarts known as the "Pioneers." Additionally, political consultant Jeb Hensarling, who helped place the ads in TV markets, is a former business associate of one of Bush's best friends, James Francis Jr., chairman of the Pioneers.

"We had no knowledge whatsoever that Sam Wyly was going to run this ad," Bush said. "There is no coordination. I can't put it any more plainly to you: I had no idea the ad was going to run."

If there had been any coordination, it would be a federal crime. But, of course, there is no proof that these ads -- funded by one of Bush's biggest supporters, arranged by a former business associate of one of Bush's best friends, put together by the friend of a major GOP governor and Bush backer and traced back to an address of one of his most ardent congressional supporters -- were coordinated with the Bush campaign.

Suddenly, as if a gift from heaven, McCain was talking about his issues again: campaign finance reform, the abuses caused by soft money, how big money can buy elections. "This is why campaign finance reform is so important," McCain said on NBC's "Today" show Friday morning.

For the previous week, McCain had been stammering and talking about things that were turning voters off. Asked how her own solo campaign stops in Rhode Island and Vermont had gone, Cindy McCain joked, "Fine. Unlike my husband I can stay on message."

But now, backed into a corner and handed an example of the campaign finance abuses he'd been railing about for so long, McCain seemed energized. Saturday night, at a rally at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Rochester, N.Y., he was Luke Straighttalker again.

"Memo to Gov. Bush," he cried to raucous cheers, "send your billionaire cronies back to Texas and tell them to stay out of this election! My friends, it's wrong. It's wrong. And it flies in the face of everything that I believe in. The reason why I fought for campaign finance reform is just so we wouldn't see all this big money coming into American politics, just so we would stop the abuse of the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1996. Now they're doing the same thing. My friends, it's gotta be stopped."

But it won't be, because it's clearly working. On CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday morning, Bush called the ads "part of the American process ... That's what freedom of speech is all about." That said, Bush added, "the allegation that I'm involved with this is totally ridiculous." He complained about having to talk about the ads instead of the issues.

Then he was asked why he didn't just say, "Stop the ads."

"These are independent expenditures," Bush said. "This was a decision made totally independent from my campaign." This was the same response Bush made about the phone calls Pat Robertson made in South Carolina calling Rudman "a vicious bigot." Only after the calls began to do him more harm than good -- after he had won the South Carolina primary -- did he ask Robertson to stop the calls.

All of this makes McCain's challenge Tuesday all the more daunting. The campaign has set this bar: The candidate needs to win New England and New York, pick up a few key congressional districts in Ohio and Missouri and win the popular vote in California. Bush will have scored a bigger victory and more delegates to the Republican convention, but a victory of this sort, McCain strategists say, will enable them to further the case that McCain is a national candidate with the cross-party appeal most able to beat Gore.

But the GOP is not known among pols as the "stupid party" for nothing. The party has an opportunity to nominate a man who is currently the most popular politician in America. Since Bush has gone so negative, meanwhile, his "disapproval" ratings have shot up, to the 50s in California, a must-win state for any Republican nominee. At the same time, Bush has managed to amass, as of March 5, a 2-1 lead over McCain in California among Republicans, a 27-20 lead among all California voters and a 44-38 lead in New York.

Time is clearly running out for McCain. What McCain can make of his insurgency after Tuesday is a big question: Even if he were to pull off upsets and remain a contender, he would face two overwhelmingly powerful primary challenges the following Tuesday -- Bush's Texas, and Florida, whose governor is George's brother Jeb.

At that point, if McCain stays with the Republican Party, which he insists he will, he might need to accept a loss engineered by his own party and the powerful combination of money and politics he's so obsessed with trying to end.

There are members of his staff who long for McCain to follow the example of his hero Teddy Roosevelt, who quit the GOP to run as an independent. Sick of the corruption he sees in his party and in politics, McCain is convinced more than ever that, as he puts it, "our cause is just."

"This is unprecedented," he said Sunday. "This is unheard of. If they get away with it, then I think it will change the nature of American politics forever. It will destroy it."

As McCain's plane flew from Ohio to Oakland, Calif., Sunday afternoon, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times, T. Christian Miller, brought this prospect up as we talked with Weaver. I noted that Roosevelt didn't win that 1912 campaign.

"But neither did [William Howard] Taft," joked Weaver, referring to the party-anointed nominee who lost to the Democrat.

McCain says he definitely wouldn't run as a third-party candidate, though his staff may encourage him to do so. He's not planning to run for reelection to the Senate in 2004, they will argue. He's bored and pissed off from dealing with impossible men like Trent Lott and Mitch McConnell. A poll shows him running just behind Bush and Gore in a three-way race with him as an independent, they will say.

But McCain will probably say no. And that will mean also accepting a loss to George W. Bush.

On Saturday, in the wake of Bush's less-than-compassionate remarks about his sister's breast cancer, McCain was asked if he would remain friends with Bush when this campaign was over. Eleven seconds passed. "I'm very offended, but I'll stay friends," he finally said.

So he would speak with Bush cordially whenever this fight finally winds down? "I didn't say I'd talk to him," McCain said. "There are all kinds of friends in this world. I'd still support the Republican nominee."

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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