John McCain returns

The Arizona senator goes back to work on Capitol Hill in a day crowded with the media but light on news.

Published March 20, 2000 12:40PM (EST)

Talk about the second coming. A gaggle of reporters gathered outside Arizona Sen. John McCain's office on Monday, covering his return to Capitol Hill from the valiant failures of the presidential primaries. Or that was the excuse. Everyone understood that no real news could be expected, no floor speeches, no official business. That would all come on Tuesday, but this was a great chance for journalists to reminisce about the sweet days on the Straight Talk Express. And McCain gave them plenty of time to do just that.

After a brief hi-and-bye as he arrived in the Russell Senate Office Building in the morning, McCain shut himself in his office for an exclusive interview with Dan Rather for "60 Minutes II" while the rest of the reporters waited for sloppy seconds. By 11, the crowd of journalists had thickened to fill the hallway, blocking civilians and lesser-known senators who wished to pass.

But when McCain didn't materialize, reporters found another way to fill the minutes. They talked of the good memories they had of McCain's magical mystery tour, a time when they didn't have to wait a second for the senator to speak. George W. Bush's name came up in conversation, but always with a story about his peevishness and inadequacy compared to the senator. A circle of reporters cooed their concern for campaign advance man Keith Nahigian, who hobbled down the hallway on crutches. He'd broken his leg while herding photographers during the senator's California "victory" party on Super Tuesday.

Time dragged on. By noon, most of the journalists and camera crews had been waiting over two hours for a sighting, with only a few brief chases of various McCain aides to break the monotony. Then Rather left, and everyone went back to a giddy alert mode. Each doorknob that turned from office 235 to main office 241 excited a mini stampede. Finally, a door opened, and the press viewed with great interest the room where McCain had sat just minutes before. While there were several shots snapped of the lighting and equipment left over from Rather's interview, alas, the man himself remained out of sight.

The event grew to resemble Groundhog Day. A large number of people hovering around an oak doorway for hours, hoping for a glimpse of a beloved creature, one whose actions would be at best cryptic, and most likely, completely without consequence.

A little before 1, McCain press secretary Nancy Ives let us know that we had indeed wasted our time. The senator had a lot of work to do, and wanted to spend the afternoon cocooning with his loyal staff. Nothing public today, but maybe we'd have a better chance of getting a word in at 3:30, when McCain planned to leave. Some lighthearted grumbling ensued, and a feeble "Did he know we were here?"

When the group reconvened, and the confusion over which door to watch eagerly was finally settled, McCain appeared to the delight and relief of all assembled. After returning to the halls of government, elevated over his Senate peers even in his loss, the great and wonderful John McCain said ... nothing. Nothing that would make news, anyway. He warmly greeted some strategically placed children, and then paused for one or two personal hellos to "refugees from the Straight Talk Express" before half-heartedly answering the questions he used to crave.

The reception from his Republican colleagues, McCain said, was "fine," and he looked forward to the more constructive discussions. Again, he thwarted the wet dream of the Fourth Estate, reiterating his disinterest in a third-party run. McCain further insisted that Bush should expect his support in the general election, lukewarm though it was. "I've always said I will support the nominee of my party." Plans to campaign for GOP congressmen were under way, and McCain mentioned his negotiations with Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, a man partially responsible for ending the McCain run by helping to deliver that state for Bush.

Despite his plans for a leadership PAC, the courtship of the Reform Party and the still great enthusiasm of his friends in the press, McCain was visibly diminished and listless. "I gotta go," he said, hurrying to the door after two quick minutes.

McCain didn't even seem to notice the teenagers who had staked out spots in the hallway to see him, trying to get pictures over and around and through the journalists who still dogged the senator's steps. "You the man! You the man!" one high-schooler said as McCain fled the crowd. "I love you."

By Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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