McCain's whirlwind week

The vanquished GOP contender talks to Salon about his return to the Senate, helping his party and forgiving -- if not forgetting -- the tactics of George W. Bush.

Published March 24, 2000 9:20AM (EST)

Few presidential losers are treated with the deference Arizona Sen. John McCain enjoyed this week, as he returned to Capitol Hill from his ill-fated presidential bid and subsequent week off spent with wife, Cindy, in Bora-Bora.

In a Q&A with Salon on Thursday night, McCain seemed rested and willing to work hard for his party -- if unwilling to stick to the straight party line.

But first, based on interviews with McCain and staffers, a recap of a week we'll call: "Hail the Unconquering Hero."

McCain rolls into his Russell Senate office early, and is already fueling up on coffee and making salty remarks by the time several of his key Senate staffers show up. For the 63-year-old McCain -- a whirling dervish of energy whose 88-year-old mother tools around Europe with the energy of a Ritalin-deprived grade-schooler -- it was good to be back in the action.

So. Back to work. At 8:30 a.m., McCain and a bunch of his senior campaign staffers meet in a conference room at the Phoenix Park Hotel near Washington's Union Station. This illustrious group includes lobbyist/former Rep. Vin Weber, R-Minn., lobbyist Ken Duberstein, Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., pollster Bill McInturff, campaign manager Rick Davis, political director "Sunny" John Weaver, spokesmen Howard Opinsky and Todd Harris, Senate Chief of Staff Mark Salter, ad man Greg Stevens and policy wonks Marshall Whitman and John Raidt.

They talk about the best way for McCain to endorse eventual GOP nominee Gov. George W. Bush; they discuss plans for McCain's new political action committee, "Straight Talk America." McCain circles the room and thanks each attendee personally for his contributions. He says he wouldn't have done anything different -- especially not the Virginia Beach speech in which he decried Pat Robertson and Rev. Jerry Falwell as "agents of intolerance."

Updates are given on the shenanigans in states that McCain won -- namely Michigan and Massachusetts -- where state GOPers are trying to deprive McCain of his duly elected convention delegates. Though McCain delegates are obliged to vote for McCain for president on the first ballot, allies of pro-Bush governors like Massachusetts's Paul Celucci and Michigan's John Engler have been trying to arrange it so that Bush delegates control all of the other GOP convention votes -- while McCain forces feel they won those delegates fair and square. The Bush people claim ignorance about the various machinations, but the McCainiacs say they have a tough time knowing when the Bushies are telling the truth.

"They say it's news to them," one McCain staffer says, "but you never know when they're being genuine."

Later that day, McCain and a few others hold a similar meeting with former New Hampshire Sen. Warren Rudman, McCain's most controversial advisor during the primaries, in Rudman's law offices. The media swarm him wherever he goes.

McCain meets in the morning with his four Senate GOP endorsers -- Hagel, Arizona Sen. John Kyl, Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine. Kyl, in particular, was eager for McCain to endorse Bush and repeatedly said so. But McCain feels no great rush. The allegiance of the 5 million voters who backed him can't be so easily transferred to Bush, McCain feels. Nor is McCain enthusiastic about helping out Bush, for whom his respect knows bounds. In good time, the endorsement will come, but it has to be done just so.

Observers are in a tizzy wondering what McCain might say when he gave his first speech on the Senate floor. But instead of talking about his campaign -- or any other campaign-related subject, which McCain feels is generally inappropriate to discuss on the floor of the Senate -- he talks about Kosovo. Unaware he is going to deliver his speech, most senators are away from the floor. Except for various civilian observers up in the galleries, only Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, actually hear his relatively innocuous address.

Senators are able to welcome McCain back with open arms at the Republican policy lunch that afternoon, where McCain is given a long and sustained standing ovation, before grabbing his lunch and sitting down with Hagel, Kyl, Thompson and DeWine. Various Republicans make their way over the McCain's table, one by one. Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson, Sens. Frank Murkowski and Ted Stevens of Alaska, Larry Craig of Idaho, Connie Mack of Florida and Don Nickles of Oklahoma come over to pay their respects. Later that day, McCain speaks again on the floor of the Senate, this time on repealing the Social Security earnings test, which he has long advocated. The Senate votes Wednesday unanimously to end it.

South Carolina's Rep. Lindsey Graham stops by McCain's office in the morning. House members are all eager for McCain's help, Graham tells McCain as they walk to the House side of the Capitol to meet with a bunch of Republican representatives. There, McCain eventually receives three standing ovations as he recounts lessons he learned during his campaign.

Lesson No. 1: Stop being so antagonistic to the media, McCain tells the congressmen. If you give them access and treat them fairly you can use them to get your message out, he says. The Republican Party needs to be seen as the party of reform, McCain urges them. The American people want to be proud of their government, he says. He tells them he will help many in their reelection bids. Though only nine House members endorsed McCain's run, (and one of them, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., withdrew his support after McCain's Virginia Beach speech) more than three dozen ask for his help.

It's a good spot for McCain. Though he will inevitably endorse Bush, he has decided he can help the party the most -- and remain true to his cause of reform -- by working to preserve the GOP majorities in the House and Senate, as well as by bashing Vice President Al Gore. This will enable him to be something of a team player while also not cozying up to Bush, whose campaign McCain still blames for numerous sleazy and dirty tricks against him and his family.

Additionally, McCain's future is still inexorably tied to Bush's defeat this November. If Bush loses, then McCain will not only have been vindicated in terms of his message of inclusiveness and reform, but he will be in a good spot for 2004 -- though that is too far way for him to even think about right now.

Graham and another South Carolina representative, Mark Sanford, were good friends to McCain during the rough-and-tumble days of the Palmetto State's primary. McCain is grateful to them, and he and his team have decided to entrust the two with much of the decision-making power over which House members McCain will work to help.

At 11:15 a.m. McCain meets with campaign-finance reform partner Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who presented him with a T-shirt proclaiming McCain "The Real Reformer." McCain and his staff spent much of the afternoon rapping with reporters, and reserving weekends and recess weeks for visits to college campuses, book signings for his "Faith of my Fathers," speeches at college commencements, and campaigns for his colleagues. His schedule is now packed through July.

Still, there is that pesky matter of the Bush endorsement. In the afternoon, McCain drives over to the office of former Sen. Bob Dole, the man now given the task of brokering a peace between McCain and Bush. Though plenty of eager pols were salivating to be the hero who brings Bush and McCain together, Dole ended up the best choice.

Early reports even had the Bushies designating Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, as the go-between. McCain and his team laughed at this; they view Gramm, whose presidential campaign McCain endorsed in 1996, as a less-than-manly back-stabber. While Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge drove all the way down from Harrisburg to tell McCain himself that he was endorsing Bush, Gramm's backing of Bush was done without any such consultation. Dole, who didn't endorse either Bush or McCain, is a much better selection. McCain was Dole's traveling companion in the '96 race against Clinton, charged with the task of keeping Dole smiling. The tables are now somewhat turned.

In the afternoon, he attends a subcommittee hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee, which McCain chairs, on NASA cost overruns. He delivers a statement and then leaves.

Later in the evening, McCain and his new Straight Talk America PAC host a reception for staffers, volunteers and -- sticking to his success strategy -- members of the press. Rudman presents McCain with a flag of New Hampshire. A choked-up Dole recounts the story of how he wore a POW bracelet bearing McCain's name during McCain's five-and-a-half-years incarceration in a Vietnamese prison. McCain takes the mike, thanks Dole and Rudman, Graham, his wife Cindy, and his sons Jack, 13, and Jimmy, 11, whom he says were relieved at their dad's loss, since they didn't want to leave Arizona.

"Right, boys?" he jokes. "Right? This is straight talk."

Cindy's cell phone rings in the middle of the speech; it's their 15-year-old daughter Meghan, who wants to know what is happening. After a few hours of meeting and greeting, the McCains head to their Northern Virginia home while McCain's staff saunters across the street to the Irish Times.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., -- with whom McCain has a complex, more than occasionally contentious relationship -- stops by to walk with McCain to the Senate floor for a vote on crop insurance. But most of McCain's day is packed with interviews.

In the early evening, before the McCains go off to dinner with the Hagels, and a later appearance on CNN's Larry King Live, he sits on the couch in his dimly lit office, with Cindy at his desk surfing the Internet lucking for good airline fares for an overseas trip. McCain seems relaxed, sitting down for an interview with Salon.

Everybody spilled over to the Irish Times last night. I think you had a few hung-over staff members.

I was just looking at them in the pictures [from Wednesday night]. You know, they're so young and they're so enthusiastic, it's very touching. [He pauses] All right! Stop getting nostalgic, John! Goddamn it, we've had enough of that shit!

So how was your week?

Oh, fine, fine. Everybody's been very friendly. Everybody was very cordial.

A lot of people want you to campaign for them?

[Sen. John] Ashcroft, [Sen. Spencer] Abraham and others. I went over to talk to the House Republicans Wednesday morning, and got a very warm welcome. And they have a list already of about 30 that they want me to campaign for.

And you're going to do it?

Oh, sure. Sure.

Even if they didn't vote for Shays-Meehan, the House version of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill?

Yeah, and here's why. Because I don't think I can litmus-test them. But I don't think there's any doubt that my priorities and my enthusiasm would be obviously more toward those who are reformers. But also, I'd like to talk to some of these people about campaign finance reform and say, "Hey, can't we get together? Can't we resolve this and come to some meeting of the minds on the need to reform?"

There's been a sea-change out there on this issue. After the Supreme Court decision [declaring that campaign contributions don't constitute free speech, a major victory for the campaign-finance reform crowd] and the fact that it is so much a part of this presidential campaign. I detect it. There were several people who were just adamantly against [campaign-finance reform], guys who said to me yesterday in the House: Look, I'd like to sit down and talk to you about it and things we can do, things I can agree to. So there really is a different attitude. There's an attitude of near-inevitability that something's going to happen on campaign-finance reform.

But I'm the inclusive Republican. I'm the one who says, "Look, we can disagree on specific issues and still be in the party." I just don't think I can say, "Look, we're Republicans" and then turn around and say, "No, I'm not going to campaign for you unless you support campaign-finance reform." I think that's a bit of almost hypocrisy on my part. Because I'm saying there's room for pro-lifers and pro-choicers in our party, there's people who oppose the death penalty and support it -- how can I then turn around and say, just because it's my major issue, that if you don't agree with me then I can't help you.

But it's not just your "major issue" ...

Well, it's a fundamental part of my political philosophy, yeah. But what I'm hoping is that I can have an effect on them, and some influence when it comes time to address the issue at hand, the fact that I did help them.

For somebody known for occasionally speaking your mind to your own detriment, you seemed to make it through your first week ...

Without getting famous, yeah. [laughing]

[Cindy laughs]

... without saying anything to get yourself into trouble. I know that must have been tough.

No, because the atmosphere was very pleasant. Everybody came up and was very pleasant. "Hi, glad to have you back," you know. The long standing ovation at the [Republican policy] lunch. It made it easy.

Are they good guys, or now do they just fear you? Some polls show you to be the most popular politician in America, and you return greatly enhanced as a senator, in terms of personal power.

I don't know. I think that varies with the individual senator. I think in some cases clearly it's the latter. But it's also recognition that power is what this town is all about. And I'm back with increased power. If I had lost the New Hampshire primary or had to drop out like some of the others did, I believe the welcome would have been different. But having said that, there are some who say, "I'm glad you did it because you gave us an opportunity, for the good of the party, you brought all these people [into the party], we want to help you keep them in." So there are some people who took that attitude: "I'm glad McCain was able to do that, even if I didn't support him, and now I want to work with him to try to keep those people in the party."

Like who?

Connie Mack is one of them. Who else? Nickles was another. [Sen. James] Jeffords [R-Vt.] was another.

There must have been some times -- and I know you're not going to name names -- but there must have been some times that people came up to you and put on their big smile and welcomed you back and you must have just ...

Ah, you can't do that. You can't do that, Jake. You just can't be that way. You just have to -- I think I'm able to put about 98 percent of this behind me. There'll always be a lingering 2 percent. But if you put it behind you, you don't have a problem when somebody who trashed you during the campaign comes up and acts friendly, because the worst thing I can do is harbor the resentment. What good does it do? It's not going to change anything.

And from a practical standpoint, I've spent a lot of time lately, in the last few days, with Bob Dole, because he's sort of the intermediary with the Bush people. Bob Dole is still living with the statement he made [during the 1988 New Hampshire primary], "Stop lying about my record." Now, [then-Vice] President Bush was lying about his record. And we all know that. But [Dole] said it in a way that looked like he was a sore loser. He's still living with that statement. I don't want to make any comments like that so somebody will say, "Ah! Y'see! McCain! He couldn't take a defeat!" You see what I mean?

So I had to put it behind me. I allowed myself 10 to 12 hours of wallowing in self-pity Tuesday night (March 7, Super Tuesday) and Wednesday morning, staring at the ceiling, feeling all sorry for myself. I went to bed, I laid there for what, for eight hours or whatever it was, staring at the ceiling...

[Cindy McCain:] And walking around!

[McCain:] ... cursing, swearing, feeling sorry for myself, you know, and all that. And then I got up and said, "Look, you gotta move on here. You gotta move on. You can't change it." But the most important thing here is you gotta move on so that you don't look back in anger.

What is going to change if I keep talking about a breast cancer issue? It's not going to change anything.

[Bush's campaign released a radio ad alleging that McCain was indifferent to breast cancer research because he opposed two breast cancer funding programs -- among hundreds of others -- since they didn't go through the normal appropriations process. Bush acknowledged that he didn't think McCain actually opposed breast cancer research, but the ads remained on the air, even after Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes claimed that they had been taken off.]

And other people will make judgments about this campaign. Historians will be writing about it for a long time, because it was such an unusual campaign.

So it was no discomfort to me when somebody who had campaigned against me, or trashed me, came up to me, shook hands, and said, "Nice job." It did not bother me in the slightest. "Thank you," I sort of smiled, thanks very much.

None of that famous McCain temper?

No, you know, there are a lot of things that happen -- good and bad -- to you during a campaign. But I think, in 15 months when I never lost my temper, that I proved that I could do that. And coming back here, they will never hear me raise my voice again, at least in a way that it can be interpreted as temper. Because everybody was waiting for it during the campaign, and they would be waiting for it back here, so I'm not going to do it. Just not going to do it.

That doesn't mean I'm a milquetoast. For example, they got this guy nominated for the [Federal Election Commission], this Smith guy, whose philosophy is in direct contradiction to everything that I know and believe in.

[On Monday, McCain exercised his senatorial prerogative in blocking the nomination of Bradley A. Smith, a law professor from Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, to the FEC. Smith opposes campaign-finance reform and believes in repealing individual campaign contribution limits.]

I'm trying to block his nomination. "Well, why would you do that, why would you bother with that?" Well, because he's gonna be five years on the FEC. So I'm the bad guy again. But I'm not angry. I'm not yelling about it, I'm just saying, "Look, I don't want him on the FEC."

But overall, I'm happy. I'm still going through the transition ... People say, "Gee, weren't you sad when you lost?" I was sad, not because I lost -- I wasn't surprised I lost, we had the polling data. I was sad because it's over. It was such a great ride. That's why I was sad.

One last question. That 2 percent resentment you say that lingers. I was there, I saw the personal stuff that was said about your family. Bush hasn't said sorry, he hasn't acknowledged any responsibility for any of the attacks that he and his supporters carried out against you and your family. Should he apologize personally to you?

Perhaps he will. But if he doesn't, I cannot hold a grudge. There's just no point in it. There's just no point in it. What good does it do?

But, there's "forgive and forget." I can forgive and will forgive anything.

But no, I won't forget.

By Jake Tapper

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

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

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George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.