McCain calls off meeting with Bush

From Vietnam, he moves to cancel one-on-one, though the Bush campaign expects it to go on.

By Jake Tapper
Published April 27, 2000 5:10PM (EDT)

Shortly after Sen. John McCain's airplane touched down here Thursday, there was a message for him at the Rex Hotel alerting him to a column by Robert Novak about the senator's much-hyped May 9 meeting with George W. Bush.

The column, which cited Bush advisors grousing about the one-on-one, was enough for McCain to instruct his advisors to call the meeting off.

Novak's column says Bush advisors anticipate "all pain and little satisfaction" from the meeting with McCain, who they believe will make certain demands on Bush before giving him his endorsement. Novak also cites "people in private contact with" McCain who say "his iron resolve not to consider the vice presidency" might be softening.

After learning of the column, McCain called up his political director, "Sunny" John Weaver, and instructed him to phone the Bush campaign and tell them to "scrub the meeting."

"I'm weary, and if Bush doesn't want to do this, then fine," McCain said, according to an aide.

The meeting, sources close to McCain contend, was always more important to Bush, who seeks the independent voters who backed McCain's candidacy, than to McCain. And while the sources say a meeting between the two men may eventually take place, for the time being it's off.

In the column, Novak maintains that McCain "is serious about agreement with Bush on campaign-finance reform. He is coming to realize that the governor never could accept McCain-Feingold, a bill supported by at most only eight Republican senators." The column also states, "Bush certainly has not decided he would like the prickly former naval aviator as his running mate."

McCain, according to sources, never demanded that campaign-finance reform be an agenda item, since he knows his opponent's opposition to it, and believes Bush violated election laws to his advantage. The source also says McCain remains uninterested in being vice president.

"We told Bush that McCain would meet with them as soon as he got back from Vietnam," where McCain is commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the source says. The source also complained that Novak never called the McCain staff to check any of the allegations.

Contacted Thursday, Bush campaign spokesman Scott McClellan said they were still optimistic the meeting would take place. "Governer Bush has said all along that he believes he and Senator McCain can work together on the reforms that they agree upon, and expects it to be a productive meeting," McClellan said. He said that the Bush campaign "remains in close contact with McCain's staff."

That communication is hobbled more than a bit by the 12-hour time difference between Bush's staff in Austin, Texas, and McCain's staff in Ho Chi Minh City.

In an interview Thursday morning, McCain spoke at length about the need to move on from the past, whether as horrific as five and a half years in a Vietnamese prison, or as dismaying as the Republican primary campaign. "I could focus on that, but what good would it do me?" McCain asked, speaking of the primaries.

Jake Tapper

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

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George W. Bush John Mccain