Last stop on John McCain's non-victory tour

At last, the senator ties the knot with George W. Bush, but has to be reminded to say the word "endorsement."

Published May 10, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Sen. John McCain didn't utter his "I do" to Gov. George W. Bush on Tuesday until the press demanded it, and even then he had to be reminded of the word "endorsement."

"I endorse Governor Bush," McCain said without smiling. He took an actor's beat with Bush hanging above his shoulder, peering out at the crowd of press like a puppy eager for a pat. "I endorse Governor Bush." Beat. "I endorse Governor Bush I endorse Governor Bush I endorse Governor Bush."

By now McCain was bent in half, smiling so broadly there was no mistaking his meaning. If you need me to, that smile said.

"And I enthusiastically accept," Bush said.

If they ever touched each other, it was only because Bush was trying to get into McCain's lap.

There were no empty pews here. Bush's traveling press faction, whose exclusive filing quarters had been a hive of torpor a mere hour before, now crowded the first three rows to outshout each other from assigned seats: USA Today, Reuters, ABC, the New York Times, Associated Press (twice), the Washington Post (twice), Dallas Morning News, Wall Street Journal, CNN, CNN, CNN and so on. Watching the de facto Republican presidential nominee cozy up to the man he'd already defeated is the sole political story between now and the conventions, and it couldn't be missed.

This morning was the last stop on McCain's non-victory tour. And even after dropping out of the race following his defeat in the primaries, McCain still proved to be the biggest draw of the presidential campaign. He had little to gain but a chance at 2004 or 2008 and the right not to be perceived as a spoiler. Bush hopes to grab a chunk of McCain independents and Democrats, but it isn't clear that he gained them after the endorsement performance.

The announcement of Tuesday's nuptials drew the international media crowd to arrive the night before and cover McCain's stop at a Waldenbooks in Pittsburgh's North Hills suburb, where he was signing his memoir, "Faith of My Fathers." Local reporters seemed cynical about the show.

"Oh, it's utterly hideous, isn't it?" said Dennis Roddy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist. "I have never seen a corps that gets along better with its candidate. In 1988 I expected George Bush's people to come out with nightsticks and beat us."

Roddy stepped over to watch McCain through the crosshatch of the store's night grate, which was blocking the Waldenbooks' second entrance for extra security. McCain was halfway through a line of 175 eager autograph seekers -- the biggest crowd ever, according to the store manager, rivaling the draw of the Pirates' 1960 World Series hero Bill Mazeroski. Even in this Democratic city's Republican suburbs, that's a feat.

Some were waiting to score a photo shaking the senator's hand. Some posed for pictures with McCain 20 feet in the background, like a piece of majestic scenery.

McCain's legacy from this campaign may be putting the words "campaign-finance reform" together in the same sentence. Many independents and Democrats in the crowd said they would have voted for him if he'd stayed in the race, citing his "integrity" and "honesty." Even McCain's late stand on the South Carolina flag issue contributed to the picture of personal integrity.

The impossibly tall David Gregory of NBC News said he knows these people well, having followed McCain for part of the primaries. "There's a lot of parents who bring their children," Gregory said. "He's got an appeal that goes beyond a typical public figure. What generated enthusiasm about him is his bio, and bio endures beyond the campaign."

Peggy Lisac, clutching McCain's book, was actually dragged here by her son Mark Lisac to wait in line for most of an hour. "I like history," Mark Lisac said. "He seems like a part of history." Had he ever stood in line for the autograph of a politician? "Never felt the need to before," Lisac said.

After the endorsement, the question came: To what degree was McCain endorsing Bush? Was he enthusiastic about Bush? Or was it simply a matter of taking his medicine now?

"'Take the medicine now' [is] probably a good description," McCain answered, again military stiff. "We are not in agreement on every issue. I'd like to say that I'll not give up on the reform agenda."

What about McCain for vice president?

"I asked his advice -- " Bush said.

" -- and I asked that I not be considered," McCain added, stepping to the microphone with enthusiasm for the first time.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a V.P. front-runner, was absent after meeting with Bush earlier, but he was an invisible bridesmaid for much of Tuesday's proceedings. Members of his political staff had been manning the press credential tables all morning.

Any animus remaining from the campaign?

"There's no point," McCain shrugged.

Where's the kiss? the crowd shouted.

"I love you, man," Bush said.

By Marty Levine

Marty Levine is a writer in Pittsburgh.

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Campaign Finance George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.