The long goodbye

Sen. John McCain gets booed stumping for Bush, and takes a last lap on the Straight Talk Express.


Alicia Montgomery
July 31, 2000 2:13AM (UTC)

Sen. John McCain might've expected a rough convention, but now it seems he might get two. The former presidential candidate got booed during his speech to the Shadow Convention, the alternative political event staged by columnist Arianna Huffington. The star billing here was supposed to make up for the speech he has to give Tuesday night at the Republican Convention, which will likely be pumped full of praise for his former rival, George W. Bush. If that speech goes as this one did, this will be McCain's worst week since Super Tuesday.

McCain started off just fine at the Shadow show, telling the assembled that appearing before "like-minded shrinking violets would be a great way to keep a low profile until the Republican convention starts." But then he launched into a well-written but canned speech that didn't prove to be much of a crowd-pleaser.

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"The Republican Party is my home," he said, which started eyes rolling in the audience. Yes, there were several McCain devotees at this gathering, but these were mostly young contrarians who didn't think much of party loyalty, and apparently didn't think much of McCain. That group had enough when McCain started to make the case for Bush, just as he had promised. Bush's name alone brought hisses, which led to boos as he pressed on. McCain's wife and mother began shifting uncomfortably in their seats at the front of the auditorium, glancing back at the jeering audience. Even as the sustained boo died out, one protester pounded the floor with a stick repeatedly, silencing the other critics and finally the speaker himself.

At that point, McCain looked out into the hall like a high school principal presiding over a rowdy group of students. "If you like I don't even have to continue," he said. That brought applause, but it was unclear whether it was coming from McCain fans or those who thought that stopping was a fine idea. That was when Huffington came to his rescue. She walked out on stage, clapped her hand on his shoulder and told the audience to behave.

They did, more or less, and McCain hurried to a finish, amid catcalls and counter calls for quiet. He finished to a standing ovation, less inspired by the speech itself than the balls he displayed in pushing his way through the whole thing. Though the convention schedule called for a question-and-answer session with McCain, he and his family quickly left the building. The press and the young Republicans who came to see him fled as well.

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This was not what he and the 70 journalists trailing him expected when the Straight Talk express rolled away from Washington the day before. Though nearly every reporter in town was headed to the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia by plane, train or automobile, the McCain bus was still a hot ticket.

"We're getting the band back together," McCain aide Todd Harris announced as he paced the sidewalk in front of the Straight Talk and its three Southern Comfort sisters. The trip did have two of the required elements of the revolving comeback/farewell tours of aging rockers: a faded star phoning in a performance and a small but devoted band of groupies. As they awaited McCain's arrival, the reporters, most of whom were Straight Talk veterans, exchanged hearty handshakes and howhaveyabeens. When South Carolina Rep. Lindsey Graham materialized, a few journalists wandered over, but most didn't interrupt their reminiscing to speak with him.

Then came the man himself, stepping out of the car with his lovely wife, Cindy McCain. There was a smattering of applause, and within moments the couple had been swallowed by a clot of press members. Reporters closed in, leaning, pushing and jumping up and down to catch a hint of McCain's words as he stood pinned against the flank of the mother ship. One wise cameraman brought a stepladder.

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Five minutes later, McCain and friends climbed aboard the Straight Talk, and the reporters scampered back to the lesser buses, filling one and leaving each of the others more than half empty. During the idle time before departure, half a dozen schoolgirls in T-shirts and shorts crept shyly to the senator's window, smiled, waved for a few minutes and departed, giggling.

The caravan pulled off half an hour late, and encountered a minor traffic snag before chugging up toward Pennsylvania in earnest. At different rest stops along the highway, reporters climbed aboard the Straight Talk in four shifts -- blue team, green team, yellow and red -- under the bewildered gaze of weekend travelers. When I told one curious woman that McCain was the man causing all the fuss, she turned to me with a half smile and asked, "Didn't he run for president?"

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Yes, he did. But now he is running across the country on behalf of other people. Every congressional wannabe wants him to appear in their district, and he was taking the Straight Talk on a detour on his way to Philadelphia to campaign for one of them, Stewart Greenleaf, who is running for Pennsylvania's 13th District seat.

When it was time for the reds to take our turn, we mounted the bus's stairs and walked straight into the sights of Cindy McCain, who was recording the whole thing with a video camera. "Smile!" she cheerfully commanded. "This is a sour looking bunch." Smiling and unsmiling alike, about a dozen journalists filed into that storied cabin, where a weary McCain reclined in his captain's chair. After shaking all our hands and saying how nice it was to see us all again, he sat and answered the same questions he'd been answering for months.

He declined to say anything bad about George W. Bush or the more ugly moments of their contest. "I think that the worst thing I can do is look back with rancor," he replied. "Americans don't like sore losers." As proof that he had moved on, McCain announced that he was going on a three-day post-convention tour with Bush and said he would step away from the convention on Wednesday, the day Bush arrives, so as not to "steal his thunder." McCain even expressed hope that the Straight Talk tour would be something of a boost for his party's nominee. "I'm going to go over to the Shadow Convention to convince them all to vote for Bush," he said, sounding less than eager about the assignment. "Arianna Huffington asked me to do it a long time ago."

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The reporters did make an effort to ask him something new, but these were not wait-for-your-turn- to-cram-into- the-back-of-a-bus questions. These were and-by-the-way inquiries that could've waited for any press conference, any chance encounter on the convention floor. Someone asked what was new with the commerce committee, whether he and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott were getting along. After about 30 minutes, the pace of the questions slowed. Reporters casually turned their cassettes over to the B side, not bothering to hurry to catch the next question and answer. The pace of scribbling slowed down and in some cases stopped altogether.

After the reds stepped off, the buses made their way to Blue Bell, Penn., where McCain was set to star in a town hall meeting.

More than a 100 citizens sat in folding chairs in a steaming gymnasium as giant fans battled for sound with the speakers, but did nothing against the heat. He answered questions about college loans, gasoline additives, NATO membership and whatever else crossed the mind of the Blue Bell residents, who interrupted McCain several times to applaud. When the organizers tried to wrap it up, McCain kept going, letting one last questioner take his turn at the mike before a shower of confetti and a blast of music brought the event to a close.

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Then the reporters streamed out of every open door and climbed on the Straight Talk, but McCain was in no hurry. He strolled down the sidewalk, signing every autograph and shaking every hand until he reached the street.


Alicia Montgomery

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

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