Meghan McCain’s first major appearance to promote her children’s book version of her dad’s life was going beautifully. On The Today Show last week, Meghan was composed, warm, and flawlessly made-up. On-air she managed to work in the fact that she’d attended a Reagan convention in utero, Republican street cred that’s tough to top. And then came the flub. Responding to a question about Barack Obama saying her father “doesn’t get it,” she rambled her way through talking points into a disastrous sound bite: “No one knows what war is like other than my family. Period.”
The misstep was, of course, perfect fodder for the lefty blogosphere. But the real danger to the campaign was that voters on the right might construe Meghan’s remark as evidence that the McCain campaign doesn’t value the contributions of average soldiers nearly enough. And so Meghan quickly went to her own blog and clarified her statement. Next, she uploaded a YouTube video of an amputee veteran saying that Obama’s stance on the Iraq war disrespects the sacrifice that soldiers have made, and that McCain understands all that they’ve given for their country and for the Iraqi people. The video says what Meghan should have said in that interview, and it’s visually arresting and has a soundtrack. In all, it was a wisely calculated response—and a far more typically shrewd Meghan McCain move than the earlier gaffe.
Meghan is the only one of McCain’s seven children to campaign actively for him. Young, pretty, and tech-savvy, she’s a tremendous asset, because she’s got a better feel for the way the campaign news cycle works in this era than lots of highly paid strategists. Watch her freely volunteer that, yep, her dad uses that “lipstick on a pig expression,” too—she knows that footage will always come back to haunt you. Or see her deftly put away a query about whether it’s hurtful when people mock her father’s age by laughing “He IS old!” The best way to neutralize a joke is by getting in on it.
Meghan McCain’s blog, branded with an icon of a young woman in killer red heels bathed in the glow of a computer screen, bills itself as “musings and pop culture on the campaign trail.” The pop-culture part consists of “songs of the day,” and, for the most part, the musings are achingly simplified captions for the pictures and videos that make up the bulk of the content. After her Today Show appearance, for instance, Meghan posted backstage pictures of the interview prep and an encounter with Judge Judy. She also often puts up pictures of her family at home or on the campaign bus. A professional photographer and producer work on the blog, too, so the photos always look great.
Journalists love interviewing Meghan since she’ll tell them almost anything about her personal life, in the vein of her dad in his maverick years. See this slightly heavy-breathing GQ interview for lots of questions from a man about her love life, or whether she’s ever considered a bull’s-eye tattoo. (Answer: No way, they’re “overplayed.”) Or consider this profile in the Washington Post, written by a woman, which has one of the cattiest ledes I’ve ever seen (Meghan is “not terribly interested in matters of policy, but she is acutely attuned to matters of footwear”) and quotes verbatim her every verbal tic. This interviewer from the Today Show’s blog asked Meghan about her Decision ‘08 crush (Luke Russert), her favorite TV shows (cops to a reality addiction), her diet on the trail (pizza for breakfast). It’s the stuff of celebrity puff interviews, and it staves off questions that could be harmfully revealing. Meghan’s actually far more socially liberal than her father, for instance, but by mixing her views on abortion with her declaration that Barack Obama is sexy, she helps ensure that her politics aren’t the main aspect of her coverage. Instead, she doles out faux intimacy and the generically affirming language of the pages of People: “I’m always who I am, which is why I think people have related to the blog. I’m not afraid to say things like ‘I’m not a size zero, I have bad days.’ “
If some of the snippets seem to signal ditz, the big picture is a smartly composed one. Meghan is an Ivy League grad who interned at Newsweek and Saturday Night Live, and she has constructed an image that jibes precisely with one expectation of 23-year-old women. She’s often compared somewhat unfavorably with 28-year-old Chelsea Clinton, who has in spades the gravitas that Meghan seems to lack. The two are on opposite ends of a mini-generation gap. At Stanford, Chelsea was largely able to escape from the press. Most of Meghan’s time at Columbia took place in the Facebook era, when politician’s children’s pages were suddenly fair game. Seriousness was rewarded for Chelsea and her cohort. But it’s been attention-grabbing that has thus far been rewarded for younger women like Meghan—and me—who’ve grown up in a post-YouTube, post-Britney era. We’ve been shown that it pays to behave like permanent teenagers, and Meghan has slickly figured out a way to get the most out of this. She calls her blog a Blogette. She writes a book that’s aimed at no one who’s old enough to vote.
And her confessional style is one whose most devoted practitioners may be middle-school girls with MySpace and Blogger accounts. Meghan tells People about what it was like for her when her mom was addicted to pills, or Meredith Viera that her dad dated a stripper, or confesses that she’s gained weight on the trail. People will point these things out anyway, so why not pre-empt them, and in the process, make them feel at ease? As we’ve seen recently with the Palin family, there’s a strong appetite for “Political Stars, They’re Just Like Us!” As with girls all across America, Meghan often channels the haute-trashy look of The Hills (though she’s been in Cindy-esque suits on the book blitz). Like the most lovable celebrities, she manages to strike a balance between being someone whose life people want and who reminds them of themselves. (She got to have lunch with Heidi! But she looked totally awkward!) All of this probably makes it easier for her audience to forget that her Louboutins are real or that her parents bought her a $700,000 condo. Of her future ambitions, Meghan says, “I’d really like to do something like Jessica Simpson’s done, taking high-end things and making them accessible to everyone.”
After news of Bristol Palin’s pregnancy broke, Meghan put up a post on her blog titled “Daughters.” In the simple prose that typifies the blog, she told the story of a reporter asking her father during his first presidential campaign whether he’d allow Meghan, then 14, to have an abortion. John McCain said it “would be a private decision that we would share within our family and not with anyone else:” This didn’t play well with abortion opponents. Meghan writes that the incident changed her life but doesn’t say how. She expresses solidarity not just with Bristol but with Chelsea Clinton, the Bush twins, and Mary Cheney, without saying why. On The Today Show, Meghan declared that she’s fair game because she has put herself out there—but that Bristol Palin (to whom she sees herself as a “godmother” figure) is still a child. Meghan could probably write a dishy tome on the loss of political innocence. Instead, she gives us on her blog the understatement of the year: “It’s a rough go being the son or daughter of a politician”—demonstrating her skill at negotiating that terrain. Meghan knows how to give up just enough of her privacy that we forget she didn’t really reveal anything.