John McCain isn’t running in Iowa, and he may get clobbered in New Hampshire. But he’s miles ahead in the very first contest of the 2000 campaign: the press primary. Journalists go weak in the knees around the guy. The few who have attempted to write debunking pieces about him have failed miserably. When I set out to spend a few days with McCain last week, I promised my editor that I wouldn’t join in this collective swoon. That proved impossible. But perhaps I can redeem myself a bit by examining the phenomenon.
Why do the hacks love McCain? You could start with our admiration for a quality not many of us possess: physical courage. But I think the deeper admiration is for the guts McCain showed in his Vietnamese captivity and which he’s shown consistently ever since. Everyone knows by now the story told in McCain’s book, how he voluntarily suffered five and a half years as a P.O.W. in Vietnam after refusing an early release. McCain wasn’t just a war hero. He was a kind of spirit of resistance personified, a man who writes in his book (click here for a Ballot Box review) that he found freedom in captivity by tormenting his torturers, even at the cost of additional abuse. McCain is a Faulknerian character, in a very different sense than Bill Clinton is. And I think that at this point, even those of us who think Clinton has been a good president hunger for a successor more deserving of our respect.
Reporters who have covered McCain in the Senate have seen Republican politics considerably enlivened by this defiant character. McCain is barely tolerated by his party’s leadership, and he hardly conceals his contempt for Trent Lott and Mitch McConnell. He has broken with his colleagues over campaign-finance reform, over legislation to punish cigarette makers, and over corporate welfare. There’s a bit of the “strange new respect” phenomenon in the way journalists respond to these positions. When a conservative politician takes liberal stands, he is often described as having “grown.” Yet McCain remains a genuine conservative, the farthest to the right of any of the other plausible candidates in the race (a category that excludes the born-again Bible slinger Steve Forbes). Reporters respect McCain less because he takes liberal positions than because of the way he puts his beliefs ahead of his career as a matter of course.
McCain has been conducting himself in the same delightfully subversive way as a candidate for the GOP nomination. There were two guys in the campaign brave enough or clueless enough to oppose ethanol subsidies beforehand. Both faced the unappealing prospect of having to run in the Iowa caucus with this millstone around their necks. One of those candidates, Bill Bradley, brazenly changed his position to favor tax breaks for ethanol. The other, John McCain decided not to run in the Iowa Caucuses rather than change his position–even though forgoing the first contest makes his uphill struggle that much steeper. “Every candidate that I’ve observed in a race, if winning is the only objective, they always end up doing something,” he told me. “They compromise in order to experience some real or imagined short-term political gain.” McCain says this not with contempt, but with pity for those of his colleagues who cannot resist political temptation.
Then there’s the McCain charm. I doubt I’ll enjoy any part of this 2000 campaign so much as a couple of days spent as part of a three-person press corps traveling with McCain. He’s funny, friendly, and far too candid for his own good. Most politicians go off the record when they want to state the obvious. McCain doesn’t go off the record at all, at least in my experience. He behaves, in fact, more like a civilian talking about politics than a politician discussing politics. He does reverse spin: Unprompted, he tells me that his big announcement speech the previous day in South Carolina was something of a failure, describing himself as tired and his audience as merely “polite.” And there aren’t too many other senators, let alone presidential candidates, who will start a conversation (in the van, leaving the Reagan Library) with the line, “One of the many reasons I hate the French …” (the reason related to a diplomatic insult to Warren Christopher when he was secretary of state.)
McCain has said other things in recent weeks that would land another candidate in deep doo-doo. In a recent piece in U.S. News, Roger Simon quoted him referring to his North Vietnamese prison guards as “the goddamn gooks.” Reporters usually either put such indiscretions off the record on McCain’s behalf or congratulate him for making them. One reason for this is the media’s sound instinct not to punish a politician for being exceptionally candid with the media. Another is the feeling that McCain has earned the right to say whatever he wants. For those who have watched his career, his outspokenness on the campaign trail appears as a refusal to be cowed by yet another prison and its silly rules. As Bob Dole once said about McCain, you spend five-and-a-half years in a box, you get to say whatever you want.
He also responds to the press. Unlike the inaccessible George W. Bush, you can get to McCain easily, and have a frank, intelligent discussion with him about just about any topic. I’ve developed a minor obsession with how the various Republican education plans don’t make sense even on their own terms. McCain’s flawed plan, like Bush’s even more flawed plan, wouldn’t give vouchers a fair test, because it doesn’t fund the voucher at anywhere near the cost of most private schools. And if a voucher won’t pay for private school, it won’t create any pressure on public schools to improve. I made this point to McCain on a flight from Grand Rapids, Mich., to the Reagan Library in California. His initial response was that while $2,000, the amount in his plan, wouldn’t cover tuition at Sidwell Friends or Andover, it would pay for many Catholic parochial schools. “I’m unembarrassed to tell you that one of my happiest days of recent years was when my daughter was accepted in Catholic school,” he said. “I know she’ll get a quality education. She’ll wear a uniform, and she’ll be away from those little bastards that are trying to get their hands on her.”
McCain then called across the aisle of the plane to his wife. “Cindy, honey, good morning. How much is our tuition for Meghan at Xavier?” Meghan, 14, is the McCains’ oldest daughter.
“$6,100,” Mrs. McCain answered. “Not including books or uniforms.”
McCain seemed surprised at how high it was. And the next thing I knew, he was running with my criticism, trashing his own proposal. “It’s one thing to say we’ll give everybody a choice,” he said. “Well, if they can’t get in, then we’d better either provide incentives for schools to come into being where they can afford it, or figure out a way to give them enough of a voucher where they can.” You could say that McCain is to be faulted for not working out a better education proposal in the first place. But in a way, being able to profit from valid criticism is more important than being a master of policy detail. The Clinton health-care plan is a case in point.
This points to a final press-friendly quality of McCain’s: brilliant flattery. It’s fairly unusual, in my experience, for a politician to accept a reporter’s opinion that one of his major proposals is seriously flawed. It’s also gratifying to the reporter. Bill Clinton is a master of buttering up journalists by quoting their books and articles back to them. But with Clinton, the effort at seduction is transparent. You know he really hates the press, and is forcing himself to try to win them over. When McCain flatters you, it doesn’t feel automatic or calculated. He truly likes us journalists. It’s his fellow senators he can’t stand.