Ballot Box

The Great Kibitzer

WINDHAM, N.H.–Bill Bradley likes to say that his campaign rejects “politics as usual.” But out here on the campaign trail, it’s John McCain who is the true radical. A day with McCain in New Hampshire is a marathon of candor without precedent in modern presidential politics.

McCain started the day with a town meeting at a high school in Raymond–his 108th such event in New Hampshire. After speaking, he fielded every question and comment the audience could muster. After that, he held a press conference in the snow outside. After the press conference, he got on his bus and took more questions from reporters–until the next town meeting, where he began the cycle all over again. McCain talks until your notebook is full, your tape player is out of batteries, and your pen is out of ink. After a couple of hours, every journalist in his entourage has the same, enviable problem: too much good material. 

McCain’s bull sessions on the “Straight Talk Express” have become the hottest ticket on the campaign trail this year. Today there were dozens more reporters who wanted to kibitz than there were seats on the bus. But other than the need to take turns sitting next to him, McCain’s relationship with the press remains remarkably similar to the one I wrote about during his announcement tour last fall. Surprisingly, the increased scrutiny and intensity of a closely fought race haven’t changed the tone or style of his campaign. It remains low-key, free form, and fun as hell.

After finishing a town meeting, McCain embarks, washes his hands with germ-killer and assumes his swivel throne in the front section. Reporters cluster around, attaching microphones to his lapels, and sticking tape recorders and cameras in his face. In a flash McCain is off, wisecracking, talking seriously about his campaign and his life, engaging in badinage with aides, and teasing his good-natured spouse, who sits a couple of seats away, trying to talk to their daughter back home in Arizona about her lacrosse game on a cell phone. It all feels like a collegiate road trip, with running jokes, cuisine by Dunkin Donuts, and the odd unscheduled stop to shop for local handicrafts. Here’s a sample of the dialogue:

–Asked about the recent spate of Bush endorsements, including Orrin Hatch, McCain says: “I want to say right now: Orrin Hatch is off my short-list for postmaster general.” 

–Defending his liberal-sounding concern about income inequality: “We know in the inner cities and on the Indian reservations and other places they do not have the opportunity to receive the kind of education and training necessary to give them the ability to take advantage of this prosperity. It seems to me that all of us as Americans, whether Republican or Democrat or libertarian or vegetarian should be interested in addressing that situation.”

–On how much coffee he drinks: “Seven to eight cups a day. But sometimes only three, four.”

–In response to a question about whether his politics have evolved: “All of us should change and evolve over time. … In 1983, I voted against the Martin Luther King Holiday. I ended up being one of those in 1998 who fought hard for recognition. I don’t claim not to have evolved as a politician and in my philosophy and my views. I think it would be an incredible waste of time if I hadn’t grown and matured in some of those areas.”  

–Joking about his marriage: “Cindy and I are getting divorced. The grounds are, I found out she doesn’t love me as much as I do.”

Inevitably, reporters run out real questions and start asking McCain why he likes talking to them so much. “It’s fun. It’s intellectually stimulating, ” he says. “Some of the last of the Trotskyites have been on this bus. It’s hard to find them these days.” 

After the first town meetings in Raymond, the bus pulls off the road at a shop called the Village Quilter. The McCains go in to chat up the employees and buy a blue-and-white patchwork quilt. Back on the bus, Cindy McCain passes the quilt around for reporters to autograph with a magic marker, high-school yearbook style. The McCains plan to have it framed as a souvenir after the campaign. Here is what some prominent national reporters wrote on it:  

Senator, You & Cindy–Are the greatest–I had the time of my life.

Thanks for the “Straight Talk.”

It’s been fun hanging out with you on your one last mission.

From Dunkin Donuts to gummy bears, it’s been a memorable journey.

Senator, you gave new meaning to the term road trip. Hope it ends at Pennsylvania Avenue.

I’ll never eat another pink-frosted donut as long as I live. Best of luck.

Best of luck–no matter what happens, it’s been great.

I love the shades! Keep talking straight. All the best.

You sure show your Trotskyite pals a good time.

The last comment, I’ll admit, was mine. McCain’s relentless openness certainly encourages favorable press attention (as well as increasing the risk of gaffes). But I don’t think that the wish to curry favor explains why McCain has chosen to run his presidential campaign as what one reporter on the bus described as a traveling Truman Show. I think McCain simply had to find a way of running for president that he found pleasurable. And for whatever reason, he finds non-stop public interaction both stimulating and therapeutic. Where the endless schmooze would exhaust another candidate, it seems to renew McCain’s energy and keep him sane.

In fact, McCain doesn’t treat reporters so specially. His table talk on the bus is not very much different from the way he conducts his town meetings. McCain starts these events with a comic monologue, ramps up to a serious pitch about repudiating the power of the special interests and motivating young people, and then takes questions the floor. From time to time, he fertilizes the crowd Don Rickles-style, abusing one questioner as “ugly” and mocking another for his “expensive sweater” (sure enough, the guy asks him about cutting the capital gains rate). By the time he winds down, the civilians are as glutted with access as his traveling press.

Even the hecklers get their due. At an event in a high school cafeteria in Windham, McCain spots the global warming activists who have been stalking all the candidates with posters that ask, “WHAT’S YOUR PLAN?” Today some of them are dressed in elaborate costumes that include giant smokestack hats with ribbons of flame and smoke spilling out. McCain doesn’t wait for them to interrupt him. “If you’re committed enough to wear a funny hat, I’m committed enough to listen to you,” he says. “We had a guy in a shark suit last night.”