The Chat Room

Sizing Up McCain

Jacob Weisberg takes readers’ questions about the strengths, flaws, and motivations of the Republican candidate.

Slate editor Jacob Weisberg was online on to chat with readers about John McCain’s strengths and weaknesses and to speculate on what makes the Republican candidate tick. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Fourth Estate: Look, I’m doing everything I can to help voters understand this campaign. I’ve ignored John’s mix-up of “Sunni” vs. “Shiite”—it really doesn’t matter. I attended John’s BBQ at his ranch and picked up all the talking points to use this Fall. I’ve written extensively about every smear against Obama I’ve seen in the e-mails, because they’re out there, and I have a journalistic responsibility to discuss them. I regularly write out Obama’s full name, including his middle name of “Hussein.” Yet Obama seems to be strengthening. What else can I do?

Jacob Weisberg: The question of press bias has gotten really tedious. With McCain and Obama, I think we have two nominees (nearly) who are widely liked and admired by reporters. Both are sure to cry foul when it suits their purposes, but I don’t see any meaningful media slant in a race between them.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Jacob, I actually am reading the news from my studio in Paris (which I have leased for the month of May). I have read your articles in the past, but my question is perhaps more of a comment. I found your last paragraph “flat.” It took away from the earlier part of it. The piece certainly convinces a reader that you know your way around the D.C. circuit, but it just sort of hangs there … at the end. Was there a reason for doing that in this article? I am a writer, also. Just had my first book published: a novel, The Widow’s Web.

Jacob Weisberg: Sorry about that. It ends abruptly because it’s an excerpt to a longer introduction to David Foster Wallace’s book McCain’s Promise. In printed form, my piece goes on to consider DFW’s view of McCain and the paradox of a candidate who succeeds politically by acting as if he’s not that political.


Anonymous: If McCain is at his best when he is losing, then I am certain Democrats would love to make him great. Why does he seem to be more outspoken and more of a maverick when he is not comfortably ahead?

Jacob Weisberg: Obvious, isn’t it? The stakes get higher in proximity to victory. Last August, McCain probably thought he didn’t have much to lose.


Savory Goodness: As a fun Wednesday afternoon exercise, read the entire Slate article then review the associated posts. Many learned Frayers post all of the usual “four more years” blather, while this Slate piece is one of many which give evidence to the contrary. Further evidence can be derived from Sen. McCain’s record in the Senate, and in the conservative media’s reactions to him.

John McCain—whatever else one might think of him—is nobody’s lapdog; not Bush’s, nor Limbaugh’s, nor Fox News’s, nor the religious right’s, nor the lobbyists’, nor even the GOP’s. We are unquestionably, finally going to have palpable change in Washington after this election, no matter which side wins. ‘Bout damn time.

Jacob Weisberg: I agree that McCain is driven to an unusual degree by his own conscience. He has never been a good team player, and Republican party-liners are right to mistrust. I don’t think he has any real respect or affection for George W. Bush (or vice-versa), though their views on Iraq happen to be closely aligned at the moment.


Reading, Pa.: If Sen. McCain had a “senior moment” on the trail and said something truly ridiculous or out of touch, would it be fair to report that, or do you think the media would look the other way? Would you report it?

Jacob Weisberg: Are you kidding? The press will be over any gaffe or slip of any kind, by either candidate. But “senior moment” implies that he’s gone foggy in some way that his campaign is trying to conceal. I don’t think that’s true. My sense is that he’s as energetic and on the ball as he was eight years ago.


Hope, Ark.: Jacob, do you think the town-hall-type debates McCain has proposed to Obama actually will happen? Given that both candidates weren’t really such great debaters, who do you think it would benefit more?

Jacob Weisberg: I’d love to see a more open-ended type of debate between McCain and Obama, and I think there’s a decent chance of it happening. As you say, neither has been terribly impressive in debates so far.


San Francisco: Sen. McCain has sold out most of the principled stands that earned him the maverick reputation in the 2000 campaign. (Embracing Jerry Falwell after calling him an agent of intolerance and supporting Bush after the Bush campaign’s despicable slurs against his family in South Carolina, for example.) Is his popularity likely to fall as people realize that McCain 2008 is not the same as McCain 2000?

Jacob Weisberg: McCain is certainly challenging his side less than he did in 2000, but probably more than Obama has ever challenged his own side. McCain still comes into conflict with most Republicans on immigration and campaign finance reform. The maverick streak is still there, but without the self-immolating dimension.


Eastern Shore Conservatives: In private, how much does McCain hate conservatives like me?

Jacob Weisberg: I don’t think he hates you all, but I remain skeptical that he’s really one of you. McCain is genuinely hawkish, but he doesn’t think like a natural conservative about social or economic policy. In fact, he doesn’t seem to think much about social and economic policy at all, so he can tilt in a conservative direction as easily as in a liberal one. His economic plan looks equally shameful from a liberal or conservative perspective.


Charleston, S.C.: Jacob, how do perceive McCain’s temperament in comparison to other past presidents or candidates? About the same, or worse?

Jacob Weisberg: His temperament does worry me. McCain can be a loner, and can be extreme in adherence to his principles. This is a guy, remember, who chose to remain a POW in Vietnam for five years rather than violate his code. I worry that in certain confrontational situations, McCain might be inclined to escalate where it would make more sense to compromise or back down. I wouldn’t have wanted him making the calls in the Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance.


Anonymous: I have to disagree about McCain not liking or respecting President Bush. I could see by the way he made sure Bush got on his plane after that fundraiser the other night that McCain was concerned that the president keep to his busy schedule, even though I’m sure he would have liked to schmooze a bit longer.

Jacob Weisberg: Well, I think he wants Bush to raise as much money for him as possible—and to help with the conservative base. But I’ve never detected any personal affinity.


McCain/The Wire: Isn’t it as simple as one of The Wire’s themes? A man cannot succeed within the context of the institution without prostituting himself and his beliefs.

Jacob Weisberg: I think the idea that politics entails compromise with one’s beliefs may go back a bit farther than The Wire.


New York: My wife, who is from Arizona, says that she is amazed that McCain is doing so well because he is, in her words, “a crook.” She then cited all sorts of scandals from the ‘80s and ‘90s that I never had heard of. Is this past relevant? Did McCain used to be a more divisive figure?

Jacob Weisberg: The most famous controversy was the Keating Five scandal, when McCain helped out a big contributor in an inappropriate way, and was scolded by a Senate investigator. There have been other instances in which he has been criticized for favoring Arizona contributors. He is surrounded by the worst hired-gun lobbyists on the Republican side. But crook is much, much too strong a term for any of that, even if you believe that the worst accusations are true.


EarlyBird: McCain is best when he’s behind rather than leading the pack, just like conservatism is best as a countermovement rather than a movement. The whole point of conservatism is to conserve what is, to be skeptical of change and giving government power to work grand schemes in the name of its constituents. It is at its best as an insurgency when, as William F. Buckley, Jr. dedicated National Review to doing, it “stands athwart history and yells ‘Stop!’ ” It certainly is not given to interventionism abroad, either.

Goldwater launched the modern conservative movement, Reagan made its values mainstream, and since then it has decayed like any successful movement into politics for politics sake. Ultimately, successful political movements become decadent. Compare the idealist Goldwater, to the corrupted Bush and his veep, who rot at the end of the long 40-plus year movement.

McCain is best when he’s behind, having to call bull on the latest “Government as Santa Claus” scheme, because he is a conservative. He’s not by nature a builder, but a fighter. He is, at the end of an amazing run of conservative success, now as out of ideas as the conservative movement is. It’s why he, along with the Republicans, need to be swept away this year for a long winter, so they can get back to basics, weed out the neocons and Bible-based coercers, and rededicate themselves to core conservative values. Because we will need them healthy and principled and ready to fight that fight again in another eight years.

Jacob Weisberg: I very much agree with the point about conservatism losing track of its principles and being corrupted by power. What’s more, most conservatives I know agree with it. Losing control of Congress has begun to provoke some serious rethinking on their side. I agree that losing the White House would help to promote it further.


Anonymous: Do you think we’ll see an attempt to play out the whole Vietnam War thing before this is all said and done? Aren’t McCain’s service and prisoner of war ordeal really the only things he has to run on?

Jacob Weisberg: McCain is 71. Obama is 47. If McCain’s campaign focuses too heavily on Vietnam, I think it risks turning the race into a past-vs-future content. In that scenario, the past loses. Remember Bob Dole?


Huh?: “McCain is surrounded by the worst hired-gun lobbyist in the biz.” And all this time I thought he was on a crusade against that kind of influence-peddling.

Jacob Weisberg: My point precisely. McCain is a total hypocrite on this issue. Or, perhaps more precisely, he thinks he is so pure on the issue of political reform that he won’t be tainted by having lobbyists all around him.


Minneapolis: It seems to me this campaign has revealed a pretty major flaw in McCain’s governing style: Though he certainly has core convictions (like reducing the influence of lobbyists, or campaign finance reform), he’s clueless about how to actually achieve meaningful results. I mean, after he was worried about the “perception” of lobbyists in his campaign, he rashly created a policy that caused much confusion among his staff, and really didn’t do anything to fix the perception problem. The same thing seems to be wrong with the way McCain/Feingold has been almost completely ineffective in reigning in campaign spending. Do you see his potential governing style becoming an issue in the campaign, or is it too abstract an issue for voters to really latch onto?

Jacob Weisberg: It’s a very valid issue. McCain has never managed anything significant. He’s not detail-oriented. He’s interested in policy only selectively. He’s not someone is going to delve deeply into the operations of government. As we’ve seen with George W. Bush, these liabilities can be catastrophic. But I agree, this issue is a bit subtle and abstract to be aired in a presidential campaign. Also, Obama, while somewhat more hands-on, doesn’t have real executive experience either.


Fighting Back: Great to see the Democrats and Obama loosening the GOP’s eight-year lock on their twin trump cards of terrorism and patriotism. It’s amazing to me to read Obama’s recent retort to McCain, where he said McCain “should explain to the American people why almost every single promise and prediction that he has made about Iraq has turned out to be catastrophically wrong, including his support for a surge that was supposed to achieve political reconciliation.” I for one second that emotion! It’s about time somebody asked McCain these kinds of questions, as reporters apparently won’t.

Jacob Weisberg: I’m not sure McCain’s position on the war is as much of a liability as you think it is. For one thing, he was a shrewd critic of the Bush-Rumsfeld strategy from very early on, arguing that the U.S. needed to move to a counter-insurgency strategy. And since Bush finally moved to McCain’s preferred strategy in early 2007, levels of violence in Iraq have decreased and the situation has improved somewhat. So while I agree that the invasion of Iraq was a catastrophic blunder, I think there’s an argument to be made that McCain’s military instincts have been pretty good.

Again, the charge of press bias—which echoes through many of the questions I haven’t had time to answer—is wrong-headed and really, really tedious.


Black’s Ops?: John McCain has repeatedly said to judge him by the company he keeps. Okay—in the past week, six lobbyists have resigned from the McCain campaign under questions about their ties to foreign regimes and corporate interests. Still working for McCain is Senior Political Advisor Charlie Black, whose client list is a who’s who of evil men, including Ahmed Chalabi, Ferdinand Marcos, Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi and Nigerian Dictator Ibrahim Babangida. Why do you think Black still is working for John McCain?

Jacob Weisberg: See my early answer. I agree—Charlie Black is a greedy sleaze with a terrible history. And McCain’s a hypocrite to keep him on board.