McCain at Rock Bottom

When his campaign was a mess last summer, he was at his best.

This article is adapted from Jacob Weisberg’s introduction to McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express With John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About HopebyDavid Foster Wallace, published by Back Bay Books.

John McCain

In August 2007, John McCain came through New York to promote his latest book, Hard Call: The Art of Great Decisions. McCain’s editor, Jonathan Karp, was kind enough to offer me one of the hourlong slots set aside for back-to-back interviews in his office. The new book, written with (all right, by) McCain’s literary alter ego, Mark Salter, was evidently meant to serve as a kind of Profiles in Courage for the Arizona Republican’s presidential campaign. It recounted moments in which wise leaders made brave choices: Lincoln’s issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Branch Rickey’s hiring of Jackie Robinson to break baseball’s color barrier, etc. I sampled a few of these vignettes just before our meeting and found them characteristically well-done.

But the book, at that moment, seemed rather beside the point. While Salter was hard at work on Hard Call, McCain’s presidential campaign had fallen apart. Instead of breaking away from the Republican pack, McCain was loping after it from a considerable distance. At that point, McCain was trailing Rancorous Rudy, Mutable Mitt, and possibly even droopy-eyed Fred Thompson in the polls. McCain had raised a pitiful amount of money and quickly run through it. He’d just fired his longtime campaign manager and laid off three-quarters of his feuding and divided staff. Esquire reported that he was personally scrutinizing the campaign’s daily doughnut order as a cost center. Unlike his first book, Faith of My Fathers, the Salter-abetted autobiography that had launched his 2000 bid, Hard Call, was looking like a tough sell.

I hadn’t seen much of McCain since his famous insurgency in the Republican primaries that year, which I covered for Slate. Like most other reporters who spent time trailing his campaign, I retained fond memories—of the candidate’s unprecedented candor, his gleeful mischief-making, and the sheer fun of hanging around with him. In the intervening years, however, the spirited maverick had seemed to turn into a weary dray. Preparing his presidential bid, he had mended fences—albeit with evident insincerity—with the Christian evangelicals, corporate lobbyists, and anti-tax ideologues who composed his party’s power base. Worst of all, McCain was making nice to his 2000 nemesis George W. Bush. With a few exceptions, his idiosyncratic conservatism had turned ordinary.

Yet I held out hope that McCain might not really have changed, and that proximity to defeat might put him in the subversive frame of mind I remembered so fondly. So when we sat down, I prodded the senator politely but as obnoxiously as I could. I was just back from a book-writing leave myself, I told him, and hadn’t been following the Republican primaries very closely (which was true). But from a distance, his campaign sure as hell looked like a train wreck.

“Jacob,” he answered with a sigh, “you don’t know the half of it.” Where another politician would have been spinning madly to disabuse me of the erroneous assumption that he was somehow not on the verge of victory, McCain launched into his own epic kvetch about how screwed-up his campaign was. He hadn’t been able to raise the money that his aides said would pour in, he’d been wildly overspending, he’d been too inaccessible, and he wasn’t connecting with voters. He sounded as if he was criticizing his opponent. I don’t think Mark Salter, who was sitting in a corner of the room, disagreed with anything McCain said. But he was beginning to look a bit queasy.

I apologized that I’d only had a chance to read a little of his book in preparation for the interview.

“I don’t expect you to read every part of it,” McCain replied with a gesture that suggested he might not have gotten all the way through this one himself. And here Salter, who was no longer drawing a salary from the insolvent campaign and who derives the bulk of his income from McCain book royalties, began to look more seriously dismayed.

The conversation continued in that vein for a spell. I’d riffled enough pages of Hard Call to recognize that McCain was trying to bolster his tenuous credentials as an executive by associating himself with heroic figures like Churchill, Reagan, and Truman. Some of the leaders he considered in the book cast a spell through charisma, others through domineering energy, still others through a broad vision of change. But McCain himself didn’t seem like any of those leaders, I pointed out. He wasn’t charismatic, had little vision of the future, and was more satirist than autocrat. No argument from the author here, either. “Whether I’m a leader in the category of people I was just talking about I think is doubtful,” he said.

At this point, I glanced over at Salter, whose face was now buried in his hands.

Off, off message, McCain merrily went. What, I asked, did he think about his new best friend George W. Bush as a leader? Why wasn’t he in the book? “I think that the very significant failing was to not question the course of the war in Iraq for too long,” he said. “I’m told that the president would say to the generals on the teleconference, ‘Do you have everything you need?’ ‘Yes sir!’ End of conversation! I think General Eisenhower would have said, ‘Well, what about the casualties in Anbar Province? What about the suicide bombers?’ He’d go down the list of challenges we were facing. ‘How’s it going with the de-Ba’athificaiton? What’s happening with the oil revenues?’ ”

I noted Bush’s curious quality of taking strenuous opposition as proof that he must be right. McCain concurred. “I really feel that to somehow be encouraged by opposition is not a productive exercise,” McCain replied. “Because if you continue to have American public opinion opposed to our involvement in Iraq—no matter what I think the consequences of failure are—we’re not going to be able to sustain it, period.” When I got back to my office, there was a message from Salter saying he hoped I hadn’t misconstrued any of those comments as, ahem, critical of the president.