One of the more interesting detours in my career was the chance to cover the presidential campaign in 2000.
I was assigned initially to cover John McCain’s insurgent campaign in New Hampshire. I was the most junior reporter on the Washington Times’ national desk and I think the more senior reporters wanted to be on the campaign trail with Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who our editors had been backing as the Republican nominee for at least two years. They, like most Inside-the-Beltway observers, assumed Bush was a lock for the nomination.
I knew McCain reasonably well. I had been covering Capitol Hill for several years and McCain was a favorite of the press corps for his availability and willingness to drop a memorable quote on request. I also had some slight personal knowledge of him because he and my father were high school classmates and had some mutual friends and acquaintances in the Navy, though they never served together.
I have to admit I wasn’t as enamored of McCain as my press corps colleagues. Although I found him entertaining, his reputation as a “Maverick” seemed a little thin. It rested on a small handful of issues where he was willing to diverge from his party, particularly campaign finance. If you examined his record beyond those two or three issues, which I did for a story at one point, he was as conservative and reliable a Republican vote as anyone in either chamber of Congress.
But when I got to New Hampshire and started comparing his rallies with the events by Bush and the many other lesser Republican candidates that year, McCain really began to stand out from the rest.
He dashed around the state in his “Straight Talk Express” giving loose, semi-improvised stump speeches. He seemed to relish, even encourage friendly heckling and banter with the audience. It was more like a small-town social event than a campaign rally by a veteran U.S. Senator running for president. He was particularly effective and touching when veterans would attend. He would depart from his remarks, step down from the stage and address them with great tenderness and affection.
And, more than any other candidate I have ever seen, he seemed to be having fun. He would bound around the stage, make up goofy new slogans and display an almost child-like glee at the energy of the crowd.
The night of his smashing, 18-point drubbing of Bush in New Hampshire, McCain stepped into the hotel party looking at once stunned and giddy, as if he could hardly believe his own luck.
It was clear that the campaign was utterly unprepared for victory. There was hardly any campaign organization in any other state. The whole operation had a weirdly improvised feel after New Hampshire. They rented a deplorably rickety old aircraft from TWA, then teetering on its last legs. The pilot’s approach to landings appeared to be to descend like a dive bomber and hit the tarmac with as much force as the plane could stand. It was terrifying and, for some reason, McCain took to referring to him as “The Bavarian Fighter Pilot.”
Through all the emotional ups and downs that followed, McCain’s anarchic sense of fun remained. Unlike other candidates, McCain sat in the main cabin of the airplane with the reporters and staff. We were free to approach him and talk any time we wanted, provided he wasn’t napping or speaking with his wife Cindy, who was by his side through most of the campaign (though I always sensed she wasn’t having as much fun as he was). His staff would set up bars at each end of the aircraft at the end of the day, and the whole operation took on an air of a flying political fraternity party.
The crowds at rallies grew and McCain continued to display his gleeful astonishment at every rally. Sometimes excitement would overwhelm him and he would attempt to pump his arms in victory, causing him to wince in pain, as if he had temporarily forgotten that the damage wrought by his captivity in North Vietnam had sharply limited his range of motion.
At one rally in Michigan, McCain got so excited that he improvised a line comparing himself to Luke Skywalker trying to escape the Death Star in “Star Wars.” It was a goofy remark that had even himself laughing, but thereafter he would enter rallies to the sounds of the “Star Wars” main theme. The crowds got the reference and ate it up.
I never asked McCain about it to confirm, but I got the sense that he ran in that 2000 race as something of a lark, the capstone of a long political and military career, one more thing to add to his stock of stories. It didn’t seem like he expected to win, or make much of a difference even in New Hampshire. Throughout the campaign, he and his aides continually acted as if they were flummoxed by the whole McCain phenomenon.
I didn’t cover the 2008 campaign, but watching it from afar, it didn’t seem like the same John McCain. He was scripted and surrounded by seasoned party consultants, the types who had been working for his rival George W. Bush eight years earlier. The thing that struck me most was that McCain no longer looked like he was having the slightest bit of fun. Even he didn’t seem surprised that he lost.
The news this week that McCain had been diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer made me sad. McCain is a flawed and difficult man in some ways, but he is also engaging, enjoyable and more authentic than most people in his position. He seems to take his responsibility to the country and to the institution of Congress seriously.
I hope in his final years, he can come back to the central message of his 2000 campaign, the line that he included in every speech: That there is nothing more noble than to “sacrifice for a cause greater than yourself.”
The country could use a few more politicians like John McCain right now.