The Friend He Just Can't Shake

By Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 1, 2008

Hurricane Gustav has spared Republicans one potential problem -- President Bush and Vice President Cheney are skipping tonight's first session of the Republican National Convention to remain on hurricane watch in Washington. Tying Bush, Cheney and their dreadful approval ratings around the neck of this year's Republican ticket has been the Democrats' dream all year.

But the president's decision to stay away from St. Paul this week won't solve John McCain's Bush problem. During their convention in Denver, the Democrats made perfectly clear their intention to run against "McSame" and "George W. Bush's third term." Republicans in St. Paul can't hide the fact that they are picking the person they hope will be Bush's successor.

Wait -- isn't McCain different from Bush? Tim Russert, the late moderator of NBC's "Meet the Press," asked McCain precisely that question three years ago. "No," McCain replied firmly, "no."

He elaborated: "The fact is that I have agreed with President Bush far more than I have disagreed. And on the transcendent issues, the most important issues of our day, I've been totally in agreement and support of President Bush. . . . My support for President Bush has been active and very impassioned on issues that are important to the American people. And I'm particularly talking about the war on terror, the war in Iraq, national security, national defense, support of men and women in the military, fiscal discipline, a number of other issues. So I strongly disagree with any assertion that I've been more at odds with the president of the United States than I have been in agreement with him."

In politics, timing is often telling. When McCain gave this account of his political intimacy with the president in June 2005, nearly half the electorate approved of the Bush presidency, and only a quarter disapproved. Perhaps more relevant to McCain at the time, 84 percent of Republicans in a Washington Post-ABC News poll still held a favorable view of Bush. McCain was thinking hard about running for president. In the months that followed, he decided to run and decided initially at least to run as the heir to Bush, hoping to win the support of the Republican establishment still loyal to the president.

This was but one of many complicated moments in the McCain-Bush relationship since they ran against each other for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. Then, McCain told friendly colleagues in the Senate that he thought Bush was a "lightweight," an opinion that did not improve during the campaign. McCain lost his famous temper in South Carolina, where the Bush campaign and its allies derailed his upstart challenge, using aggressive tactics, including the spreading of false rumors about McCain.

Peace of a kind was made in a Pittsburgh hotel room in May 2000. McCain and Bush held a 90-minute meeting to bury the hatchet, both reading from scripts. Bush raised the subject of the vice presidency, but McCain said he wasn't interested. They had an awkward conversation. Afterward they gave a joint news conference in which McCain endorsed Bush. But no affection developed -- quite the contrary. Connie Bruck of the New Yorker quoted the McCains' good friends and Arizona neighbors, Sharon and Oliver Harper, recounting an August visit by Laura and George Bush to the McCain ranch. The Harpers said the McCains pleaded with them to change their own vacation plans to be with the McCains when this visit occurred. "John and Cindy said, '. . . We don't want to be left alone with them, this is going to be really difficult,' " Sharon Harper told Bruck.

But soon afterward (you may want to fasten your seat belt here), McCain was passing word to the Bush camp that he was willing to be the vice presidential candidate. Dick Cheney got the nod instead. McCain then spoke warmly of Bush from the podium of the 2000 GOP convention in Philadelphia: "If you believe patriotism is more than a sound bite and public service should be more than a photo op, then vote for Governor Bush," McCain said. "He wants to give you back a government that serves all the people no matter the circumstances of their birth. And he wants to lead a Republican Party that is as big as the country we serve."

Soon after the 2000 election, though, McCain told guests at a Los Angeles dinner party hosted by actress Candice Bergen that he had not voted for Bush -- according to Arianna Huffington, the liberal blogger and a guest at the party. McCain's aides sharply denied this. Then two other dinner guests, actors Bradley Whitford and Richard Schiff, said they heard McCain say the same thing.

Back in Washington after Bush took office, McCain flirted with crossing the aisle of the Senate to vote with the Democrats and give them a majority, an idea that died when Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont did just that. McCain then established himself as an independent voice who opposed the new Bush administration on a series of high-profile issues, including stem cell research (which McCain favored), tax cuts (McCain opposed them), a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage (McCain against) and campaign finance reform (McCain favored it).

When the Democrats nominated his friend John Kerry as their 2004 standard bearer, McCain seriously considered Kerry's suggestion that he join the ticket as the candidate for a kind of super vice presidency. McCain decided against it. McCain did, however, defend Kerry repeatedly against Swift boat charges that he had misrepresented his Vietnam War record.

Karl Rove, Bush's political operator, then put out peace feelers to McCain. A new understanding was reached. McCain again agreed to support Bush in a convention speech, in New York in August 2004. "I salute his determination to make this world a better, safer, freer place," McCain said. "He has not wavered. He has not flinched from the hard choices. He will not yield. And neither will we."

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