McCain Chief Loyalist Has New Role

Mark Salter, who has worked for Sen. John McCain for 19 years, has become increasingly angry thinking that nothing he and other aides have tried to do has really changed the tone of the campaign's media coverage.
Mark Salter, who has worked for Sen. John McCain for 19 years, has become increasingly angry thinking that nothing he and other aides have tried to do has really changed the tone of the campaign's media coverage. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)   |   Buy Photo
By Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 30, 2008

"I see the bias for Obama all over," he said, and let that hang there. His office TV was muted, but his crazed beeper was signaling him every minute or so. He hadn't had a cigarette for several hours and confessed to feeling a tad jumpy. "But this thing with Obama: We're naturally concerned -- especially because the media isn't, none of you guys are."

And then he just stared at his visitor.

He has a good stare, not exactly foreboding, but hard enough to let a stranger know when he is not messing around. He stands a stocky 5-foot-9, about the same as his boss. The goatee is all his own, but his steel-blue eyes, intensity and bluntness regularly evoke comparisons to his hero's bearing and demeanor.

Mark Salter -- who has served Sen. John McCain for 19 years in roles including speechwriter and biographer, chief of staff and gatekeeper -- is commonly referred to as the boss's "alter ego." This means chief loyalist. It means someone so close to McCain that the candidate has said he regards him as a brother of sorts. But these days the 53-year-old Salter is an angry man, even angrier than he was that day last spring in his office, when McCain had already captured the Republican presidential nomination and Barack Obama was still fighting his way through the Democratic primaries.

As the race has worn on, old friends and colleagues say, Salter has increasingly despaired that nothing he and other McCain aides have tried to do has really changed the tone of the campaign's overall coverage, or McCain's fortunes. This past year, he says, has revealed two sets of media coverage: a long-running valentine for Obama, and a far more critical look at McCain that has obscured his accomplishments and his campaign's good days.

"Nobody there anymore is more loyal than Mark," says a longtime friend to whom Salter poured out his frustrations recently. Salter declined to be reinterviewed for this article, and what he says during his diatribes against reporters is usually considered to be off the record.

As the campaign has entered its final phase, Salter's role as what he calls the "litigator" of media atrocities has only increased. He often wanders to the back of the campaign plane to challenge reporters on their stories and always to reinforce the McCain narrative.

Last weekend, Salter grew upset with what he regarded as stories that underreported the size of McCain's crowds, another potential blow for an underdog campaign struggling to convince voters that it is gaining momentum. A blog written by a journalist had particularly incensed him. He pushed through the brown curtain that separates the candidate and his aides from the media, and stormed toward the rear of the plane. Confronting the subject of his disgust, he leaned into the reporter and upbraided her.

After the economic collapse, and as McCain's poll numbers dropped, Salter's mood darkened, especially when talking about the coverage of his candidate. In the days that followed, he found himself responding to stories that were increasingly predicting McCain's defeat.

"We've been dead before," he told a Washington Post reporter the morning after the Nashville debate. "We can't die again."

His ups and downs have long been a perfect reflection of the turbulence within the McCain camp, which looked doomed last year even before the Republican primaries began and McCain came roaring back last winter. In July 2007, with the campaign nearly broke and McCain's poll numbers plummeting, a staff shakeup culminated with McCain dismissing campaign manager Terry Nelson and accepting the resignation of his longtime friend and chief strategist John Weaver, a widely praised leader of his 2000 insurgent bid against George W. Bush.

Another staff member, Rick Davis, once thought to be stuck on the outside of the inner circle, had prevailed in an internal power struggle to become the new campaign manager. Salter, who was particularly close to Weaver and had never enjoyed a warm relationship with Davis, contemplated resigning. His misery mounted on the day that Weaver and Nelson exited. Late that night, he said, he called McCain at home and said he thought he should probably leave the campaign, too -- that the departing staffers were friends and that all the turmoil had become terribly difficult for him. McCain told him that it was late, that rather than make a hasty decision they should both get some sleep and talk about his future in the morning.

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