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.
Salter repeated that he didn't think he should go on.
"Listen," McCain finally said. "I'm dead man walking. I know it. I'm dead man walking. I'm going to lose this campaign [for the nomination]. . . . But I'm going to get up and work hard every day until it's over. Every day. That's what I'm going to do. So tell me something: Why are you acting like such a [wimp]?"
Chastened, Salter soon decided to stay, pledging his loyalty anew to McCain. No one close to the two men was surprised. Long before, thought friends, Salter had invested his future in McCain, having begun working for him after a random encounter with a McCain aide, then-press secretary Victoria Clarke, during the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans. He was 33 at the time and had a proven record of wanderlust, bouncing around Washington as he always had.
Growing up modestly in Davenport, Iowa, he had bypassed college in favor of toiling on railroads and playing in a band, not sure what he wanted, buffeted by his instincts, much like his future boss. "I generally just had a good time," he recounted. But he read voraciously -- novels, histories, biographies. His scattershot passions eventually landed him in night-school classes in Iowa, and from there he headed to Georgetown University, fascinated by politics and governance. His first break came when he landed a job writing speeches for an ardent foreign policy conservative, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, who was the U.N. ambassador at the time in the Reagan administration.
But it was not until he met McCain that he discovered his true calling: a capacity for distilling a powerful politician's appeal and turning his life story into the stuff of legend. In 1999, the two men teamed on the first of their five books, "Faith of My Fathers," at once a family memoir and a searing account of McCain's Vietnam combat pilot experience and POW ordeal. Their subsequent collaborations have explored political and military courage, ethics and policy. From the beginning, McCain gave his aide a co-authorship of the books and a 50 percent share of their proceeds.
After Weaver and Davis departed, Salter took a leave of absence and retreated with his family for a while to Maine, taking long walks and kayaking, friends said. When he finally returned to Arlington, his role seemed murky and insubstantial for months.
Last summer, others began to notice that Salter had reemerged in a counseling role for the campaign. Davis and chief strategist Steve Schmidt had begun meeting with him more often. In early July at his vacation home in Sedona, Ariz., McCain, expressing concern about a tough race ahead with Obama and wanting another skilled operative by his side, floated the idea to his staff of bringing back one of his well-known former advisers, Mike Murphy, to whom he had already privately offered a strategist job, according to two sources with knowledge of the discussions.
Murphy had tentatively agreed to come aboard. But the McCain staff balked that day in Sedona. According to the insiders, Salter and other aides did not want Murphy. Some McCain friends thought Murphy had displayed disloyalty at various stages to their leader, including in the lead-up to the 2008 race, when Murphy, they argued, seemed to distance himself from McCain while briefly listening to overtures from the campaign of Mitt Romney, who was a leading McCain rival for the Republican nomination.
A sad McCain, the sources said, expressed muted frustration about what struck him as a turf-protecting response from his team. It was a glimpse at once of the campaign's occasional dysfunction and of McCain's reluctance to pull together a team riven at times with conflicts common to many campaigns, particularly battles over power bases and personal styles. "Most things like that are handled fairly easily by campaigns and candidates, but John doesn't like dealing with messiness in relationships -- it just doesn't get done," a former staff member said. The idea of Murphy's inclusion swiftly died.
In the meantime, Salter has regained some of his lost standing, assuming the tasks for which he is uniquely suited, drafting McCain's nomination acceptance speech, firing up the candidate in between stealing a smoke, dashing off disgruntled notes to reporters and editors who have won his scorn, and talking up the attributes of the man he reveres.
In the spring, he had dared for a moment to allow himself to envision what his life might be like if McCain won. His dream, he confided, was to write a history of the McCain White House, to receive the kind of access that Edmund Morris had received from Ronald Reagan. "Who knows," he said, smiling, and then hunched his shoulders, as if yanking himself back to reality. "I know it's going to be a tough campaign," he said. "And part of the problem is few people in the [media] know my guy. They don't care to get to know my guy. . . . They don't see everything I see."
Salter had seen everything that mattered about his hero, he thought -- and for that reason believed McCain would ultimately prevail in a test of ideas, will and resiliency over Obama. "McCain has standards and he has ideals, and he believes he has an obligation to live up to that, to be that guy," he said, in regard to any political battle. "And he's not going to go down without a fight. Some people mistake that for something else. Some people believe in being gracious losers just so other people will look at them kindly. He isn't like that. . . . He's going to fight hard, and if other people don't think he's being gracious, well, that's the way it will be. But he's not alone in that. And I'll remind people of that, if I have to."