Post Magazine: The McCain Makeover

Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 28, 2006; 12:00 PM

Does veteran Republican rebel John McCain really mean all those nice things he's saying about George W. Bush?

Glenn Frankel , whose story about the uncomfortable transformation of Sen. McCain of Arizona appeared in yesterday's Washington Post Magazine , will be online today to field questions and comments.

Glenn Frankel is a Magazine staff writer.


Glenn Frankel: Hi folks. We've got lots of good questions coming in, so let's get started.


Fountain Valley, Calif: I'm a Democrat that voted for McCain in the crossover primary in California in 2000. I think the straight-talk express got derailed somewhere. I really think his hawkish views on Iraq will be his Waterloo. His only thing he ways now is "more troops". I don't think more troops can solve this situation. People are so fed up with Iraq that, unless the situation materially changes in the next year, the only candidate with a chance in a national election will be one that gets us OUT of that hellhole. Your thoughts?

Glenn Frankel: You've raised one of the fundamental issues Sen. McCain wll have to deal with as the electoral season progresses. He's on record as saying the US would need more troops in Iraq to conduct a successful counterinsurgency strategy. At the same time, he told me he's well aware that the American public is fed up with the lack of progress in Iraq and that it simply isn't feasible politically to send in more troops. I think McCain is counting on two things: 1) that even before the election President Bush will have begun drawing down the number of US troops, thus taking a bit of the sting out of the issue; 2) that even many voters who disagree with McCain on this will feel that his military background and expertise make him the best choice to extricate us from the quagmire. His opponents, of course, will seek to tie him to the policy and question his ability to get us out.


Columbus, Ohio: Six years ago I actually registered republican to vote for McCain in the primary. At one time I thought he might an unwinnable candidate, but no longer. He has really set himself up for "flip flop" attacks which were hugely damaging to Kerry. And there is the incredible picture of McCain hugging Bush with his eyes closed which could be titled "groveling", which I would plaster all over huge billboards if I were running things for the dems in 2008. I think these 2 things alone could punture the McCain aura. What do you think?

Glenn Frankel: It's the $64 question. At a time when every other Republican candidate----including those running for Congress in Ohio---are running away from the president, McCain has been running toward him. In nailing down the Republican base, will McCain alienate voters like yourself---independents and Democrats---who found his maverick qualities so appealing in 2000?


USA: I just read your piece and thought it was quite good. 2 things though:

1. Bob Kerrey is not one of the war's most "vocal critics". During his time on the 9/11 commission, he made interviews supporting the decision to invade. A "vocal critic" of the war is somebody like Byrd.

2. You didn't write enough about how Kerry tried to get him to be vice president. The stuff with Warren Beatty, the lobbying by other Senators. Just curious, but did he talk about the faxes he received urging him to join up?

Glenn Frankel: Those are both very good points. Bob Kerrey has become considerably more vocally anti-war in recent times, but you're right that he was in favor early on, as were most senators. As for the vice presidential flurry, I simpl'y didn't have enough space to do it justice. McCain and his staff insist he told John Kerry from the start that this was a non-starter---McCain said he was, after all, a conservative Republican. But it was a long courtship, at least on Kerry's part, and it buffed McCain's credentials with Democrats and independents, even while it caused more mistrust among the GOP party faithful.


Spartanburg, SC: I don't understand how the media still calls McCain the frontrunner. Rudy Giuliani is ahead of him in the polls, is rated as the most acceptable nominee, leads in Iowa, and has leapfrogged McCain among social conservatives who admire his strong leadership qualities. McCain may be winning the Bush consultants, but Rudy is winning more of the Bush voters.

Where does Rudy figure in all this?

Glenn Frankel: Giuliani is definitely a strong potential challenger to McCain because he occupies much of the same political ground and has great name i.d. Until recently, he wasn't laying the groundwork---hiring staff, targeting donors, etc.---in a way that led analysts to believe he was serious about running, but many now believe he is. Here's the question: when social conservatives come to grips with Giuliani's positions on abortion (he's pro-choice) and gay rights, will they still be intrigued?


Alexandria, Va.: How is McCAin's health? I keep hearing cancer whispers.

Glenn Frankel: Good question. He says he's had no recurrence of the melanoma after his 2000 surgery. He certainly looks fit and hearty. He turns 70 tomorrow and, if elected, would be 72 on Inauguration Day---the oldest person ever elected to a first term. Some of the younger candidates will try to present themselves as lively, fresh and energetic--to draw a contrast at least by implication. But I spent some serious time trailing McCain, and he's a lively and energetic character himself.


Alexandria, Va: The main reason, I, as a Republican voter oppose McCain as my party's Presidential nominee is because he is, like Bill Clinton & Richard Nixon before him, an obsessive egotist and self-promoter who has to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.

A McCain administration might very well end with the President having high personal approval ratings, but there is no doubt that the Republican party would be in the same shambles that the Democratic party was at the end of Clinton's, as McCain would undoubtedly repeatedly betray his party's principles for the sake of poll ratings, as did Bill from Little Rock.

It is bad enough that my own and every American's right to free speech has been restricted because of John McCain's personal guilt over his dealings with Charles Keating, the damage he could do in the White House to feed his own need for self-aggrandization cannot be imagined.

Glenn Frankel: You've summed up in a nutshell a large part of the conservative Republican case against McCain. For the uninitiated, let me explain that your last paragraph refers to the McCain-Feingold bill, which sought to limit or eliminate the role of "soft money" from corporations, trade unions and law firms in political campaigns. Its critics contend it restricts free speech (although the Supreme Court upheld it) and it is one of the prime reasons why many Republican-oriented interest groups like the NRA and the Christian Coalition oppose McCain.


Levittown NY: Will McCain's despicable "joke" about Chelsea Clinton

continue to be suppressed? His simultaneous insults to Bill

and Hillary Clinton, and to Janet Reno, are almost

understandable from a man of his character, but the father

of a daughter ridiculing the physical appearance of a child, is

to me, ever unforgivable.

Thank you,


Glenn Frankel: Suppressed? I've read many many McCain pieces from the 2000 election and beyond, and many of them discussed the joke. It hurt McCain because it fed into a view that he was thoughtless and crude. But the difference between this one and Sen. George Allen's macaca controversy is that McCain apologized early and often and made no excuses.


Arlington, Va: I accept the conventional wisdom, illustrated in your well-done article, that McCain must reinvent himself (and perhaps mask his true self) to win over the base that is so important in primary voting. But aren't there increasing signs of a split between the authoritarian "create our own reality" and libertarian "reality-based" wings of the Republican party? Is there any danger that by praising Bush too much, McCain will lose support in primaries from the anti-Iraq war Republicans who are increasingly concerned about the lack of competent administration in foreign and domestic endeavors? (Even Mort Zuckeran mentioned the disastrous handling of the post-"Mission Accomplished" phase of the Iraq war on Saturday's McLaughlin Group show.) You know, there actually are plenty of Republicans who quietly are dismayed at what Bush-Cheney-Rove have done to their party and to the country. In primaries, they may be looking for a strong alternative, not an heir, to Bush. By linking himself so strongly to Bush, doesn't McCain risk signalling that he disdains the concerns of competency-seeking, old school Republicans?

Glenn Frankel: Well put. All I would add is that on his recent campaign trip to Ohio on behalf of Republican candidates, McCain tried to put a bit more distance between himself and the administration on Iraq. He's always been critical of the way the war was conducted---not enough troops, the premature dismantling of the Iraqi army, etc.---and now he's emphasizing all of that again.


Dallas, Tex: Thanks for opening the door for discussion about 2008.

QUESTION: Would you express your political viewpoint about Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flying to Utah in a few days with President Bush where she will speak at the American Legion Convention? Added to her dynamic speech at the Southern Baptist Convention earlier this year in North Carolina, any possible chance she is being groomed for higher office?

Glenn Frankel: She's said she's not running, and most analysts take her at her word. Still, she's a political celebrity and potentially a bright star for the Republicans, so it's not surprising they want to showcase her. And if someday she decides she wants to run for senator from California and perhaps for vice president this time around?


New York NY: I read as much of your McCain article as I could stand. I am so tired of being force fed all this #%#&%$# about McCain the maverick - what's so maverick about supporting this hopeless war and wanting to extend it?? What's so maverick about thinking women shouldn't have the right to make their own reproductive choices? I know he has endless appeal to armchair warrior boys who feel like they almost went to war beside him (though of course they didn't)but war should not be our future. If nothing else tells us we shouldn't let him anywhere near the presidency his syncophantic embrace of Bush (a failure in every direction) should let us know.

Glenn Frankel: Just like the respondent above hammered McCain's flaws from a conservative Republican viewpoint, you've done the same from the other end of the political spectrum. Which still leaves he question: what do the folks in the middle---the ones who tend to decide close elections---really think?


Tyler, Tex: I do not know any Republicans who support John McCain. The Republican Blog survey has him at the bottom of the list. The push by the MSM will not get him nominated.

Glenn Frankel: If you have some time and money, take a flight to Ohio, Michigan, Virginia or Florida. All I can tell you is I met a lot of bona fide Republicans in all four states who think McCain is the cat's meow.


Alexandria, Va: Not so much a question as an observation: Less than three months from the election, Republicans are likely to lose the House. They may well hang on to the Senate by a thread, but face the prospect of defending twice as many Senate seats as the Democrats in 2008.

In other words, if come next year Republicans have lost one house of Congress -- and have an uphill slog to retain the other in 2008 -- that only strengthens McCain's chances, because he's the most electable of all the GOP candidates. Facing the loss of Congress and the White House may focus some of the McCain skeptics' minds about the perils of opposition....

Glenn Frankel: Interesting observation. His supporters say that one of McCain's strengths has been his ability to work with Democrats across the aisle.


Arlington, Va: As you asked questions about McCain, did no one say they were concerned about him in control at the White House? Did no one raise concerns of his perpetual erraticism?

Glenn Frankel: I'm not sure what you mean by erraticism, but my piece touched upon his temper and tendency not to suffer those he deems fools. People who know him told me he's mellowed a bit over the years, but he's still got an edge---and wants to have one. During one of our interviews, he bristled a bit when I compared him to Eisenhower, the president as father figure. McCain much prefers being likened to Teddy Roosevelt, the president as activist.


Austin, Tex: How many cases can you think of where a party nominated its presidential candidate because of "electibility," even when another candidate might have been more to the liking of the party's base? (I think some people would mention Kerry.)

Of the cases you can think of, how many times did that candidate win the election?

Glenn Frankel: You're stretching my limited political knowledge well beyond its breaking point! Although 1976 was a year that defies all conventional wisdom, didn't Democrats nominate Jimmy Carter despite his problems with the traditional party faithful? And Bill Clinton in 1992? Notice both those examples come from the other party. Republicans, as I suggested in my article, tend to nominate the "next person"---i.e. the one who has tilled the fields and positioned himself/herself as next in line (like Bob Dole in 1996). McCain is working hard to be that person.


Boston Mass: Does John McCain really believe he will succeed in cutting his conscience to fit the fashion of the gatekeepers for the party nomination, but then be free of them during the election and as president?

Glenn Frankel: He would never ever put it that way, and would probably disagree with at least part of my article's analysis. He told me he was essentially a conservative Republican with an independent mind, and he denied he was twisting or contorting his own positions to fit a mold. Others may see it differently.


RE: Free speech: Could you possibly further explain how limitting the overwhelming power of special interest groups in our democratic process limits free speech? I don't know the details of this issues, so I am really quite confused. In my opinion, free speech means that my elected officials listen to the power of my vote equal to everyone else's when they make their decisions in Washington - not the interests of the nra, planned parenthood, the christian coalition,, or anyone else who financed their campaign. Personally, I feel that that sort of funding SEVERELY limits my free speech, as it relates to my elected officials hearing my voice through the clutter. But perhaps there is another issue on the table here? Am I missing something? Is there a serious reason why people think this is a free speech issue? Something beyond the ability of $$$ to influence the volume at which they can speak?

Glenn Frankel: You've put your finger on a true hot button issue. I'm no authority on this subject---and as a journalist am simply trying to sum up the arguments rather than take sides. But as I understand it, McCain's critics argue that expressing support for candidates or issues by buying air time to deliever political messages is a form of speech and should not be hindered or regulated. On another level, some argue that the ban on "soft money" to political parties has only caused wealthy donors to adopt other means to influence elections.


Just a note about Giuliani: If Rudy gets the GOP nod, and gets elected, he'll make the Bush look like Hedda Hopper when it comes to secrecy. I agree with many of Giuliani's views, and admire him for his work after 9/11, but as mayor he was a control freak who crossed the line into bullying on several occasions, and I'd be deeply concerned with having him in the White House. His strength and weakness is his solid confidence that what he's doing is right, and that could lead to a lot of danger on a national scale. I disagree with McCain, but he seems like a reasonable person, open to criticism, and I'd rather have him leading the country than someone inflexible.

Glenn Frankel: Another perspective on Rudi v. McCain, should they both decide to run.


Redwood City, Calif: Conventional wisdom in the Democratic 2008 nomination is that there will be a contest between Hillary Clinton and the "anti-Hillary". Given McCain's similar domination of the Republican field, I'm surprised that I haven't heard the same formulation there. Is there a reason that hasn't happened? It seems logical that if opponents want to defeat McCain, they would eventually coalesce on an opponent who is anti-immigration, a strong social conservative across the whole range of hot-button issues, and maybe a campaign finance opponent as well.

Glenn Frankel: All of which may happen sometime over the next year or so. What I can tell you is that many of McCain's people are very happy to have a large and expanding field of GOP candidates and hopefuls. They figure all of those folks will compete for part of the pie, while McCain holds onto his own larger piece. But many analysts expect that an aletrnate candidate---younger, fresher and, perhaps, more to the right than McCain---will emerge to challenge him.


Woodbridge Va: How do you think the 06 midterms will impact McCain's chances in 08? Will conservatives be more comforatble with McCain as president if they feel he is balanced by a strongly conservative Congress or will a Democrat takeover cause them to fear Clinton like triangulation by a McCain White House?

Glenn Frankel: I could be wrong (and probably am!) but I believe presidential politics has its own dynamic and imperatives, and that the question of who is controlling Congress after the November election won't have a big impact on the GOP nominating process. But that's a good question to address to Dan Balz, David Broder, John Harris or someone else from our political team.


Conway, Ark.: Seems to me the myth of Saint McCain has been brought into being by a fawning press corps. Let's take their handling of his credentials on "campaign finance." He his line that he "would beat Al Gore like a drum" on camapign ethics was unquestioned by the press. Gore used the wrong phone to call donors; McCain was guilty of influence peddling and accepting a bribe to try to sway a federal regulator. Of course, in the horse race reporting we get out of the press, they both become "a past ethics brouhaha" but of course the two are nowhere near equivalent.

Instead of simply figuring out if McCain can "win," maybe a more productive story would have been to delve into the line of crap McCain has been peddling all along. In that regard, I see no makeover whatsoever.

Glenn Frankel: Another viewpoint. Just for the record, McCain was never charged with, let alone found guilty of, accepting a bribe. But he's conceded that he showed poor judgement in the Charles Keating case in helping Keating, a large campaign donor, get a hearing with federal regulators at a time when Keating's savings & loan empire was collapsing. McCain himself wrote a detailed account on his own missteps in his memoir, "Worth the Fighting For."


Arlington, Va: I think one of the strengths of McCain is that he's not a fundamentalist religious nut like Bush and most of the rest of the Republican leadership. Does his kissing up to Falwell have a potential to really harm him with the mainstream while it might be necessary for him to win the nomination?

Glenn Frankel: I'm not sure it harms him much on the road to the nomination, but it could hurt him in the general election when independents and Democrats hold more sway.


Richmond, Va: So, if McCain remains healthy in 2008, do the Democrats have anyone who can stop him from being elected President? He has one advantage in that he can change his policy slant somewhat to satisfy the Republican base, and still retain his basic public image as an independent and a maverick because this image is already so well established on top of his unassailable war hero credentials.

The public also has an intuitive trust of McCain, unlike, for instance, the case with Hillary Clinton or Al Gore. If one of the latter tries to change his or her political slant or image, the public will see this as manipulative and phony, because there is already a fundamental public distrust associated with these two. Does all this make sense? Thank you.

Glenn Frankel: It makes plenty of sense---and I think McCain's backers are counting on it working out just as you suggest.


Cedar Glen, Calif: It's hard to believe McCain isn't honestly committed to his principles, and yet how can a man of principle call Jerry Falwell -- who claimed 9/11 (or was it Hurricane Katrina?) was God's punishment for America's toleration of homosexuality -- a friend?

More importantly, where does McCain stand on Iran? Will he support Bush in a unilateral attack on Iran to which all the generals (except in the Air Force) are opposed?

If he isn't sunk by his own fear of making a mistake, McCain would seem to have everything going for him in 20088, except perhaps his age. I think Americans have seen the drawbacks of having a single party in power, so if the Dems win both houses of Congress this year, there'll be some logic to keeping the Presidency Republican. If the Dems DON'T win Congress, then just being Republican is probably not going to doom a Presidential candidate.

Glenn Frankel: Another perspective on Falwell, etc. On Iran, McCain has argued that the US needs to pursue the issue in an aggressively diplomatic way, especially putting pressure on Russia and China to present a united front in the Security Council with the other permanent members, the US, Britain and France. On this he sounds a lot like Condoleeza Rice. He's also said he agrees with Pres. Bush in not taking the military option off the table.


Roseland NJ: I know this is an odd question, but the whole John Kerry thing seemed odd to me. Could John McCain ever be someone's vice-president? He doesn't seem suited to it. He seems like he wants to be driving the car; he'd get testy and cranky in the backseat.

Glenn Frankel: Good point! When he's asked about the vice presidency, he tends to joke about how he has already spent five years locked in a cell, tortured and kept in the dark as a prisoner of war, and wouldn't want to repeat the experience as vice president.


French-Tunisians Await: Actually, Glenn, a full-blown Post Magazine "macaca" cover story is about the only thing the Post hasn't done to celebrate the Insulted Democratic Opposition Researcher. Can we expect one?

Glenn Frankel: I'm guessing you think we've overdone it. Don't worry---the magazine's lead time is too long to publish such a piece before November.


Re: "the folks in the middle": "Which still leaves he question: what do the folks in the middle---the ones who tend to decide close elections---really think?"

Perhaps, as Dan Froomkin observed in his Friday online blog/column, there really AREN'T any "folks in the middle" anymore -- that Bush and his administration have become so polarizing, that most voters are lining up on one side or the other, either pro-Bush or anti-Bush (or at least, pro- and anti-Bush policies).

If this observation is correct (and I think there's a lot of traction to it), then perhaps what you're seeing on the road and here today reflects the mood of the voting public -- "McCain as heir" is viewed through the same prism as Bush himself, and there IS no middle ground...

Glenn Frankel: That's a very good point. Could it be outmoded to believe that a candidate must be able to attract swing voters in a eneral election? Does the new campaign model consist of energizing out your base through hard-line positions while finding ways to suppress the vote from your opponent's base? That seems to be the lesson of the 2004 contest. But I suspect McCain is planning to use a different strategy that capitalizes on his prior strength among independents and moderates from both camps---if there are any left.


Indianapolis, Ind: I notice McCain's Republican critics refer people to everything about McCain except his voting record (which ranks among the MOST conservative) and they ignore President Bush's support for many of McCain's positions. In the case of immigration this enables them to focus their criticism on McCain instead of the President. What's your opinion on why or how these contradictions are ignored within the GOP?

Glenn Frankel: There are times when McCain seems to be the whipping boy for the right. But these days it seems like they're atacking Bush with more fervor as well.


Glenn Frankel: That's it for today, folks. Thanks for the lively questions on a hot August Monday. Also, for those interested, I'll be talking more about the article on Washington Post Radio during the Magazine Hour, which begins at 2 pm., 1500 AM and 107.7 FM.


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