A Candidate's Lucky Charms
John McCain Is Hoping Superstition Will See Him Through
By Dana Milbank
The reptile, believed to have mysterious powers, is the property of one Lanny Wiles, McCain's trip director. Wiles used it to help Texas A&M beat Nebraska, and to force a golfing opponent to miss a $100 putt. He employs the lizard (which isn't a lizard at all but a certain spell cast by wiggling the right pinkie) only on rare occasions, such as today. "We use it only if we're at Def Con One," says John Weaver, McCain's political director and occasional witch doctor.
This isn't the first campaign to honor strange superstitions. During Bill Clinton's 1992 run, James Carville was known to wear the same underwear for days at a time when things were going well. But this time, there's a new twist: The candidate himself is the leading shaman. He keeps on his person a lucky compass, a lucky feather, a lucky penny and, at times, a lucky rock. He assigns Weaver to carry his lucky pen--a Zebra Jimnie Gel Rollerball (medium, blue)--at all times. For added luck, he wears his magical L.L. Bean rubber-soled dress shoes.
"I'm wearing my lucky shoes from today till Sunday," McCain says from his bus on Wednesday. At the moment, his pockets contain the compass, feather (from a tribal leader) and penny (flattened, in his wallet). When McCain once misplaced his feather, there was momentary panic in the campaign, until his wife found it in one of his suits. When the compass went missing once, McCain assigned his political director to hunt it down. Weaver found it, and it remains safe, knock wood.
Primary day requires additional rituals. By the time you read this, Steve Dart, McCain's lucky friend, should have arrived in South Carolina from California. He has been present with McCain for every Election Day since McCain first won a seat in Congress. McCain must sleep on a certain side of the bed, particularly before an election (and he never puts a hat on a bed--bad luck). Rain is good for Election Day, as are motion pictures. McCain requires himself to view a movie before the vote is counted. He fell asleep in his hotel room in New Hampshire before he watched a movie on primary day, but his staff didn't panic. "We have superstition fire walls," says Todd Harris, a spokesman.
That's for sure. Even some foods carry special powers. McCain insists that he and his staff eat barbecue--"our lucky food," says Cindy McCain, the candidate's wife--before each debate, sending Wiles out to find ribs or pulled pork even in New Hampshire or Michigan.
"It's in the ancient tradition of slaughtering the hog before you slaughter the opponent," explains Mike Murphy, McCain's strategist.
McCain's staff and family have embraced their candidate's hocus-pocus. Cindy McCain may well don her lucky purple suit today, and Rick Davis, the campaign chairman, will likely sport his lucky tie, with the state of New Hampshire on it. Murphy should bring out his magic Hawaiian shirt and "the lucky khaki socks with the palm trees." And Weaver may even send for his lucky football ("I save it for the big enchilada," he maintains). But one thing is for sure: Mark Salter, McCain's chief of staff, will not shave his beard, grown during McCain's New Hampshire surge, until the nomination battle is over.
McCain's superstitions have origins in the military. His grandfather, during World War II, kept a lucky crushed cap, and the whole crew on his ship believed in its powers. "When it would blow off people would dive for it," says Salter.
McCain himself, when flying during Vietnam, insisted that his visor be cleaned by his parachute rigger immediately before each flight. "A lot of guys are superstitious who are aviators," the candidate says. "It's either a pilot thing or a stupid thing."
Don't tell Jim Merrill it's a stupid thing. Merrill, McCain's South Carolina director, blends secular rituals with the sacred. "I try to hit confession prior to the election--I don't want anything to be blamed on me," he says. Yes, and then what? "I hit one bucket of golf balls in the morning." Merrill didn't observe this superstition during his last race, a gubernatorial campaign, and his candidate lost, needless to say.
Even those who never entertained superstition in their lives succumb to the voodoo. "I've started wood knocking," says John Raidt, McCain's policy guy. "You see everybody else doing it." McCain staff meetings must sound like a game of knock rummy.
McCain and his aides, so absorbed in their supernatural arts, haven't stopped to consider that their practices might seem a bit bizarre to the uninitiated observer. Weaver is surprised such a question would even be asked. "We've never read chicken entrails or anything like that," he says. Pausing thoughtfully, he adds: "Maybe when we get to Michigan . . ."
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