A Running Start? Sen. John McCain, the Media's Man of the Hour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 8, 1998; Page D01
MANCHESTER, N.H.John McCain didn't get to his 10th-floor Holiday Inn room until 1 a.m., but six hours later he's knotting his elephant-studded tie, picking up the phone and greeting two local radio hosts like old friends.
The Arizona senator recites his litany on the evils of teenage smoking, then abruptly invokes his daughter. "Like every other 13-year-old in America, she's in love with Leonardo DiCaprio, who I think is an androgynous wimp," he barks. "You know what he does throughout the whole movie 'Titanic'? He smokes."
In an era of carefully marketed candidates serving up carefully tailored rhetoric, it's little wonder that McCain is a media magnet. He is a blunt-spoken war hero who doesn't blink at castigating his fellow Republicans. "A lot of times I say things that get me in trouble," McCain admits.
On this foray last week to the hallowed ground of the first presidential primary, NBC's Gwen Ifill is trailing McCain for a "Today" show segment. Reporter Edwin Chen is profiling him for the Philadelphia Inquirer's magazine. C-SPAN's cameras record his remarks to a women's luncheon. Carl Bernstein couldn't make the trip, but he's working on a major Vanity Fair piece. Esquire has already weighed in with this headline: "JOHN McCAIN WALKS ON WATER."
The media's fascination with McCain transcends his maverick style. Nor can it be fully explained by his cheerful accessibility (he recently got up at 3 a.m. to appear on "Face the Nation" while in Hawaii celebrating his 18th wedding anniversary).
The plain truth is that a growing number of journalists want John McCain to run for president. The fact that he's just flirting with the idea makes him all the more desirable.
Mike Wallace, who turned down the chance to be Richard Nixon's press secretary, says of McCain: "I'm thinking I may quit my job if he gets the nomination. . . . I'm impressed by his independence, by his willingness to take on the tough ones. By his honesty about himself. As I look at the current crop, there's something authentic about this man."
David Nyhan, a Boston Globe columnist, has introduced McCain at luncheons attended by his colleagues and other movers and shakers. While he is a liberal and McCain a conservative, Nyhan says, "I like him because he's gutsy. I like him because he's an interesting person. I like what he did on campaign finance. I like what he's done on tobacco. I like his war record. . . . There's an army out there waiting for this guy."
Al Hunt has written in his Wall Street Journal column that McCain "is the most courageous and one of the most admirable men I've ever known in American politics." Columnist Mark Shields has touted the appeal of "McCain's against-the-grain leadership coupled with his riveting personal history."
Esquire's Charles Pierce put it this way: "If John McCain doesn't run, the mandarins of the chattering class may throw [an] ensemble hissy fit."
The journalistic chorus for McCain has grown loud enough that South Carolina's State newspaper reported that some Republicans "already are grumbling that he is a creation of the 'liberal' Washington media." But conservative news outlets also seem to admire the man. "This senator bends, but he never breaks," said a front-page Washington Times headline.
As the flavor of the month, McCain is the latest beneficiary of a tradition in which much of the press swoons over a favorite presidential contender. In 1988, it was another Arizonan, long-shot Bruce Babbitt. In '92, before he was battered by womanizing and draft-dodging charges, Bill Clinton was winning rave reviews; later on, journalists became enamored of war hero Bob Kerrey. In the run up to '96, some leading pundits were practically begging Colin Powell to get into the race.
It is an article of faith among journalists that anyone who lusts after the presidency is too consumed by ambition to be fully trusted. McCain, however, is running for president by not quite running. Unlike, say, Lamar Alexander, who seems to have been pursuing the job since kindergarten, McCain gives the appearance of only casually dipping his toe in the campaign waters.
But the early embrace of the press only goes so far. After giving a candidate the big buildup, journalists are the first to tear him down in the blistering heat of the primary season. Previously endearing qualities are written off as political amateurism. Many reporters were attracted to Gary Hart's Young Turk image in 1984; three years later they were savaging him over his relationship with Donna Rice.
"After the first flush of romance, things have a way of fading," Ifill says. "You have to answer a lot of dumb questions from a lot of dumb reporters before you can get elected."
At a news conference in nearby Windham, McCain told local reporters that he won't think about 2000 until after he wins a third term this fall. He said he wants to fully discuss the matter with his wife and four children back in Phoenix, and to make sure he could be "truly competitive" in a White House bid.
But in a conversation during a ride between stops, McCain suggests it would simply be impolitic for him to voice his presidential ambitions out loud. "One way to jeopardize my reelection would be to run for both offices at the same time," he says.
Former New Hampshire senator Warren Rudman, McCain's host for the day, makes clear he is ready to run his old friend's Granite State campaign. And he says McCain is smart to pick his spots. "Don't come up here every other week like Lamar," he says. "People are sick of that."
As chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, McCain is getting plenty of ink and air time as the point man on Washington's biggest battles. It is McCain who has taken on his party by joining with Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold in the uphill struggle for campaign finance reform. It is McCain, a former smoker, who has joined with the Clinton White House in trying to fashion a tobacco bill that can both impose harsh measures on the industry and win congressional approval. He wants to close more military bases (unpopular in New Hampshire) and end ethanol subsidies (heresy in Iowa).
"John McCain intrigues reporters because he seems to be a maverick," says Ifill. "He takes on popular issues that can't necessarily pass, and we like that. Plus he's a war hero, and we're kind of desperate for heroes."
But McCain also must play to other constituencies. He serves up a bit of red meat to the New Hampshire Federation of Republican Women, attacking the White House for scandalous behavior. "Are you proud of an administration that sells its principles to the highest bidder? Are you proud when the bedroom of our greatest president is rented by the night, and the president of the United States serves as the bellboy?" But he muddies the message by saying he is "ashamed" of a big-bucks political culture crying out for campaign finance reform the very reform that many Republican leaders are resisting.
The senator is a sound-bite machine, saying again and again that 3,000 kids a day start smoking, 1,000 will die early and declaring, without qualification, that stiffer tobacco taxes will deter them. He also speaks with authority on foreign policy, decrying the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan on ABC's "This Week" and repeating his warnings, sometimes verbatim, in every New Hampshire interview.
All this translates into sky-high visibility. On this day, McCain's press secretary, Nancy Ives, shows him the day's haul: A front-page New York Times story quotes him on boxing regulation. A front-page Washington Post story quotes his talk show remarks on India and Pakistan. Newsweek uses a line from his tribute to the late Barry Goldwater, which he wrote for The Post.
McCain says the two things he offers reporters candor and accessibility pay dividends. "At least 50 of those Republican women said to me, 'I see you on television all the time,' " McCain says. "It kind of enhances your status with them if they think you're a national figure." The reaction is even greater, he says, after he chews the fat with morning man Don Imus.
But McCain is more than a political entertainer. The admiral's son has the unmistakable aura of the decorated pilot who was cruelly beaten during 5 1/2 years in what he calls "the slammer," a North Vietnamese prison camp. What's more, he refused an offer of early release until his comrades were set free as well.
McCain doesn't talk much about those days, but he doesn't have to. He even dispenses with a line in his speech about the tobacco negotiations. "I don't think I had that much fun since my last prison interrogation," the text said.
For all his walking-on-water publicity, McCain knows what it's like to be submerged in bad publicity. He took some knocks for fooling around on his disabled first wife, who had waited for him during his POW internment, and then divorcing her. Media coverage, he says, "can change in a New York minute."
McCain recalls being on "Face the Nation" in the late 1980s when moderator Lesley Stahl looked at the day's papers and said, "You're everywhere." "I puffed up a little bit," he says. Hours later, his spokeswoman told him there was a story naming him as one of the Keating Five a group of senators who had pressured federal regulators over their treatment of savings and loan kingpin Charles Keating, who had given, in McCain's case, $112,000 in contributions.
"That began three of the most difficult years of my life," McCain says. "Not the most difficult, but among the most difficult." He does not need to elaborate.
A day with McCain gradually makes clear why he courts journalists and values what he calls his "credibility with the media." An unorthodox Republican who often infuriates his own party, he is in the end selling himself, and he needs reporters to deliver that message.
"If people think you're liked by some in the media because you're liberal, then it's a great political risk," he says. "But if people in and out of the media admire you because you stand up for what you believe in . . . it's a very fine line."
Still, McCain can't resist departing from the script. Waiting for his flight home at the Boston airport, he recalls once making a "smartass remark" about Newt Gingrich to wit, that the House speaker's approval ratings were lower than Jeffrey Dahmer's. McCain sent Gingrich a letter of apology; his press secretary winces when he resurrects the matter.
Such wisecracks could damage McCain in the heat of a presidential campaign, if the journalists' dreams come true and he jumps into the race. But the alternative, he says, is "not being myself, not using humor, which would make life even more boring. At age 61, I'm not going to change."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company