Confessions from the campaign trail
It wasn’t my intention, but I played a role in shutting down John McCain’s Straight Talk Express.
It happened on a warm July afternoon as McCain traveled from a West Virginia airport to a rally in Ohio.
I had headed to the back of his bus with a small group of reporters, where as always McCain warmly motioned for us to squeeze in beside him on the couch.
The questions meandered across more than a dozen topics, but I asked if he agreed with his advisor Carly Fiorina’s recent statement that it was unfair for some health insurance companies to cover Viagra but not birth control -- because McCain generally opposed those kinds of mandates.
Liberals and late-night comedians would later revel in McCain’s on-camera discomfort -- the widening of his eyes, the awkward silence while he clutched his jaw and formulated an answer. But I had come to respect McCain’s frankness and his willingness to admit he didn’t always have an answer. Watching the question morph into an embarrassing “gotcha moment” for cable television, my stomach churned and my cheeks grew hot.
By July, I had covered McCain for almost seven months. I could recite many lines of his stump speech by heart, dreamed about his events at night and spent so much time scrolling through campaign e-mails on my BlackBerry that my fiance joked to our friends about the other man in my life.
Over those months, McCain had artfully created a sense of intimacy with the reporters who traveled with him. He barbecued for us at his Arizona cabin, and opened up about matters as personal as his faith and his son’s girlfriends. On one of my first days covering McCain, another reporter protectively warned me that it was important to be judicious with the material I used from McCain’s bus rides to keep the conversations in context.
Although the relationship was mutually beneficial, McCain offered accessibility and openness that was rare, if not unprecedented, in modern presidential politics. Now, as the presidential campaign plunges into its final days, that intimacy -- real or imagined -- has evaporated.
I joined McCain during the icy December days in New Hampshire when his confidence about a comeback seemed almost delusional. Inside the steamy windows of his campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express, McCain held court on a gray horseshoe-shaped couch at the rear, where we listened with rapt attention.
Back then, his staff often didn’t bother to listen to his rap sessions, which became an education for reporters on his world view. Early on, we learned to detect his disdain for some of his opponents -- Mitt Romney and Barack Obama -- by the way he lavished praise on others -- Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee or Hillary Rodham Clinton -- in the same sentence.
He leavened policy discussions with funny stories from his school days when some knew him as “McNasty” or reliving his daredevil exploits as a young naval aviator. He was unguarded and charming, occasionally solicitous about our lives.
One winter afternoon when Cindy McCain joined him and he was stuck with three newly engaged reporters, he gave us a 10-minute treatise on honeymoon spots.
At the top of his list was Costa Rica, where he had done a zip-line canopy tour. Second was Montenegro and Dubrovnik, which he called “one of the really stunningly beautiful places in the world.” Third was Fiji: “The people are extremely friendly; they used to be cannibals, but the British cured them of that bad habit,” he joked. “We’ve gone to Fiji with our kids lots of times.”
In an aside about the Galapagos Islands, he veered into his last encounter there with sea lions: “I’m not making this up -- I was swimming, and there was this group of female sea lions, and this one male sea lion, and the next thing I know this guy’s face is right where my hand is. . . . So I swam away and he bit my flipper. I swear to God. . . . He thought I was some kind of competition.”
“Where did you guys go on your honeymoon,” I asked.
“Uhh,” McCain said. “Hawaii,” Cindy interjected.
“Canada?” McCain joked, pretending to fumble. “I get my marriages mixed up.”
Cindy good-naturedly rolled her eyes. “We had a great time,” he said, grinning, before telling us about their honeymoon spot.
For several months, he would often lean in and ask the same question: “Did you set a date yet?”
McCain’s energy and sense of fun were most on display when he was surrounded by the regular characters in his entourage.
Before the primaries, there was Tim Pawlenty, the Republican governor of Minnesota, who was so unassuming that McCain’s bus driver once asked me what he did. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) loosened McCain up before debates or big events by subjecting himself to McCain’s unmerciful teasing. McCain loved to tell the story of Graham’s Ambien overdose on an international flight and how he had to be elbowed awake during a subsequent meeting with a head of state.
For the first half of the year, strategist Steve Schmidt and McCain speechwriter Mark Salter were regular fixtures in the press cabin. They offered honest observations about the direction of the campaign off the record, and lots of spin on the record.
We would persuade them to tell their own stories at the bar in the evenings. Salter had colorful tales of his days as a railroad worker in Davenport, Iowa, when he had hair past his shoulders and worked for a foreman known as “one-armed Ronnie.”
Schmidt could do dead-on impressions of his former boss, Vice President Dick Cheney, and had fascinating stories about managing the confirmation process of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. -- always off the record.
They would complain about campaign coverage one moment and have drinks with reporters hours later. During a stop in Selma, Ala., I fell while out running and ended up with bleeding palms and scraped knees but no Band-Aids. Schmidt and Salter showed up at the hotel’s dining room with gauze and antiseptic.
At the time of that July bus ride with McCain, there was broad disagreement among his staff about whether the endless hours of questions were helping his quest for the White House.
In the driveway of the airport motel on the evening of the Viagra question, McCain’s aides made an argument that would shape their attitude over the next four months: If reporters were going to ask about issues that they deemed irrelevant to voters, why should the campaign give them access to the candidate at all?
Salter told me I had made the case for those who thought McCain should curtail his exposure to the press.
McCain aide Brooke Buchanan sarcastically asked whether contraception was next on my agenda. And Steve Duprey, the candidate’s usually jovial traveling companion who often visited the press cabin bearing Twizzlers and chocolate, twisted my question into what I interpreted as an accusation of bias: “Are you going to ask Obama if he uses Viagra?”
Later that summer, the frequency of McCain’s news conferences dwindled to late-afternoon, end-of-the-week affairs where he began calling more often on reporters he didn’t know.
We now watched from afar at most events -- listening for the few sentences that would change each day in his stump speech. We would catch glimpses of him through the window of his SUV from five cars back in the motorcade or watch him get off the plane.
At the height of vice presidential speculation, we rushed the staff cabin of the plane, frustrated that no one was around to address the rumors.
“What do you want, you little jerks?” McCain said, using his former term of affection, before turning away.
On a recent Sunday during a brief stop at a Virginia phone bank, I got unusually close to McCain in the line of people waiting to shake his hand.
Tape recorder out and within a foot of him, I asked if he could talk about his new economic plan, which he was to unveil that week. The man who once asked me about my wedding date returned my gaze with a stare, shook the hand of the strangers to the right and left of me and continued out the door.
I remembered Graham’s explanation in January about why McCain spent so much time with reporters. He said that McCain felt too many politicians had become like a guy in a toothpaste commercial -- you knew what he was selling but not what was behind the smile.
What McCain didn’t like about other campaigns and wanted to change, Graham continued, was that “nobody gets behind the curtain.”
Whether it was McCain’s fault or ours, the curtain had been drawn tight.