That’s because a feud was boiling between Palin and McCain’s former advisers from his presidential campaign. In a conference call the week before the book hit stores, McCain urged former advisers like Steve Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace not to fight Palin in public, fearing a media spectacle would taint his chances. Davis said it would only help her sell more books. Salter, a close friend to Schmidt, urged McCain to show support for his former colleagues in the face of Palin’s allegations. McCain, convinced he needed Palin, was trying to avoid Salter’s calls four days before the book hit stores. “He’s going to yell at me,” he complained to aides.
Faced with a conflict between loyalty and strategy, the past and the present, McCain wasn’t just avoiding a media feud. He was about to finish dismantling the carefully constructed political identity Salter had been nurturing over the last decade.
An Iowa native with the brooding mien of a black-Irish poet and an abiding love for tragic literary heroes, Mark Salter began as a freelance speechwriter for McCain in the late eighties. Dubbed by politicos as McCain’s “alter ego,” he took a central role in McCain’s life when he co-wrote the 1999 McCain memoir, Faith of My Fathers.
In that book and the 2002 follow-up, Worth the Fighting For, Salter helped create a narrative arc from McCain’s patrimony as the son of Navy admirals, through his horrific POW internment during Vietnam, to his humiliating role in the Charles Keating savings-and-loan scandal and his phoenixlike resurrection, roping McCain’s haphazard life into a noble political profile.
His hallowed view of his boss, say friends, was rooted in Salter’s relationship to his own father, a veteran of both World War II and the Korean War. When a reporter once asked Salter about McCain’s modesty in how he discussed his POW years, Salter noted that it was “perfectly consistent with the way my father talked about his war experience.”
Salter was “almost like a son to John,” says Orson Swindle. “He’s very protective of John, perhaps to a fault. He’s extremely smart and obviously a good writer.”
But McCain didn’t necessarily see his own life the way Salter did. In fact, McCain’s writings from the seventies admitted to almost no personal change after his release from prison, as he appeared to repress emotional fallout and instead famously flew to Rio a year after his release because you “have a better chance of getting laid,” as he once told a fellow POW, later divorcing his wife to marry the wealthy blonde heiress Cindy Lou Hensley. A military psychologist, examining McCain after his five-and-a-half-year imprisonment, concluded that he had a “histrionic pattern of personality adjustment,” meaning he needed attention.
But Salter’s McCain was how McCain wanted voters to see him and how he needed to see himself: as dignified and honorable, a man worthy of his forefathers. The book transformed him into a kind of Washington contradiction: a politician for whom offhanded gaffes only improved his integrity, more barnacles on the romantic old battleship. McCain even seemed to get a pass on calling the Vietnamese “gooks” 25 years after Americans were evacuated from Saigon.
“For an extended period of time, he was the most popular politician in America,” says a former McCain adviser who admires Salter. “And the person, above all others, who was most responsible for it was Mark Salter, period.”
Salter worked hand in glove with McCain’s longtime strategist, John Weaver, a rangy Texan who encouraged McCain’s independent streak and built political strategy to fit Salter’s mythmaking. But in 2007, as McCain was preparing to run for president for the second time, Weaver became ensnared in an intense battle with a competing McCain adviser, Rick Davis. After a series of fights over the direction of the campaign (with Salter attempting to moderate on behalf of Weaver), Weaver lost a power struggle and left the campaign in disappointment, a major crack in McCain’s universe.
And Salter’s. It was the first time his idealized conception of McCain, a man for whom loyalty was supposedly a paramount virtue, was seriously tarnished. Salter wanted McCain to get out of the race gracefully, but McCain didn’t take his advice. Instead, McCain regrouped and appointed Davis, a man more interested in winning than in McCain’s soul, his new campaign manager. Though deeply rattled by the experience, Salter decided he’d come too far to quit.
“It was hard for me to leave,” says Weaver. “In hindsight, it was probably harder for Mark to stay. Mark chose a different path. I’m not going to judge it.”
Davis helped McCain win the Republican primary. When McCain’s advisers converged on Sarah Palin as a running mate, Salter opposed the choice, fearing she would tarnish McCain’s image. But McCain’s come-from-behind nomination had solidified his faith in Davis, and Salter’s idea (Tim Pawlenty) was overruled.