But Salter also seems to hang on out of financial inertia. He gets paid a $12,000 monthly retainer to write speeches and commencement addresses, something he can do in his sleep after twenty years, but it’s less than half of his income. As Salter well knows, McCain’s political life is winding down, and he’s already begun migrating away from McCain Inc. In addition to corporate speechwriting, he worked briefly with John Weaver on the gubernatorial campaign of Massachusetts independent Tim Cahill.
Friends of both Salter and McCain argue over whether Salter has entered his post-McCain life or McCain his post-Salter life. But nobody who knows him believes Salter is pleased with what’s happening. “He’s in a hard place now,” says a friend. “Because he knows what’s going on right now is not right.”
Salter, as a paid employee of John McCain for Senate, is obligated to disagree, and he does, strenuously at times. Though he admits that he and Davis are different, he says he hasn’t fought him. “I can’t think of any advice I’ve heard Rick give [McCain] that I have disagreed with,” he says.
“Does the John McCain I see yesterday seem to be a substantially different human being than I’ve known for 22 years?” he asks. “Nope.”
In defending the man he loves, Salter invariably blames the media: The press abandoned him as Obama shifted the entire political field to the left, making it look like McCain was a hardened partisan when, in fact, only his emphasis had changed, not his core positions.
“Nobody ever factors in the human dimension,” he complains. “[Politicians] are like everybody else: They try, they screw up a little, they’re lucky sometimes, they’re unlucky sometimes. They try again. Nobody takes it into account. There’s a motive to everything! Who lives their lives that way? It’s Hollywood.”
Salter, of course, invented a different Hollywood version of McCain, one in which McCain courageously resisted the tide when it wasn’t popular and bucked his own party on principle. And now that movie is over.
John McCain sits stock-still, eyes shadowed by his wiry eyebrows, hair combed down slick and straight, mouth turned down in grim resolve. On a stage in a high-school auditorium in Mesa, Arizona, against the backdrop of a 30-foot American flag, this is what a statue of Senator John Sidney McCain III might look like: Veteran. Hero. Maverick.
The problem is that he’s sitting next to Mitt Romney, who, at six foot two, towers over him like a tanned and gleaming giant. McCain looks like Ed McMahon to Romney’s Johnny Carson, quietly affirming whatever Romney says, nodding and mouthing the word “Beautiful” after Romney gives a soliloquy about the American spirit. McCain detested Romney in the 2008 primary, but now he needs his star power to draw the biggest crowd he’s had since Palin was in town. This is politics—this is how you win. But some have questions.
“There are two John McCains,” muses an old friend of the senator’s. “The one I love is a very big man, and he’s willing to take on big issues in a big way. Then there’s another side of John, he’ll admit, that is petty and angry and petulant and small, and that side has overtaken the other one.”
A former adviser, echoing the sentiment of a lot of McCain’s allies, feels Rick Davis has turned Mark Salter’s vision of McCain “into melted clay.” But advisers can only explain so much. In fact, there’s a case to be made that McCain hasn’t really changed at all—maybe saying he never considered himself a maverick is just another maverick move. And, for many reasons, losing is the most intolerable thing. In Faith of My Fathers, we learn that both John McCain’s grandfather and his father, John Sidney “Slew” McCain Sr. and John Sidney McCain Jr., did not fare well upon retirement. His grandfather expressed disappointment when told the Japanese had surrendered. “I feel lost,” he said. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know whether I know how to relax or not. I’m in an awful letdown.”
He promptly dropped dead on the living-room floor the day after he returned home in 1945. McCain’s father, who retired from the Navy in 1972, descended into despair and illness and died at age 70.
Friends of McCain say that in the recesses of his brain is a mortal fear of retirement. Engaging in daily battles is all he’s ever known. “Torture for John McCain is putting him on the burner and not letting him do anything,” says Lindsey Graham.
People who have spent years with McCain say he has always been emotionally remote, virtually alone even while surrounded by staffers. When he calls his own mother, he announces, “Hi, Mother, this is John McCain.”