Roberta McCain was smacking the bottom of a steak-sauce bottle with her 97-year-old hand when the call came.
“I turned mine off,” she said, narrowing her eyes while her son, John, extracted a cell phone from his pocket. Mrs. McCain’s daughter-in-law, Cindy, was home in Arizona, and tonight, here in her own apartment across from the Chinese embassy, she was supposed to have had John all to herself.
“The White House operator,” her son explained. “They want me up at Camp David right away. I’m supposed to get a helicopter from the pad in Anacostia.”
“Life with father,” said Mrs. McCain, with a singsong sigh, the summons being all too reminiscent of the 48 peripatetic years she’d spent married to Admiral John S. McCain, Jr. “Do you want me to wrap something up?”
Her son shook his head and kissed her good-bye; neither believed the situation required an apology.
Before he got to his driver at the curb downstairs, the senator called Bob Gates to ask what was cooking. The Defense secretary owed McCain his job—nobody had pounded harder to get Rumsfeld out—and a little heads-up wouldn’t be too much to ask in return. But Mrs. Gates, once she answered the phone, said that her husband was already in the mountains of Maryland. So McCain relaxed back into his seat, and by the time he got to the helipad, had listened to another six pages of yet another books-on-tape biography of Churchill.
Within two more minutes he was aloft, rising like a marionette under the twirling crisscrossed blades of the propeller.
It had to be Afghanistan; couldn’t be about anything else, thought McCain, not after Wednesday’s gruesome air-base bombing. So, it had taken another two dozen dead marines for His Coolness to admit he had to stop dithering and splitting the differences and send the whole goddamned 60,000 troops he should have sent six months ago.
Still, there was something odd about the urgency. Camp David on a Friday night? Well, whatever it took. Everybody would finally focus on something besides the health-care circus, and he himself could stop running off to vote on one more idiot amendment at the beck and call of Mitch McConnell, who looked like somebody’s big toe and whose guts he’d hated during all the years he and Feingold had been thwarted by him.
McCain looked down at the lights of the Beltway, that glittering chokehold on progress of any kind, and realized you’d have to go back 30 years to get to the only time he’d actually enjoyed the Senate—that period when he hadn’t even been a member; his four-year hitch as the Navy’s liaison to the upper body, a long R & R of junkets and girls that even guys like McGovern seemed tickled to see him enjoying after his long years as a guest of the North Vietnamese.
A twinge of nostalgia now made him open his phone to call Gary Hart, one of his best pals from those days. No answer out in Colorado, so he left a message: “Hear the rotors? I’m off to Camp David. I understand it’s been spiffed up a lot since both of our presidencies.”
It was easier to bring him in via helicopter, McCain reasoned, as he touched down inside the compound. With still only one road leading into the place, tinted limo windows weren’t always enough to foil reporters smart enough to wait near the gate and figure out the license plates.
The November air nipped at his scarred cheek while he made the walk to Aspen Lodge, where for the next ten minutes he cooled his heels in a lounge off the kitchen. A Navy steward offered him a burrito and a souvenir windbreaker. He took the snack and snappishly refused the latter item: “Thanks, I’ve got half a dozen of those. One of them goes back to Nixon.”
His flashes of temper didn’t usually signify much, but this one probably did. He knew its origin: the realization that a half-dozen guys in the next room were hammering a strategy together, while he was outside, pacing the carpet and munching a burrito.
Once escorted into the conference room, he nodded to Gates and Panetta and General Jones, the national-security man. He shook hands with the president and with Susan Rice, and found himself all at once a little perplexed and disappointed and relieved: perplexed over where General McChrystal might be; disappointed that Hillary was in South America and not here to raise the intestinal-fortitude quotient; relieved that Biden was still out on the West Coast cutting the ribbon on some stimulus project and giving one of his shovel-ready, bullshit-laden speeches.