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The McCain Mutiny

In the backwash of the Clinton scandal, voters are more interested in the messenger than in the message, and that's made the freewheeling, straight-shooting John McCain a contender, even among Democrats. He may be against abortion and gun control -- but at least he believes in something.

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By the time John Mccain's campaign bus rolled into Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, at 7:15 on a Friday evening two weeks ago, it had already been a very long day. Four town-hall meetings. An hour-long Q-and-A at a high school. Lunch with a group of supporters in Concord. And a two-block walk from the restaurant to the state capital building, surrounded by cheering, sign-waving supporters, to officially file for the New Hampshire primary.

Twelve straight hours of campaigning as a full contact sport. He shook hands, posed for pictures, held a few babies, listened to war stories, and signed copies of his best-selling book, Faith of My Fathers. Which is pretty much what all politicians do. What made this different from the usual speech-making, handshaking, photo-op swing through a primary state was McCain's uninhibited willingness to open himself up and give people an extended glimpse of who he actually is.

Want to know what he thinks about school vouchers? Health care? The Internet? Just ask him. Traveling from place to place without the usual ego-boosting bubble of security and staff that surrounds most candidates these days, McCain not only looks approachable -- he is. At every stop, he engaged the voters in an open and freewheeling dialogue. And in often spirited exchanges, he gave them his views, talked about his mistakes, and let them know when he thought they were wrong.

On the second floor of the 100-year-old Wakefield Town Hall, a woman in a crowd of a couple of hundred fleece-and-denim-covered people stood up and said to him, "Even if what you're telling us is true, you'll never get your message out anyway, because the media is biased against Republicans and conservatives."

"I'm sorry, but you're wrong. It's not the media that's the problem," McCain replied without any edge in his voice.

"The Republican Party has lost its focus. It's become corrupted by special-interest money, and it's no longer connecting with the hopes and dreams and aspirations of the American people. Look, we can't even pass a patients' bill of rights. And yet I'm sure that if all of us in this room sat down for fifteen minutes, we could figure out what's needed. I want to rid the government of the influence of big money and give it back to the people. And I will fight to do this till my last breath."

His bracing honesty and his eagerness to mix it up weren't limited to his public appearances. Between events, traveling from one town to the next, he spent every potentially quiet, private moment sitting in the back of his campaign bus surrounded by five or six reporters. Retrofitted like a country singer's tour bus with couches, easy chairs, and a small kitchen, he's christened it, with both hyperbole and accuracy, "The Straight Talk Express." Once we were on board, no subject was off limits, no question too outrageous. ("Senator, where would you like to be buried?") He answered hundreds of questions over the course of two and a half days on subjects as diverse as the mass killings in Rwanda and why American Graffiti is one of his favorite movies. He went off the record only once. (By the way, his father and grandfather are buried at Arlington, which is where he always thought he'd end up as well. But lately he's leaning toward Arizona.)

When McCain invited Giuliani to the Fiesta Bowl, the mayor arrived with "two Suburbans, two limousines, and all these cops jump out. I said, "Rudy, where do you think we are, Beirut? This is Phoenix."

In an age of spin doctors, pollsters, handlers, alpha-male consultants, hostile press secretaries, and leery politicians who believe reporters simply want to "get" them, McCain is all access all the time. It's as if the clock has been turned back to the pre-sound-bite days of Harry Truman, before the relationship between politicians and the public and politicians and the media was poisoned.

One afternoon while riding from Nashua to Merrimack, McCain sat in his usual spot on the couch in the back of the bus. Sipping at his ever-present cup of coffee and looking content, he happily traded observations with reporters from Time, the Washington Post, The New Yorker, the Houston Chronicle, and me, as the beautiful lakes and small towns and mountains of New Hampshire scrolled by unnoticed in the big windows.

"George Bush talks a lot about being born again. How religious are you?"

"I believe that my faith is a private relationship between me and God."

"Have you had any religious epiphanies?"

"No."

"Not even when you were in prison?"

"No. I had no awakening or religious conversion in prison. A lot of the guys prayed for their release, but I never felt it was necessarily God's obligation to get us out. I am, however, the only presidential candidate who's conducted religious services," he said, smiling at his little revelation.

"I conducted a Christmas service in prison in 1971. The North Vietnamese gave me ten minutes with a Bible, and I copied down the story of Christ's birth. When we had the service, a couple of guys who'd been POWs for seven years had tears in their eyes."

The conversation ambled freely from the Balkans to books to the homogenization of America's cities ("With chains like the Gap and Chili's," the senator said, "there's only three unique American cities left: San Francisco, New York, and New Orleans."). Finally, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen asked McCain what the rest of us had been thinking: Why does he do it? Why does he eagerly sit around sparring with reporters?


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