The McCain Mutiny

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?”


“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?

“Aren’t you worried,” Cohen asked, “that you might inadvertently say something you shouldn’t?”

“Not only do I worry about it,” McCain said. “I absolutely know I will.”

“So why do it?”

“Because life’s too short not to. I can’t be anything different than what I am. And besides, I really enjoy it. My option is sitting with Weaver and Dennehy,” he said, referring to two members of his staff, and laughing. “And that’s simply not an acceptable option.”

Clearly, these are good times for the 63-year-old senator from Arizona. He entered the crowded race for the Republican presidential nomination as a long shot with little money and embarrassing Dan Quayle-and-Gary Bauer-level single-digit poll numbers. And while he is still a long shot to derail the $70 million George W. Bush express, he is surging so fast that he has turned the Republican race into a two-man contest. Most New Hampshire polls now put him in a dead heat with Bush.

Perhaps even more remarkably, he has become the Democrats’ worst nightmare. A recent Quinnipiac College poll found that among New Hampshire voters he is the most popular of all the candidates, Republicans and Democrats. Though the poll showed Bush and Vice-President Al Gore about even in a head-to-head contest, it showed McCain beating Gore by nearly 20 points. Not bad, as he likes to tell the large crowds he now draws at every stop, for someone who only several months ago was “at 3 percent in a poll that had a 5 percent margin of error.”

McCain and his small staff are loose and having fun, and (consultants, take note) it’s working. Appearing comfortable while campaigning has translated with voters as confidence in who he is and what he stands for. At every stop he made over several days in New Hampshire, all the voters I talked to seized on the same quality: honesty. Even those who said they didn’t like him and didn’t plan to vote for him were still certain he’s a man who says what he believes.

Front-runners Bush and Gore, on the other hand, have been perceived as tentative, often looking stiff and heavily scripted. Both have campaigned the way a football team plays when it’s trying to nurse a fourth-quarter lead – afraid to do much on offense lest they make a mistake that could cost them the game. McCain, meanwhile, with nothing to lose, has grown more self-assured with each score. And, to extend the football metaphor, he’s started to air it out, to throw the ball down the field with abandon.

Which doesn’t mean that McCain is relying on a Hail Mary strategy. “We have to beat Bush somewhere early, that’s crucial,” says John Weaver, McCain’s political director, laying out his best-case vision of the first four primaries. “We believe we can do it in New Hampshire. And then the next primary is in South Carolina, which has over 400,000 veterans, where we also believe we can win. Three days after that is Arizona, which we’ll definitely take. Then Michigan becomes the fire wall for Bush, a state he has to win.”

What the McCain camp is doing is running an intense early-primary strategy, focusing its limited resources on the first couple of states in the hope that a few wins will build so much momentum that a grassroots upset becomes a self-fulfilling reality. “We’re running,” Weaver says, “like Bush is the incumbent. Given how much money he’s raised and his 50-state organization, it’s practically like he’s got all the advantages of a sitting president. Except the experience. He’s a one-term governor, and he’s got no scar tissue.”

McCain’s effort in New York, where the primary is on March 7, will be an arduous task, to say the least. The state’s byzantine primary rules essentially allow the Republican Establishment to anoint a candidate. Those who would challenge the machine need to gather signatures in every congressional district in the state just to get on the ballot. “This is the most difficult political task I have ever undertaken,” says Staten Island borough president and Republican stalwart Guy Molinari, who has switched allegiance from Bush to McCain and is responsible for the petition drive. “But this is a people’s campaign, and we’re going to get the signatures with volunteers.”

The problem with using volunteers, of course, is that they’re inexperienced in the process, and the petitions are open to legal challenges if every t is not properly crossed. “The Bush people sent a memo out around the state which set forth their game plan in seven stages,” says Molinari, “and stage seven is the vigorous challenge of McCain’s petitions.”

Molinari says he switched to McCain, after several days of soul-searching, because he believes he’s the right man, not because he was angry at Governor Pataki for moving too slowly in issuing an order of clemency for jailed cop Patricia Feerick. “I’ve heard reports that the governor has said he won’t allow challenges to McCain’s petitions, but I have my doubts,” says Molinari. “Nevertheless, I’m doing this because you have to do what you believe is the right thing, no matter how difficult it is personally.”

Mayor Giuliani, who has spent time with both Bush and McCain, formally endorsed the Texas governor nearly eight weeks ago. “You couldn’t call us good friends,” McCain says of Giuliani, “but I get along with him. I know he’s got sharp elbows, but I like him.”

Last year, Giuliani called McCain and said he’d like to go to the Fiesta Bowl, and McCain said sure, he already had some tickets. “I told him to come to my house around three and we’d head out from there,” McCain recalls one evening on the bus, unable to contain his laughter.

“So sure enough, at three o’clock up our driveway come two Suburbans, two limousines, and all these cops jump out. I went outside and I said, ‘Rudy, where do you think we are, Beirut? This is Phoenix, Arizona, for chrissakes.’ So we go to the game with all these cops with us, you know. I didn’t know if he was worried about all these irate New Yorkers coming to get him or what. But we had fun.”

One sign of McCain’s increasingly good feel for what works on the stump was his decision to scrap the long, formal speech he was using early in the campaign. “It was serious, eloquently written, and even I could see their eyes glaze over,” he says. He now uses a much shorter, more personal presentation. He talks for only about fifteen minutes, without a prepared text, telling a few stories, hitting a few policy high points, and then answering questions. It’s relaxed, it’s polished, and it’s retail politics at its most effective.

McCain has also learned how to feed off the crowds. On that languorous Friday night in the white-clapboard New England town of Wolfeboro, he looked beat as he got off the bus. In fact, as he slowly walked toward the door, he barely seemed to have enough energy to bark the mock military orders he routinely, and jokingly, issues to his staff.

But inside the building, a small military museum with a World War II fighter plane suspended from the ceiling and a tank sitting in the middle of the main-floor exhibit space, his wan countenance brightened. “The qualities of a hero have sometimes been ascribed to me, but I am not a hero,” he told the crowd, pacing back and forth in front of an enormous flag in his squishy-soled L.L. Bean oxfords. “It doesn’t take any particular talent to get shot down. I have, however, been privileged in my life to serve with heroes and to witness a thousand acts of courage, compassion, and love. I don’t usually tell stories about my time in prison, but – maybe it’s because of this setting – it seems appropriate to tell one tonight.”

Clutching a handheld microphone, McCain said that for much of his first two years as a POW in Hanoi, he was held in solitary confinement: “They kept us apart to keep us from conspiring, and because they knew it made us stronger when we were together.” But eventually, he was put in a cell, a big room really, with about 25 other American POWs.

“I have lived a very flawed life. My wife says I’m running for president because I took a few too many blows to the head while I was a POW.”

It was here, he told the crowd, that he met Mike Christian, a Navy bombardier-navigator who had been shot down in 1967, about six months before McCain had been. “Mike was a terrific kid from Alabama who grew up so poor he didn’t wear shoes until he was 13. But he had character. In prison we wore these short-sleeve blue shirts, pajama-type pants, and sandals made from old tires,” he said, pausing for a moment as if the memory had come unexpectedly rushing back.

McCain explained that the POWs were, in the waning years of the war, allowed to receive packages from home. Often these contained articles of clothing. “Well, Mike had managed to make a needle out of a piece of bamboo, and over time he’d taken scraps of red and white cloth and he sewed an American flag inside his blue shirt. And every evening we would take Mike’s shirt, hang it on the wall of our cell, and together we’d say the Pledge of Allegiance. No other event of the day meant as much to us.”

As McCain spoke, you could see his connection with the crowd begin to develop as clearly as if there were cables being strung. He has a surprising ability to articulate basic American values like honor, duty, selflessness, and devotion to a greater good movingly, without seeming either hokey or like he’s pandering for political gain. Though he doesn’t have the emotive powers to preach that Bill Clinton has, or the mastery of performance Ronald Reagan had to make the rhetoric of a prepared text soar, he has learned how to maximize the power of his extraordinary personal story.

“One day, the Vietnamese guards came in and searched the cell and they found Mike’s shirt. They took it, and then they came back later that evening and they took Mike. They beat him severely just outside our cell, where we could hear what they were doing. They broke several of his ribs and punctured his eardrum. When they were done, they dragged him back into the cell, bleeding and nearly senseless.”

McCain said he and his cellmates cleaned Christian up as well as they could. “In our cell we slept on these concrete slabs under a naked lightbulb,” he said, moving forward now toward the crowd, “and we got Mike onto his platform where he could rest. Late that night when I was trying to fall asleep, I looked over at Mike, and I saw he had managed to take his needle out. And even though his eyes were nearly swollen shut from the beating, he was starting to sew another flag. I witnessed many acts of heroism in prison, but none more courageous than this. He wasn’t doing it because it made him feel better but because he knew it made us feel better.”

When McCain tells a story like that, it is easy to forget or simply not care that he has a seventeen-year pro-life voting record in Congress. Or that he is essentially opposed to tougher gun control and routinely votes against federal funding for the arts. What happens is that any single position on a specific issue suddenly becomes significantly less important than the sense that this is a man with character. Someone you could depend on, someone who would, when the pressure’s on, when it matters most, do the right thing.

When McCain talks about selflessness and commitment, he is talking to people who by now know his history. They know that when he was shot down and taken prisoner in 1967, the North Vietnamese offered to let him go when they discovered he was the scion of a prominent Navy family. They know that McCain told his captors he wasn’t leaving unless they let the other prisoners, who had been there longer, go as well. And they know that as a result of his refusal to cooperate, he was routinely beaten and tortured during his five and a half years as a prisoner.

“Look,” says Bob Mack, a World War II veteran who took part in the Normandy invasion, “this is a guy who’s been tested. We know what he’s about.” Mack talks to me about McCain on Veteran’s Day, inside VFW Post 1670 in Laconia, New Hampshire. He stands amid the folding tables where breakfast has been set out for several hundred people on pink-paper place mats. McCain, who brought along several former POWs, has just finished answering questions. “I’m sure Bush is a good man,” says Mack, who’s actually a Democrat who voted for Clinton, “but what’s he done besides use his father’s name to get ahead? With McCain, it’s different. This is the first time in recent memory that I feel really good about a candidate.”

What’s interesting but of course difficult to determine is how much of McCain’s appeal, particularly among Democrats, is a reaction to the truly awful spectacle put on in Washington by both parties over the past seven years. With all of the time and energy McCain spends talking about alienation from the political process, and citing the diminishing and discouraging statistics on voter turnout, he is quick to point out to me that in nearly 60 town-hall meetings not one person – not one – has mentioned Monica Lewinsky or asked him what he thought about the scandal and how he voted on impeachment. (He voted for impeachment, he says, because the president lied under oath.)

But all the talk about McCain’s bedrock virtues seems, at the least, an oblique reaction to the Clinton years. He is, to put it plainly, everything Clinton isn’t. And if McCain is filling a void, it’s a void that can’t be filled by Al Gore, because of his closeness to the president, or by George W. Bush, who has raised suspicions in some quarters that he is a kindred Clinton spirit.

Clinton in ‘92 was put forward as the first post-World War II presidential candidate, the first boomer to run for the White House (who can forget the Fleetwood Mac theme song?). But his lack of military service specifically and his dishonesty about that period of his life in general (he didn’t inhale, he didn’t try to avoid the draft, and he didn’t protest the war while at Oxford) tainted the whole sixties connection. Indeed, the virulence of the relentless conservative attack on him all these years is, to a great degree, an effort to refight the social and cultural battles of that decade.

It may be McCain, however, who is the ultimate boomer candidate. He is the affable representation of the other half of the sixties. He went to Vietnam. He got shot down and taken prisoner. He refused early release and was beaten and tortured. And far from being damaged by the experience, he seems to have been strengthened by it. When he came home he didn’t withdraw, he went into politics. And one of the first things he did was show forgiveness – both for those who protested the war and for the Vietnamese. He even publically endorsed normalized relations with Vietnam well before it became a widely accepted idea.

Broadening his baby-boomer appeal is his rebelliousness and his roguish propensity to screw up. Despite his Navy pedigree – his grandfather was at the signing of the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri, and his father was in charge of all forces in the Pacific during Vietnam – there is the sense that he was always a renegade. He earned an impressive number of demerits and finished fifth from the bottom in his class at Annapolis in 1958, which included John Poindexter, Oliver North, Robert McFarlane, and James Webb.

He regularly broke curfew and went over the wall to go drinking – he and his buddies called it beating the machine – which midshipmen were forbidden to do. He showed up at a formal party with a somewhat underdressed date he refers to in his book as “Marie, the Flame of Florida.” More importantly, he defied the long-established tradition of hazing lower-classmen, often stepping in to stop the harassment. He crashed two planes. He cut power lines in Spain when he flew too low to the ground. And he admits that when he came home from Vietnam, he caused the breakup of his first marriage by running around.

“I have led a very flawed life,” McCain often tells audiences, and indeed it is his fallible, regular-guy humanity and refusal to take himself too seriously that makes his life story – and his candidacy – that much more compelling. “I intercepted a surface-to-air missile with my plane” is how he describes getting shot down. “My wife says I’m running for president because I took a few too many blows to the head while I was a POW,” he likes to say. Whenever he mentions his staff, he says most of them are “out on work release.” And every admiring reference to the heroic Orson Swindle, his best friend and fellow POW, is prefaced with the assessment that he’s “the ugliest man alive.”

McCain spent the early sixties happily disengaged from politics. Like most career servicemen at the time, he believed, the same way his father and grandfather did, that there should be a kind of wall between politics and the military. He remembers that it was almost impossible to even vote if you were at sea.

For him, the Vietnam War, which he entered in 1966 before the protest movement had any steam, was really an opportunity for adventure, to do what he was trained for, and to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He was the insouciant fighter jock. In his book he says that before he went to Vietnam, he thought glory was the object of war and that all glory was personal. However, prison changed everything.

The watershed event in McCain’s political life occurred when his career was nearly destroyed during the savings-and-loan crisis. He was investigated for his involvement with Charles Keating, the Arizona S&L executive convicted of fraud. McCain had accepted campaign contributions and several trips to the Bahamas from Keating. When Keating was being investigated for the failure of his bank, which cost taxpayers more than $2 billion, he wanted McCain to intercede on his behalf. McCain refused, and was ultimately cleared by a Senate ethics committee of any wrongdoing.

It was an excruciatingly difficult and humiliating experience, especially for a man who took seriously the military code of honor he inherited from his father and grandfather. He learned that the appearance of impropriety is often as damaging as actual wrongdoing. He also learned that the Senate is no longer the collegial body it once was.

Though it was clear early on that McCain had done nothing wrong – ethics committee special counsel Robert Bennett recommended McCain be dropped from the inquiry – he believes he was dragged through the process, rather than exonerated quickly, because of partisanship. He was the only Republican of the five senators – known as the Keating Five – who were investigated. This experience hardened his resolve to be his own man and to fight for campaign-finance reform even though the battle has earned him the wrath of many other senators, including those in his own party.

McCain’s puckish, often self-deprecating manner can, at times, mask his deep seriousness about the issues. He is voluble on foreign policy and national security and has a broad grasp of history, which he owes in large part to all the time he spent reading while in and out of the hospital getting treated for his war injuries. He has also developed a keen sense of how to tap the disaffection many people now feel toward Washington.

Though he is given ample opportunity when campaigning to criticize the other candidates, he never bites. He assiduously praises all of his rivals and goes so far as to bemoan the fact that Elizabeth Dole decided to withdraw. One of his loudest applause lines at every stop is when he promises that no matter what, he will not go negative and attack his opponents.

“Sometimes, the Republicans are like Wile E. Coyote, and Bill Clinton is like the Road Runner. When we get right up next to him, the dynamite explodes, and he just goes right by. Beep! Beep!

The president is another matter. McCain never loses his enthusiasm for blasting what he calls Clinton’s “feckless photo-op foreign policy.” He tells me one afternoon on the bus that the key to an effective foreign policy is to be proactive rather than reactive as this administration has been, over and over again, from Kosovo to China.

“This is the first time in our history that we have a president, a secretary of State, a secretary of Defense, and a national-security adviser who’ve never worn the uniform,” McCain says. “And Clinton is the first president since before World War II who doesn’t meet with his national-security adviser first thing every morning. He went for months without seeing Tony Lake. I think he sees Sandy Berger more often, but you simply can’t do that.”

It clearly shows, he believes, a lack of interest. “I’ve puzzled over why this is for a long time, and I think it’s a combination of factors. One is that the president likes to get instant results from his proposals and ideas, and with foreign policy, that rarely happens. The only other conclusion I can draw is that the president doesn’t have the proper view of the seriousness of the issues and their implications.”

McCain has been almost equally frustrated by the fact that despite what he sees as the president’s frequent foreign-policy missteps, the Republicans have been unable to put together a coherent, focused response.

“Sometimes, the Republican party is like Wile E. Coyote, and Bill Clinton is like the Road Runner,” he says, laughing. “We’re always after him, and we’ve got something from Acme that’s gonna help us catch him, and when we get right up next to him, the dynamite explodes and blows us up or we go over the cliff. And he just goes right by. Beep! Beep! But by God, we’re right back at it again. In some cases, I think we allow our dislike of him to obscure our view of the national interest.”

Perhaps the best measure of McCain’s new competitiveness in the race is the recent attacks on him. First came the charge that he’s too much of a hothead and doesn’t have the temperament to be president. More recently are the whispers that his time as a POW has left him unstable. McCain has even been criticized by some disagreeable conservatives as “the media’s favorite Republican,” as if somehow his good press calls his party bona fides into question.

Despite the insulting nature of the criticism, particularly the questions about his mental stability, McCain and his staff have continued to respond with equanimity and keep moving forward.

“John gave me his word that he wouldn’t speak ill of George W. Bush,” says Georgette Mosbacher, the flamboyant, red-haired CEO of a marketing-and-consulting company and the only member of New York’s Republican Establishment other than Guy Molinari who’s actively working on McCain’s behalf. “I didn’t want to be part of a negative campaign, and he’s kept his word.”

Mosbacher is national co-chair of the campaign and one of McCain’s power-hitting fund-raisers. Her ex-husband, incidentally, Texas businessman Robert Mosbacher, played a key role in building George Bush senior’s fund-raising network, which provided the basic architecture for the 50-state infrastructure George junior is now using. It’s become the most formidable political money machine ever put together.

“I go back a long way with the Bush family,” Mosbacher says over breakfast at the Regency, “but G.W. didn’t really need me. John, on the other hand, did. And there’s something about someone you admire and respect saying ‘I need you.’ “

Mosbacher was particularly taken by the fact that McCain told her he didn’t just want her to raise money; he wanted her input as well. “I’m used to being flattered and then ignored except for money. And I’m sure in this case, when I’m in the meetings, there are people who wish I’d just shut up and fund-raise. But John wants and needs a female point of view.”

Specifically, she’d like to see him talk more about issues like child care, education, adoption, health insurance, and other issues of particular interest to women. “I think the kinds of things John is pas-sionate about are important to women, but sometimes they’re not framed the right way. And as far as abortion goes, I’m not a one-issue voter and I don’t think most other people are, either,” she says, her pale-blue eyes opening wider.

“I know the abortion issue doesn’t help John with women in places like New York,” she adds. “But it had an enormous impact on me when we were sitting at the dinner table in my apartment talking about it and he looked at me and simply said, ‘I’ve seen how cheap life can be.’ ”

Late one afternoon it is shockingly quiet in the back of the bus. One reporter is tapping on a laptop, two are writing in notebooks, and the rest are staring aimlessly into space. We have all just gotten back on board following a town hall meeting at Plymouth State University. Everyone is wiped out (except McCain, of course) and feeling like he or she has just heard the senator, when talking about how far his campaign has come, tell a crowd the Mo Udall joke for the tenth time that day.

“Mo Udall walks into a barber shop in Manchester and says, ‘Good morning. My name is Mo Udall, and I’m running for president.’ ‘I know,’ says the barber, ‘we were just laughing about that this morning.’ ” (Actually, it was only the third time.)

“How ‘bout some coffee, Mike,” McCain barks as he looks at the reporters, all of whom are avoiding eye contact the way students do in class when they’re hoping the teacher won’t call on them. McCain fidgets, picking up a section of USA Today and putting it down three or four times.

Finally it seems he gives up on us and actually starts to read the paper. But within minutes, he’s shaking his head, heaving heavy sighs, and muttering about a story on the front page. He’s trying to get somebody’s attention. I’m sitting closest to him, so I say uncle. “You sound like something’s the matter, Senator. What’s up?” I ask gamely. “Ah, this story about Hillary Clinton in Israel. The headline says she’s in trouble.”

And with that, he’s off and running and dragging us along with him. “What kind of senator would Hillary be?” I ask. “She’d be the biggest star in the Senate since Bobby Kennedy. At least in the beginning.” “Does Rudy actually want to be a senator?” “I’m sure he doesn’t. But I think he’d have instant credibilty because of his record on urban issues.” “Does he have the temperment for the Senate?” “I’m a fine one to ask,” he says laughing. “Actually, maybe I’m the perfect one to ask.”

It was a dazzling display of McCain’s political and rhetorical dexterity. Is it manipulative? Of course: He’s a politician. But the greater truth seems to be that he can’t help himself. He draws energy from the discourse and, as he says, it’s who he is. Think about it: John McCain is who he says he is. In the aftermath of the Clinton years, that’s a pretty solid strategy. It’s not the economy, stupid, it’s the candidate.

The McCain Mutiny