Jewish World Review May 21, 2004 / 1 Sivan, 5764
The McCain Swoon
It was called the "McCain Swoon" and referred to how the usually cynical, nasty, scorched-earth political press of America simply fell in love with John McCain during his presidential campaign in 2000.
It was very hard not to. He was not only frank and friendly, he also spent virtually all his time with reporters, answering any question we asked.
Maintaining "message control" an obsession of modern campaigning simply did not exist on the McCain bus.
McCain was the message and nobody controlled him. Not even McCain.
The press could not help loving this and the swoon was real at least among some reporters. Even the fact that McCain was a conservative often got passed over in the press coverage.
During the 2000 campaign, at a dinner with the editors and reporters of U.S. News & World Report, I said to McCain: "Anecdotal evidence -- what we call reporting -- suggests to me that many of the independents and even Democrats who are supporting you in New Hampshire have no idea how really conservative you are."
"Done a hell of a job fooling them, haven't we?" McCain said.
We all laughed.
Nobody was disturbed more by the McCain swoon than his primary opponent, George W. Bush. After McCain stomped Bush by an incredible 18 percentage points in New Hampshire, Bush was on the ropes and had to win South Carolina.
It was in South Carolina that I asked Bush whether he thought there was a press conspiracy to boost McCain at his expense.
"I don't think there is any plot; I hope there isn't," Bush said, "but it's an amazing phenomenon, I'll tell you that. It's like the flap over the foreign leader deal. A guy gets up and quizzes me it's my fault for trying to answer but John McCain says something about the 'ambassador to Czechoslovakia.' Well, I know there is no Czechoslovakia [it's the Czech Republic], but yet it didn't make the nightly national news. I'm not going to gripe about it, but the media question is starting to pop up."
While McCain's eventually lost in 2000, he became the rarest of political phenomena: a person whose stature is actually enhanced by engaging in a losing presidential campaign.
He is one of the most popular figures in politics today, which has led to a new McCain swoon: The continuing speculation that McCain will become John Kerry's running mate, even though McCain says he absolutely won't. (There is also some doubt that a majority the delegates to the Democratic National Convention would nominate McCain, regardless of Kerry's wishes.)
But I must admit it would be wonderful to have McCain back on the road again. And to show why, I reprint an actual transcript of a typical afternoon on the McCain bus. All the significant questions had been asked (several times) and now we were engaging in what we really enjoyed, a "lightning round" with McCain.
"Favorite word," a reporter asks him.
"Principle," he says.
"Favorite dead hero."
"Uh, Julius Caesar."
"Favorite dead hero within the last 2,000 years."
"OK, off the top of my head, Lincoln. Although the more I read and study, the more intrigued I am by Teddy Roosevelt," he says.
"Favorite living hero, non-sports."
"Colin Powell, served his country, a wonderful man," says McCain.
"Favorite ice cream."
"What kind of tree would you like to be?" (I have to admit I think I asked him this, but I was joking.)
"Cottonwood," McCain answers seriously. "They are really lovely. And when the wind goes through them it makes a beautiful sound and they are really beautiful. They grow all over Arizona where there's water."
"They're about the only trees that grow in Arizona, aren't they?"
"Sycamores grow there," he says. (This is a guy who knows his trees.)
"Favorite TV series."
"Seinfeld, but I generally watch CNN, Discovery, A&E or the History Channel."
"For Whom the Bell Tolls."
"Fifties and Sixties rock and roll."
"Favorite lazy-day activity."
"Going to a sporting event."
"Alternate career choice."
"Newspaper delivery boy."
"Favorite comic strip."
"Favorite junk food."
"Listerine makes toothpaste?" a reporter asks.
"Uh, Colgate," McCain answers.
"Mousse or gel?"
" 'Songs for Swingin' Lovers!' by Frank Sinatra."
"Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."
"Favorite breakfast cereal."
"That's George W. Bush's favorite, too!" a reporter says.
"Can I change to corn flakes?" McCain says.
We all laugh.
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