McCain Grumpy, Guarded
John McCain got to where he is — the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party for president — by building a reputation as a straight shooting maverick. While part of that was always more mythical than real, a key part of building the mythos was his unprecedented access to reporters and, briefly, even bloggers.
Now, he’s changed strategies and the people who he once called “his base” are fighting back. See, for example, “McCain’s Prickly TIME Interview.”
And so when TIME’s James Carney and Michael Scherer were invited to the front of McCain’s plane recently for an interview, they were ushered forward, past the curtain that now separates reporters from the candidate, past the sofa that was designed for his gabfests with the press and taken straight to the candidate’s seat. McCain at first seemed happy enough to do the interview. But his mood quickly soured. The McCain on display in the 24-minute interview was prickly, at times abrasive, and determined not to stray off message. An excerpt:
What do you want voters to know coming out of the Republican Convention — about you, about your candidacy?
I’m prepared to be President of the United States, and I’ll put my country first.
There’s a theme that recurs in your books and your speeches, both about putting country first but also about honor. I wonder if you could define honor for us?
Read it in my books.
I’ve read your books.
No, I’m not going to define it.
But honor in politics?
I defined it in five books. Read my books.
[Your] campaign today is more disciplined, more traditional, more aggressive. From your point of view, why the change?
I will do as much as we possibly can do to provide as much access to the press as possible.
But beyond the press, sir, just in terms of …
I think we’re running a fine campaign, and this is where we are.
Do you miss the old way of doing it?
I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Really? Come on, Senator.
I’ll provide as much access as possible …
In 2000, after the primaries, you went back to South Carolina to talk about what you felt was a mistake you had made on the Confederate flag. Is there anything so far about this campaign that you wish you could take back or you might revisit when it’s over?
[Does not answer.]
Do I know you? [Says with a laugh.]
[Long pause.] I’m very happy with the way our campaign has been conducted, and I am very pleased and humbled to have the nomination of the Republican Party.
You do acknowledge there was a change in the campaign, in the way you had run the campaign?
[Shakes his head.] (All bolds, italics, etc. in original. )
Now, this might just have been a bad day. Perhaps he’s usually much more cheerful and forthcoming than this, or perhaps Carney and Scherer did something to set him off, or whatever. But there’s not much doubt that McCain — and Obama, too, for that matter — have succumbed to run of the mill campaign strategies after winning their nomination processes by being something other than that.
For example, McCain had numerous conference calls with bloggers where all comers were allowed to ask anything they wanted with essentially unlimited follow-ups. I myself have been priviledged to engage McCain in back-and-forth banter lasting several minutes on more than one occasion. This had the same effect on skeptical bloggers as it did the mainstream press: humanizing the candidate and making us more forgiving of the occasional gaffe and policy disagreement.
Now, I never expected that would continue once he became the nominee. The man’s too busy now and has to focus his attention on swing voters, battleground states, and all that. He just can’t spare an hour every couple of weeks to talk to bloggers.
At the same time, though, I never thought he’d go into bunker mode, either. The questions in the TIME interview above — and, again, I don’t know the full context here — are softballs. He should have been knocking those out of the park rather than getting indignant. “Read my books”? Seriously?
He’s built up a lot of capital with the national press corps. (Many Democrats are annoyed by this but, as I’ve noted many times, there’s nothing stopping Obama and company from giving comparable access.) But, as McCain himself has noted, suddenly withdrawing that access after having gotten the media accustomed to it would be unwise. Indeed, the TIME piece uses that famous quote:
You think I could survive if I didn’t? We’d never be forgiven … I’d have to hire a food taster, somebody to start my car in the morning.
A much more famous quote, popular a quarter century ago, was “Let Reagan be Reagan.” If John McCain is going to win this thing, he’s going to have to do it as John McCain.