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.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, Media, US Politics, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Hal says:

    Or it could be that he’s feeling the sword of Damocles hanging over him and wondering if this Faustian bargain he struck with Rove’s buddies is going to be worth it.




    0



    0
  2. James Joyner says:

    Rove successfully defeated John McCain in the 2000 primaries and helped George W. Bush win the maximum number of presidential terms to which he was constitutionally eligible. So, it’s reasonable that McCain would take seriously his advice and that of his senior associates.

    Still, this isn’t who McCain is. He’s more likely than not to lose this thing, anyway. He might as well at least do it without regrets.




    0



    0
  3. markm says:

    Rumor on the streets is that Ambien makes you grumpy.




    0



    0
  4. Hal says:

    So, it’s reasonable that McCain would take seriously his advice and that of his senior associates.

    Kind of a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” attitude, eh? Fits right in the with transformation meme – i.e. McCain is willing to do anything to win.

    He might as well at least do it without regrets.

    I think we’re long past that. His reputation is long gone.




    0



    0
  5. Wayne says:

    James
    Are you sure you not just sticking up for you fellow interviewers? I’m not sure what to read into those quotes. Especially since we don’t know what happen before or after. Was there an understanding about what the interview was suppose to be about then the reporters refuse to discuss those subjects? We don’t know. Was McCain actually grumpy or in a bad mood? We don’t know. Were the reporters lying? We don’t know.

    McCain should be more careful in dealing with the press now. In the primaries they were in his corner. Now they are not. Something he could get away with in the primaries would now be presented by the press as a big scandal.




    0



    0
  6. Hal says:

    McCain should be more careful in dealing with the press now

    Quite the conundrum, though. He built his rep on unparalleled access and “straight talk” with the press. They’ve been grading him on a curve because of it. If he withdraws that, he becomes just another politician and then they start treating him like any other politician.

    Guess it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t thing.

    <giggle>

    “He whom the press would destroy they first make unaccountable”




    0



    0
  7. anjin-san says:

    He might as well at least do it without regrets.

    I wonder if he will regret using the same low-road tactics that Rove used against him in 2000. If not for the Sliming he received in South Carolina, he might have been the nominee…




    0



    0
  8. Triumph says:

    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?

    To be honest, if I remember correctly from your reporting on the blogger calls, they were pretty much filled with softball questions as well. He didn’t have any non-‘conservative’ bloggers on any of the calls.

    What is going on here is that McCain is starting to endure the scrutiny typical of a nominee and he’s showing he simply isn’t ready for prime time.

    He is an intellectual lightweight with little clue about the actual domestic and foreign policy realities facing the country. Much like Bush he has no patience for detail and has displayed no evidence of rational thinking.

    With his insane comments about Russia, the Iraq situation, the economy, social security, he offers little confidence to voters. His testiness is likely a recognition that his cover is being blown and he has no way of dealing with it.

    He clearly can’t think on his feet. This alone should give pause to Republicans next week as they go through the nomination process. If the party wants any chance at winning in NOvember, they would be well-served to nominate a better candidate like Michael Bloomberg.




    0



    0
  9. Hoodlumman says:

    There’s enough projection in the comments here to run my local AMC 15 Theater…




    0



    0
  10. anjin-san says:

    Now that I think about McCain’s embrace of politics, Rove style, it is easy to see why “honor” is not something he wishes to discuss…




    0



    0
  11. Fence says:

    Yawn. By the way, what’s the industry standard on how long you have to wait to eat after your food taster samples it?




    0



    0
  12. Hal says:

    There’s enough projection in the comments here

    No need for projection, dude. You can just watch the whole thing on YouTube, captured by McCain’s daughter.




    0



    0
  13. Anthony says:

    “I defined it in five books. Read my books.”

    But weren’t they all written by Mark Salter?




    0



    0
  14. John Cole says:

    The whole McCain campaign has been weird and disjointed.

    Now granted, I am fully aware that I am frothing mad at the GOP and that anger colors my perception of everything, but there have just been numerous times throughout this campaign so far where I have simply not recognized John McCain. I was never a McCainiac, but I did have a generally favorable impression about the guy. Now, I look at him, and I wonder who the hell he is.

    I simply can not attribute that all to my changes in perceptions regarding the GOP. This is not the same John McCain, and you are right- they should just let him be himself.




    0



    0
  15. sam says:

    Rove successfully defeated John McCain in the 2000 primaries and helped George W. Bush win the maximum number of presidential terms to which he was constitutionally eligible. So, it’s reasonable that McCain would take seriously his advice and that of his senior associates.

    But James there’s something, and I mean this sincerely, something very sad about the turn John McCain has taken. He was savaged in the most despicable and wounding ways by that Rovian gang in 2000. Think of what they did to him in North Carolina. Think of his adopted daughter. And now for him to enlist those same people to do to Obama what they did to him is depressing. He’ll lose friends of lifetime because of this. Maybe his testiness and grumpiness is arising out of a bad conscience.




    0



    0
  16. Anderson says:

    In the picture, McCain looks really … old.




    0



    0
  17. Hal says:

    really … old.

    Oddly enough, he is really old.




    0



    0
  18. Triumph says:

    This is not the same John McCain, and you are right- they should just let him be himself.

    Who are “they”? Why do you assume your circa-2000 impressions are correct and that the 2008 McCain is some aberration? Maybe it’s the reverse?

    In years past he hasn’t had to withstand the scrutiny afforded to a nominee. This year he has and he simply can’t handle it.

    If this lightweight can’t put his “true” personality out there due to his handlers or answer a simple softball question, how can we expect this guy to deal with the terrorists?

    Although McCain is old as the hills, he simply doesn’t have the intelligence, judgment, or temperament to be president. He is not ready.

    If we elect this guy, we are going to have another insecure, unprepared, ideologue in the White House.




    0



    0
  19. Quentin Tarantino's Worst Nightmare says:

    The full interview is available for listening at Time’s website. You really must listen to the entire interview to appreciate the full impact of McCain’s flat affect and the dull robotic quality to the repetitive answers. Many questions were left out of the print version, and others were changed.

    His answer regarding the situation in Iraq was the following hair raiser: “Iraq is a peaceful and stable country now.”

    Having listened to it, it’s even more disturbing to know that the press is only now beginning to discuss McCain’s problematic behavior.




    0



    0
  20. Wayne says:

    Hals’s link was lame. Quentin didn’t supply a link and I don’t have the time to look for it myself at this moment. I suspect it is just another “depend which side your on perspective” anyway.




    0



    0
  21. Hal says:

    Hals’s link was lame

    Okay big boy, where’s the equivalent love fest of reporters for Obama? You did know that all those dudes and dudettes were reporters, right?

    In any event, even James doesn’t argue that McCain doesn’t have a cozy relationship – in fact, he argues just the opposite.




    0



    0
  22. Wayne says:

    Hal your link at the best was back soon after McCain clinch the primary and Huckabee was still in the race. Many papers and MSM that praise McCain before now trash him.

    “love fest of reporters for Obama”

    We have gone through this before. You have blinders on when you can’t see that Matthews funny tingly feeling going up his leg and the way most of the MSM have fall over themselves praising the DNC convention aren’t examples of the MSM love affair with Obama.




    0



    0
  23. Hal says:

    Then that’s just way too bad for McCain, isn’t it? He used to call them his “base” and now they’ve all left him for the king of the prom.

    <sniff>

    Oh well. Live by your base, die by your base I guess.

    So I guess we’re now supposed to vote for McCain because we feel sorry for him. Poor dude. He can’t even get 10,000 people to show up to listen to him speak.

    “McCain: vote for me out of pity” is going to work really, really well.




    0



    0
  24. Pug says:

    He can’t even get 10,000 people to show up to listen to him speak.

    Well, you have heard him speak haven’t you?




    0



    0
  25. Hal says:

    Well, you have heard him speak haven’t you?

    Worse… I’ve watched him. That green screen speech is etched into my retinas and is still ringing in my ears.




    0



    0