He was John McCain's longtime aide and chief strategist until July 2007, when McCain ordered a shakeup in his troubled campaign. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Aug. 1, 2008.
“In a president, there are days you want someone who's very cool, sanguine. But there are days that it's helpful to have someone who's very emotive. Ronald Reagan was an emotive man, too.”
- Highlights from this interview
- An example of what defines McCain's character
- McCain was twice wooed by the Democrats
- Dealing with Bush/Cheney on the torture issue
- Chaos in the early part of his 2008 campaign
Tell me about the first time you met John McCain.
I was at the Republican Party of Texas back in the late '80s. We brought him in to do fund-raising for us. At that point, all I knew was that he was a prisoner of war, an American war hero, that he had succeeded [late Sen.] Barry Goldwater [R-Ariz.], and he was a traditional conservative, primarily focused on national security issues.
I didn't really get to know him well until the Phil Gramm [1996 presidential] campaign. He was the national chairman; I was the field director. He and I got to be very, very close during that campaign. We were often on the losing side of a lot of arguments with Phil about strategy. As you recall, that was during the time that Bill Clinton was in the White House, and all the issues that surrounded the scandals then.
I was struck by how John interacted with people on the campaign trail for Sen. Gramm [R-Texas]. I also thought that he was the perfect antidote to what was ailing the nation in regard to the problems that the Clintons had brought to the country. And I was struck by his transparency and his belief in the basic greatness of this country.
One of the big things he goes through, before your time, is the Keating Five controversy. Does he ever talk about that episode and how it changed him?
Not in the reflective sense about what happened. He admits that when his obituary is written, the Keating scandal will be somewhere high in it. So he understands the dark stain that that had on his career. But he grew from that. From that experience and those mistakes that he made, which he will readily admit to, came the reformer that we all know now; that John is, as far as campaign finance reform, taking on the special interests in Washington. So that was his pivot point to looking at how to change Washington.
That would not be the normal reaction of another politician that was involved in that situation.
No. Most would bunker in. I think that tells you about his curiosity and the fact that he is very optimistic, that he is very forward-looking.
Another example is climate change. Here is a guy who didn't really pay any attention to the issue. In the 2000 campaign in New Hampshire, a lot of young people came forward asking questions about climate change. As soon as we lost and he went back to the Senate, he was so transfixed about their passion about the issue that he educated himself, traveled the globe, and now is one of the champions on the subject. It's very similar to what he did with the Keating situation.
In the sense that he took a situation that he had either ignored or, in the case of Keating, that there were problems with and learned from it.
There's also something about him that tends to come up over and over: He seems to operate better in adversity than in calmer times.
We often joke that he seeks adversity; that if there's a saloon fight going on, he's going to go in there and pick up a chair, at times regardless of whether he should or shouldn't. I think there's some truth to that. He's been through an awful lot of adversity. There's no way that any of us can imagine what it was like as a prisoner, particularly what they had to endure -- and then the scare with melanoma, which was very serious at the time.
Unlike a lot of politicians, though, he seeks big problems and big issues. Most politicians try to bank their popularity and not use political capital to solve problems. They'll use it to get re-elected. McCain, if he sees a problem that he really cares about, he'll dive head-on into it. And I think he should be admired for that. I think the only other person in the Senate now like that is Ted Kennedy [D-Mass.].
Is there another side to that, though: Unless things get bad, he almost doesn't operate at his fullest?
I don't know that that's fair. He's been focused on long-term issues, and he's taken a long road to passing some serious legislation. But he is at his best in a crisis. I don't think there's any doubt about that.
How should one view what happened in Vietnam to help us understand who he is at this point?
To his credit, when he got out of prison, as you know, he immediately went to the War College as soon as he could to study how we got into Vietnam, what happened, and why we ultimately lost the war. He was very curious about that. I think that's one lesson we should take from that, that he will make a very studious decision on war and peace issues.
One of the things in a Washington Post article today was Vietnam defined him as seeing things, sometimes, [as] very black and white, and war is one of them. His attitude about Vietnam, his attitude about Iraq, to some extent, is very clear cut. Define the pluses and minuses.
The minuses: You don't want someone who's going to make an emotional decision. The pluses: Once he's made the judgment that that's the right thing to do, then he's going to see it through.
Now, we've seen with the current president that stubbornness is not necessarily a good thing. And I assume that that's what some people might think of when they hear about the rigidity and being very strong-willed about a certain topic. He has to be careful about that, quite frankly.
But I think the American people do want someone who, once they've made up their mind that they're going to lead us in a certain direction, will do so and not waver. Now, I've never known John not to accept other information. And look, quite frankly, with Iraq, it wasn't going well. He supported -- although he had reservations -- the Rumsfeld plan. But when it wasn't going well, he met with enlisted men and women, young officers, people at the Pentagon, people in the field, and became the advocate of the surge, which is now working.
But this attitude about never pulling out until you achieve it, that's what a war is all about. Explain.
Once you're in the Oval Office, achieving it can be defined in a lot of different ways. And we're already seeing such success in Iraq that the president himself was talking about shortening the rotations and moving troops out of Iraq sooner than anybody would have predicted.
I think John primarily would be an advocate of the [former Secretary of State] Colin Powell approach, that if you're going to go in, you have to go in with overwhelming force, with a clear objective, understand the consequences, and have a good exit plan.
Now, clearly, we didn't have that in Iraq. So when John moved toward the surge, we were already dealing with a broken plan and a broken situation.
Let's talk about the 2000 election. In 1997 you had a plan, the way the story's been told.
After the Gramm campaign, John stayed in touch with me by phone. We talked regularly. I happened to be in Alabama doing some preparatory work for a Senate race, and one evening I sketched out what I thought could be a plan for John to win the nomination: Skip Iowa, focus on New Hampshire, focus on big issues, reforming government, etc.
So the next time he called me, I told him I had this and I wanted to present it to him. And he said, "Well, come to Washington right away, and let's sit down and talk about it." It took me six months to get an appointment with John. I'm sure [McCain adviser and speechwriter Mark] Salter thought I was some stalker or something. They finally scheduled 10 minutes in the hallway, thinking that that might be good enough and I'd go away, and this foolish talk about running for president would not bother them anymore. I don't think any of them wanted him to run. Most Senate offices are pretty tranquil.
But when I met with McCain, he was transfixed enough that he asked me to volunteer one day a week, which I did, and we started traveling the country together. But Mark put up some pretty good roadblocks at first.
Why John McCain? You've been involved in politics for a long time; you knew a lot of other politicians. What drove you?
Again, we were looking for a nominee for a president post-Bill Clinton. And I saw in John McCain, in 1997-98, a man of tremendous honor who really understood foreign policy, and a man who had good empathy on the campaign trail, that could connect with average Americans. I thought he would be a magnificent president, quite frankly. I was asked, being from Texas, to support and work for then-Gov. Bush, but I didn't think there was a comparison between who was better prepared to be president, quite frankly.
What do you think convinces someone like a John McCain … to know that he has the stuff to be president?
I think John felt that he had been prepared through the narrative of his life, that he had seen a lot of major events, that he had been around, in an intimate way, presidents, beginning with President Nixon, when John got out of prison. And so, being around power and being around presidents, and being in the Oval Office and, with President Reagan, he was standing up to President Reagan, dealing with the  Beirut bombing -- I think he was comfortable with power. And he thinks he knows how to wield it appropriately.
How important a moment was it when he, a Republican, took a stand in Congress against stationing troops in Beirut?
It made a lot of headlines, and of course he was ridiculed for a few days on that vote. And then after the terrorist attack in which I believe 220 young [Marines] were killed, his position was clearly validated. I think by doing that, his stature rose in the House and around the country in foreign policy circles.
Was that an intrinsic moment, when John McCain said, "I have the right answer this time around"?
I don't know that he thought that at that moment. But I think that was a lesson from Vietnam that he was carrying to the Beirut situation, that there was no endgame in sight.
But it does show his maverick side.
It does show an early strain of that.
So he decides to run in 2000. You're going to pursue it.
We had a plan, but we didn't have any money. And we had, at the time, some pretty forceful opponents, people on paper, at least -- not just George W. Bush, but Vice President [Dan] Quayle, [N.C. Sen.] Elizabeth Dole, [Tenn. Sen.] Lamar Alexander, who had run twice, but had almost won in New Hampshire and was well thought of.
There was his anger. We should talk about that, his reputation for having a rather large anger problem.
I've seen John get angry, but only at people that are his peers. I've not seen him get angry in a way that's inappropriate with people who work for him or are volunteers or any of the like. Now, there are times when he is very, very passionate, and I'm sure that could be confused with anger. But I think those rumors in 2000 were pretty well sorted out after the campaign in how they originated and for what purpose.
But [is it] a defining characteristic, how emotional he becomes about what he believes in?
Look at what he's done recently in the Senate. If someone is irrationally emotional, he's not going to be able to bring his colleagues to do things that are sometimes not in their best political interest. The Gang of 14 dealing with judicial appointments comes to mind on that. So yes, he can be passionate. And I'm sure -- I know -- that he's angered other senators and House members with that kind of passion and anger. And when he sees things like pork-barrel spending and the appropriators really running the Congress, he gets very angry, but I don't think inappropriately so.
South Carolina, 2000: You've said in the past that the Bush-Rove team had a campaign without a moral compass.
They need to be congratulated on a campaign that obviously won. And I'm not sure that had they not stooped to the low road in South Carolina, we could have won anyway. We were outspent 30-to-1, $35 million-to-$3 million. That's a dramatic difference in one month in a small state.
But after we had won so convincingly in New Hampshire, the Bush forces knew that if he lost South Carolina, he would have to drop out of the race -- he, Bush. So it was all or nothing for them.
South Carolina is one of those places that there are blood feuds in politics going back so long that the current participants don't know why they're involved in the blood feud. ... And we landed there in the midst of some of that, inherited a team, and the Bush forces inherited a team. That impacted the atmosphere, quite frankly. There were feuds going on in the state that had nothing to do with Bush or John.
But the Bush campaign ran a very amoral campaign: phone calls about John having fathered a black child with a prostitute, knowing full well that Bridget, their adopted daughter from Bangladesh, a dark-skinned, beautiful child, would fit right into that kind of lie; rehashing Cindy McCain's very public and well-disclosed and documented drug addiction issues; many, many more by phone, by mail, by Internet.
You don't grow up in Texas in politics and not be in some really tough campaigns, and campaigns that you look back and say, "I wish I hadn't done that." But I've never seen anything like it.
And at the end of the day, we started making emotional decisions. I think ultimately that's why we lost. We got angry, and we started making emotional decisions. So instead of John talking about how he was going to reform Washington and move the country forward, we were talking about campaign tactics and phone banks and coming across, probably, a little whiny.
When you saw it happening, those reactions, how does that help define him?
I'll tell you a story. During the campaign, we were in South Carolina during the time of the Confederate flag issue on the state Capitol grounds. And being cautious consultants with a lead -- at that point, we had a two-point lead in the state -- we, and I was one of them, urged the senator not to take a position on it, saying it was a local issue. He did that.
Now, sometimes he would read the statement as if he was behind prison bars. And it was clear he didn't really agree with it, but he did do that. After the campaign was over, he went back to South Carolina and apologized for that position. ...
I remember him calling me, saying, "Johnny, we're going to South Carolina, and I'm going to apologize for taking that position." I said, "Do you really want to do it?" And he says, "We're going." And that was that.
Again, it defines his willingness to admit mistakes, to say, "Yeah, I screwed up; I was wrong to do this; I took the politically expedient road here." And we don't normally get that from our leaders. I think that says something about his character.
A lot of people have talked about how honor is important to him.
I think it's everything to understand about him. If you asked me what his ideology is, conservative [or] liberal, I'd say no, it's honor. I think that's the most important thing in his life. I think he got that from his grandfather and from his father and from his time with so many men in prison. That's what matters to him most. And the Keating scandal is an example, the Confederate flag issue -- when he does things that are against his own honor, it really tears at him.
2001: McCain goes back to the Senate, seen as an outsider, even more so than before. He takes some very strong stands early on against the Bush taxes and stuff. What's going on at that point?
The backdrop was that we were in very icy relations with the White House. And when I say "icy," Siberia doesn't have that much ice. That would define the relationship between our world and the White House at that point in time.
John had campaigned on a whole host of issues, and, quite frankly, his tax cut plan, which would have been the largest tax cut in American history had it been implemented, also had enough money to pay for the privatization of Social Security and [to] leave money with the government in case of a foreign policy crisis. I think in hindsight we wish we had done that.
John did vote against the Bush tax cut. And meanwhile we were pushing campaign finance reform, patients' bill of rights, a whole host of issues, I don't think it's feasible to say that once somebody does that, when they get back to the Senate, they have to drop their entire agenda.
Now, I'm sure the White House didn't see it that way. And I know that Republican leadership at the time -- [Miss. Sen.] Trent Lott and others -- didn't see it that way either.
So he lost the run for president, but did he see his role as being different now in the Senate?
He knew that he had a power base. And immediately after that election, outside of Colin Powell, who was secretary of state, McCain was the most popular political figure in the country. Any poll showed that he had tremendous support. He was almost a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on policy issues in the Congress.
He knew he had a tremendous asset then to try to get things done, and he was willing to use it. I know that he didn't think that he could ever run for president again, so it wasn't a matter of that. It was a matter trying to get some things done that he really cared about.
Now, the much-talked-about story of him joining the Democratic Caucus -- set us straight on that.
Being political people, we periodically would look at him running as an independent. But within an hour of a discussion, those things would be shelved, because it's not feasible with our current party structure for an independent to win. If you go back at that time period, the Democrats were just within one seat of taking control of the Senate. They were on a searching mission, trying to get anybody to switch. They were going to Sen. [Jim] Jeffords [of Vermont], Sen. [Lincoln] Chafee [of Rhode Island].
Sen. McCain received a phone call one day from Sen. Kennedy, who is a very good friend of his. Even though they have philosophical differences, they have tremendous respect for each other. And John had received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.
Sen. Kennedy called John, asked him to come to a meeting in his office on an undetermined topic. And he mentioned it to myself and to Mark Salter that he was going over there; didn't say what it was. When he got there, I believe there was Sen. [John] Edwards [of North Carolina], Sen. [Tom] Daschle [of South Dakota] who was the minority leader, Sen. Kennedy -- may have been a couple other senators -- and they made the full-court press, asking him to switch, become an independent. He could remain chairman of the Commerce Committee if he would do so. And he said no.
Now, I believe Sen. Daschle reached out to him a couple of more times on the Senate floor, and I think Sen. Kennedy reached out to him a few more times. But at no point do I think John ever seriously considered it.
Even though he understood that this was a powerful move to make and perhaps could have pushed forward his agenda?
At that point, he was being very successful in cobbling together bipartisan votes on his agenda. We passed the patients' bill of rights out of the Senate, which had been stalled. We passed campaign finance reform, which had been blocked for years. So he was moving what he cared about anyway.
But John had been a Republican since he had gotten out of prison, and I think that he just couldn't see making such a dramatic move. And once Jeffords did it, it became a moot point, and the Democrats stopped looking for anyone else, because at that point, they then took control of the Senate.
And in the next election, there is the VP offer by [Sen. John] Kerry [D-Mass.]. What was your role there? And what do you think happened there?
Sen. Kerry had just secured the nomination, I think, in March 2004 and he asked to see me at his home. It was a very unusual request. I went to his home, had a 30-minute conversation with him in which he raised the possibility of speaking with the senator about being his running mate. Now, this was not the first time he had done this.
In August 2003, when Sen. Kerry was not doing well in the primary situation, he met with Sen. McCain over breakfast and had broached it then, and McCain rejected it out of hand. So this had been something obviously on Sen. Kerry's mind for some time. I told him it was certainly not within my pay grade to make any kind of decision or even talk about something like that.
But he pursued it aggressively. He called me several times. He called Mark Salter. He called Cindy McCain. He even asked [actor] Warren Beatty to intervene, which is unusual, of course. And he approached John on several occasions about it. Finally, he got to a point that he asked John to be his running mate, but also serve as secretary of defense and have the foreign policy portfolio, to which John said to him: "I don't even think that's constitutional. No."
That struck, I think, the rawest nerve with him of any issue that I saw in my 12 years of being associated with John in an intimate manner.
But it was a very tough fight. The White House was unyielding. McCain had the moral high ground. But we had to work like hell, like hell, to move that through the Senate. And the negotiations with the White House ranged from the bizarre to angry. And it was a tough situation.
And when [Vice President Dick] Cheney comes in [with] his full-court press, is this John McCain at his finest?
You could say that. You could say that about maybe the immigration issue. But certainly he rose to the occasion, and he took the vice president on, who at that point was at the peak of his power at the White House and with the Republicans in the Senate. I think McCain called negotiating with Cheney akin to negotiating banking reform with Bonnie and Clyde -- just not something that's really doable. Ultimately, the president saw that and then moved to, oddly enough, make [White House Counsel] Harriet Miers the negotiator, and that didn't work, and then it moved to the national security director.
Then there's the victory, and there's a famous shot of Bush and McCain shaking hands in the Oval Office. But then the signing statement surfaces. How does he take that?
He did not take that well, on multiple grounds. Again, getting back to honor, it's not an honorable thing to negotiate an agreement in an intense way, to have a very public coming together as the president and John did in the Oval Office, and then for the president to sign the bill in a very public ceremony, and then to issue a statement or a letter that undercut much of the bill. I think it got to the core thing about McCain, which is honor. Congress doesn't like to be treated that way, and that was part of it, but it really had to do about honor.
There's one other practical side of it, though, the much-talked-about CIA loophole. Where does that come from?
When you're trying to pass something, the perfect can be the enemy of the good. And I think at the end of the day, they did the best they could on that issue. And I think that's how he sees it. I mean, he worked very hard with [Sen.] Lindsey Graham [R-S.C.] and with Colin Powell. And I can assure you that if he's president, that will be fixed immediately.
2004: The Bush administration understands, at this point, that they need to keep McCain. Rove was supposedly worried. This is the famous meeting with you. [Can you tell us about] the reason for the meeting and what comes after that?
I was in New York at the time, and John was not being included in any other campaign activities. He was still the most popular political figure in the country. The president was being defeated in the polls by Sen. Kerry, primarily because independent voters and soft Republicans and soft Democrats were attracted to Sen. Kerry, and they were not supporting Bush. It was clear to me that McCain could remedy that situation.
It was also beginning to dawn on us that John had another run in him, and one of the things that had to be done is to fix relations with the White House and with rank-and-file Republicans.
So I have my own history with Karl that predates the 2000 campaign. And the 2000 campaign didn't make it any better. But I didn't want that to be in between John and the president. So I called [Bush campaign media adviser] Mark McKinnon, a friend of mine from the 1980s in Texas, who was an intimate of both the president and of Karl, and asked for a meeting with Karl. Mark set it up fairly quickly. We had coffee across the street from the White House. And at some point during the conversation, I said to Karl, "Why isn't John campaigning for the president?" And Karl said, "We didn't think he would." And I said, "Nobody has asked him." And he said they would.
And, of course, when I went back to John's Senate office and told him I had just met with Karl, he was flabbergasted. I don't know that he was particularly pleased, either, but he was flabbergasted. But it took about two days for the White House to get around to it very quickly, and then John was on the road with the president. And they'll tell you that he was their most valuable asset on the campaign trail.
And what does John get from it?
He believed strongly that President Bush would be a much stronger commander in chief than John Kerry, so that drove him. And quite frankly, the Bush campaign needed McCain out on the trail, and we needed John out on the trail with the president. So everyone's mutual interests coincided together, quite frankly, and it worked fine. And I don't know that it necessarily made the two closer, but it did put us into an era of good feeling, at least going into the second administration, second term.
The speech he gave at the convention in 2004, was this sort of the first step toward running in 2008?
Not just the speech, but his entire activity at the convention. He had a big event of his own at the convention, invited key delegations to it. He was very active throughout the convention and outside of the president, probably had more exposure than anyone else. I mean, that was purposely done. We had a birthday party for him, and all three network anchors came to it.
Our attempt was try to nail the best of the two, the authenticity of John McCain with the organizational power and focus that [Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign chair] Ken Mehlman had put in place in the president's re-election in 2004. It had been there that [Bush] had defeated us in 2000. So we wanted to bring the best of that but at the same time make sure that John was the authentic John McCain. That was our goal, quite frankly.
There's a lot said now that that was sort of wrong for Mr. Straight Talk, and that it took a falling apart before you could see the quintessential John McCain.
I don't know about that, because in the middle of that, this Mr. Straight [Talk] was leading the way on immigration policy that was not very popular within our party. He was advocating a surge that was controversial. At no point did he trim any of his sails on what he cared about and believed in.
[The campaign] ultimately imploded, primarily because it was structurally not sound. Campaigns have to be benevolent dictatorships on a good day. This one turned out to be chaos, and campaigns cannot be chaotic.
... [O]ne of the things in The Washington Post article this morning was that John McCain is quoted as sort of saying, "You know, I think that chaos is good." What's going on?
I don't know what else he could say, because chaos existed in the campaign portion that I was involved in, and it certainly exists now. And he can't make any more changes within his campaign structure between now and the general election.
Chaos is not good in the campaign. It's not a healthy thing. You don't want your candidate in a bubble, where he doesn't get disparate viewpoints, and you want opposing views discussed and argued upon and firmly decided. But once they're decided, you want them acted upon, not continuously brought back to people's attention. So I would disagree with the senator about that. But I don't expect that he could say much else.
So why has this been a problem with this campaign?
As in a lot of organizations, if you don't get it right at the very beginning, it's not going to be right throughout. There was no clear chain of command. The finance division was totally separate from the political division. No one knew how much money we were raising, so we couldn't match spending with that. And that never got fixed, really, even with the departure of myself and with so many other talented people like [former campaign manager] Terry Nelson and [former communications director] Brian Jones and others leaving. When that happened, those shoes were really not filled, and the problems were not corrected. But to John's credit, he gritted it out and won the nomination on pure grit.
Some people would say, though, that the chaos in the campaign and the inability to fix it reflects back on the candidate.
At the end of the day, all campaigns reflect the candidate. I think that's a fair statement. But I don't think that that necessarily would translate into what kind of president he would be.
Well, they're totally structured differently. And the political people that are involved in campaigns, at least in my conversations with John, would not have places of authority within the White House. You would not see a Karl Rove-type person in the White House overseeing domestic policy and sitting in on some foreign policy decisions, when their background is all political.
So I think he certainly understands the difference, and understands and wants a very strong Cabinet form of government. And I think he has a good idea of how to manage the White House.
The immigration bill you mentioned a little bit, it played a role in the problems early on, and yet despite the fact that he must have known that --
Well, that's an issue that he cared about. In January '07, we went to John, and our basic argument was: "We agree with you passionately about it, but if you really want to fix the immigration system, be elected president first. This is going to hurt you in the primary." And his response to that was to pick up the phone and call Sen. Kennedy and say, "Let's get going and do this again." So we were chagrined, to say the least. And it turned out to be a significant problem in the campaign -- significant, sad to say.
You take the blame for some of the chaos early on.
At that point, I'm responsible for the campaign. I'm the chief strategist. I had reached out and hired these people. Who else is going to step up and take the blame? I don't think it would be an honorable thing ... for someone else to do that. Having said that, had we had the power to structure it differently, we would have, but we didn't have that authority.
Because you weren't given the authority.
Too many people were given authority.
How must it have felt for John McCain to lose you?
I can't answer that, really. The night before I resigned, we had a wonderful conversation, and I told him I loved him, and I didn't want to argue with him anymore about all these various issues that we had been arguing about and asked him to hold off on some other decisions that he thought he was going to make. And he agreed.
The next morning, he decided, for whatever reason, to move forward with those decisions. But I can't speak to how he felt about it. I hope it wasn't an easy decision for him. But he made that decision, knowing full well the consequence of that. And it didn't take me more than a nanosecond to know what I needed to do.
Can you tell us what the issue was?
Again, it gets back to the way the campaign was structured and how to streamline the decision making. I was an advocate that the campaign manager, Terry Nelson, had to be given the power to run the campaign, and the senator had a different viewpoint.
So the long climb back, the quintessential McCain comes back. What happens?
Before we left, we'd already made the decision that New Hampshire had to become Fortress New Hampshire. The only way that he could make his comeback and win the nomination was through New Hampshire. And so that decision had already been made.
He did it through pure grit. The campaign didn't have any money, but we had a very strong organization in New Hampshire. We had everybody that we had in 2000, and we worked like hell to bring as many Bush people over and others over between 2004 and 2008. So we had a big safety net in New Hampshire. It was a perfect place for him. So it was a combination of grit, the hard work that had already been put in place organizationally, and the fact that the other campaigns ran flawed campaigns. The combination of that propelled him to the nomination.
CPAC [Conservative Political Action Conference] in February 2008, the annual convention of conservative activists, how does his reception at that event -- he was booed at one point -- define some of the problems he's got to deal with?
I'm one of the consultants who think that's overrated, quite frankly. They're a paper tiger within our party. But, from an imagery point of view, it gets to the malaise within our party. We have a very disgruntled base. They're angry with the administration; they're angry with the Congress. And he's got to pay attention to that, clearly. And I think they did a pretty good job at that, at CPAC. But that's the least of McCain's problems in this general election.
Because this election's going to be won by people between the 40-yard lines, between soft Republicans and independents and soft Democrats. The base will turn out to a certain degree regardless. You've got to work at it, but they're going to turn out. But we have a lot of disgruntled people who voted for Republican candidates who have no intention of doing so right now. And that's not our base. Those are not the people at CPAC.
So what does he have to do to win?
I believe he has to talk about where he's going to lead this country. And John has a bigness inside of him. He can inspire people. But he needs to talk about the four or five major issues, where he wants to lead us, and show that he truly has the empathy in these tough times for average, working Americans.
Some will say that this is an election for [Sen. Barack] Obama to win or lose, and that means that the Republicans have to find the story line for Obama, which leads some people toward negative kind of ads and such. Is that a dilemma here?
Apparently not. (Laughs.) It should be a dilemma, but apparently it isn't. Listen, campaigns are a tough business, and I understand you have to get your opponent's negatives up in order for you to win. But listen, this is not the 1988 campaign which we ran against [former Mass. Gov.] Mike Dukakis, where Reagan had a 57 approval, and the economy was roaring. The Soviet Union was about to collapse, so we could talk about little things like burning the American flag and the Pledge of Allegiance and what kind of crops Mike Dukakis wanted us to plant in Iowa. It was a very small campaign -- successful but small.
We have real problems in this country, and we have a wrong-track number in the mid-80s. We have gasoline prices that are unbelievable to most Americans. We have an unpopular war. We have a president who is at Richard Nixon numbers for the third straight year. I don't think those kind of issues are going to resonate again with those people between the 40-yard lines.
So, while they're trying to move Obama's negatives up -- and I understand that that has to be done -- it's important for the senator to articulate where he wants to lead the country on big issues.
So the use of the recent negative ads?
I think they were unnecessary at this point. And for a negative ad to work, they have to be true. They have to pass certain thresholds. Sen. Obama has been a U.S. senator 200 days. I don't think you can blame him for gas prices. And so what these ads have done, it's allowed Obama to have the moral high ground at a time when you look at John McCain and his narrative and life, and he should always have the high ground in the campaign. That's my take on it.
I believe, as I've said before, that the honor that's within the senator, the thing that drives him, his ideology, will keep the campaign from going too far into an abyss. But it's a tough business. There's a lot at stake, and there are a lot of third parties that are not under anyone's control. I understand that. But I am hopeful that the senator can keep the campaign on a course that he'll be proud of.
Can I ask you about the lobbyist thing in The New York Times article? What's your take on that, why it became a big issue, and why it disappeared so quickly?
Well, we don't know that it's disappeared completely. I hope it has. But it became a big issue because the McCain brand is so counter to the influence of the K Street lobbyists in Washington. And it was a very easy narrative for people in the media or for his political opponents to tell. It wasn't handled particularly well, quite frankly. If it had been my druthers, there wouldn't be as many lobbyists as there are in the campaign.
I don't think it drew conservatives to him. Quite frankly, if you polled conservative voters around the country, they have the same view of lobbyists as everyone else does. But if it had to happen, it was better that it happened early as opposed to later in the cycle.
Who is the essential John McCain?
The essential John McCain is an honorable man who wants nothing more than to lead his country. And I believe if he loses this election, he'll go back to the Senate, he'll roll up his sleeves, and he'll work for the things he believes in. You can't say that about a lot of other people. And there is an essential goodness about him. He does understand, he does have empathy for Americans. He's pretty well grounded about that. I think that's the essential thing about John McCain.
The Washington Post has him calling himself a "romantic fatalist." What does that mean?
That's probably getting back to his favorite Hemingway book [For Whom the Bell Tolls], and the quotation from Robert Jordan, the character in the book. His favorite saying in the campaign, of course, and to us, is, "It's never totally dark until it's at its blackest moment." I think he's quoting Chairman Mao.
He does have some fatalism about him. He is a romantic. He oftentimes takes on issues that, at the very beginning, would appear to be tilting at windmills in a Don Quixote-like fashion.
God knows we've tried to stop him from doing some of that in the past. And he's been right; we've been wrong -- taking on Boeing, for example, and the [convicted lobbyist] Jack Abramoff affair, some other issues. I think that's what he's alluding to, that there is real romance in this and that there is art; it's not just a science.
And another quote from The Washington Post, that he's "driven less by thought and more by feelings."
He's an emotive person, and I think we've talked about that. He's a guy who, when he picks up the newspaper and sees something to be outraged about, he's appropriately outraged, and he wants to do something about it. You don't find that in the halls of power in Washington very often.
He's an emotive guy. He makes decisions sometimes by gut instinct and by feelings, how he feels about it, right or wrong. If somebody's being treated poorly, if a situation like in Darfur is going on, he feels very emotional about that.
Is that good or bad?
It's probably both. In a president, there are days, I'm sure, you want someone who's very cool and sanguine about anything that they face. But there are days, I'm sure, that it's helpful to have someone who's very emotive. Ronald Reagan was an emotive man, too, the greatest president that we've had since Roosevelt. And I think that turned out fine.