The Choice 2008
photo of salter

Salter has worked for John McCain since 1988, starting as a legislative aide and then becoming his counselor and speechwriter. He has co-written five books with Sen. McCain, including his memoirs, Faith of My Fathers and Worth the Fighting For. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted May 30, 2008.

“He puts this country first; that's the code he has.”

Mark Salter

It's 2004. John McCain speaks at the Republican convention. How does Mr. Outside get invited to step up on the stage and give the speech?

I think he's spoken at every Republican convention since 1988. By the 2004 convention, he had become a national leader of some stature who had an ability to communicate to independents and Democrats as well as Republicans.

Sen. Obama's [speech], I recall, was quite impressive. I'd never heard of the guy before that. He talked about the blue-state and red-state divide. But if you look at McCain's speech in 2004, it was essentially the same subject: We ought to argue with each other; we have big differences, whether they're over Iraq or any number of other things; we belong to different parties but not different countries.

And that's been a message that he's always talked about since very early in his career, when he developed a relationship with Congressman Mo Udall [D-Ariz., U.S. House of Representatives, 1961-1991], very senior and much-loved Democrat. But, it's one he became known for I think after the 2000 election.

What was the Udall-McCain relationship like?

I only saw the tail end of it. By the time I went to work for Sen. McCain, Congressman Udall was very gravely ill, living in the Veterans Hospital here on North Capitol. I had not been around when Sen. McCain was a member of the House. He had served as the most junior minority member of the Interior Committee that Mo Udall had chaired for many years.

Udall came from, with the Goldwaters, one of the two oldest political families in Arizona. He knew the state and knew the issues -- water and land issues that were sort of unique to Western states -- that then-Congressman McCain really didn't. And Mo Udall, in an extraordinary act, as McCain recalls it, of generosity reached out to John and said, "I want to work together with you on Native American issues, on land and water issues." And he took him around the state and really taught him his job, how to represent the state of Arizona.

In the entire McCain political history, the influence of Mo Udall is sometimes overlooked, but it was a profound influence on him. …

Describe Udall.

How did he famously describe himself? "A one-night Mormon liberal from conservative Arizona." An old settler, Mormon-settler family. He had played professional basketball for a while. He ran for president in 1976 and called himself "second-place Mo." He'd lost to Carter. Came in second quite often. Famously, famously funny guy, which appeals to John McCain. Being humorous is quite a virtue [in] sort of John McCain's estimation of people.

I can imagine those two guys together being just unbound, right?

They were. And John came to love Mo -- I mean love him. And the many years where he was in very declining health and lived in the Veterans Hospital, John would go out there a couple of times a month, every month, two- or three-mile drive from the Capitol, and talk to him until Mo had reached the point where he was mostly unconscious for years before he passed away.

John would just go out and read him the Arizona papers aloud when he was unconscious and was, you know, very deeply affected at his passing. It was a unique relationship, and I think inspirational, where two men just took the measure of each other as men and not as a Democrat or a Republican.

And the meaning of that relationship for the John McCain who aspires to the White House now is what?

Oh, I think it's clear. You can see its reflection in John's relationship with [Sen.] Russ Feingold [D-Wis.]. Together he and Sen. Feingold worked to reform the way we finance political campaigns in the country. And I think what Mo taught him was, you don't have to abandon any principles to work with people of the other party to solve problems important to the country. ...

People also forget that he had exposure to the Senate before he was ever elected to it, at a time where reflexive partisanship in the body hadn't become quite as acute as it is today. He was the Navy Senate liaison, and he got to know lots of members quite well. He was very close friends with [Sen.] Gary Hart [D-Colo.], with [Sen.] Bill Cohen [R-Maine].

Seemed like unlikely bedfellows.

Yeah, they were roughly the same age, and they were both on the Armed Services Committee. And John became good friends with him; they were both in his wedding [to his second wife, Cindy]. But he also had a very close relationship with Sen. John Tower [R-Texas], and, if less intimate, a very good, close relationship with [Sen. Henry] "Scoop" Jackson [D-Wash.] as well. He traveled the world with these members. It's what attracted him to the Senate. ...

As long as we're in this world of Udall, Tower, Hart, Cohen, we can't forget [the late Sen. Barry] Goldwater [R-Ariz.]. Any DNA from there?

He succeeded Sen. Goldwater and revered him. And there are many attributes of Sen. Goldwater's personality that are really very similar to John's. They had a somewhat distant relationship when John was in the House; as John characterized it, "not as close a one as I would have liked." They got along quite well when John was the Navy liaison officer in the Senate because Goldwater had been a friend and admirer of John's father, Adm. [John S.] McCain.

That relationship improved dramatically, I think, after Sen. Goldwater retired and John succeeded him, and became quite warm, I think, in the last years of Sen. Goldwater's life. ...

On the political continuum, Goldwater to McCain, where is McCain?

Oh, I think in many ways similar policy-wise. Certainly on national security concerns and to a large extent the idea that the government that governs best governs least -- perfect accord with sort of the Goldwater philosophy. ...

It's during this period, as we hear the story, that ... he takes a pass on being made an admiral and decides on being a legislator. Take me inside that story, will you?

Well, no doubt he was attracted. He spoke of how he would watch senior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee affect national security policies by scribbling an amendment on a scrap of paper, and he was impressed by that.

He also, although he'd been told that he had a very good chance of making flag rank, getting his first star, he had concerns that he wouldn't be able to go much further. He could never command a carrier task force because he wasn't qualified for flight status any longer because of his war injuries. He [would have] a very difficult time raising his arm to pull the curtain to eject if he had to, and he's got great difficulty with his knee from his war injury. So he worried that he might make rear admiral, but that would be it. His father and grandfather, of course, were both four-star admirals.

So I think it was a combination of the appeal to be involved in these great issues of this country ... and concerns that his future in the Navy was limited that probably led him to that choice.

Was his father still alive when he turned down the star?

He was.

How hard was that?

I think his father understood, as I recall. One of the odd coincidences: I believe Sen. McCain's last day in the Navy was the day of his father's funeral, and also the day that he moved to Arizona, all on one eventful day. ...

How was his relationship with his dad?

I never saw it firsthand. Admiring, respectful; fine, I think, from all reports, warm and good. His father, as his grandfather was, was a career naval officer, and they were absent when he was a boy, ... so a great responsibility is imposed upon [his] mother, and he would tell me about trips across country moving from base to base with his mother driving. ...

... How was that relationship?

Is. She's 96 and seems more energetic and vivacious than someone 30 years younger. She's a remarkable, remarkable person, and charming and fascinating to almost anyone who meets her, and certainly to her son, who is as charmed and fascinated by her as anyone.

She's active in his life.

She's active, period. She travels abroad probably half the year. John tells a story from a couple of years ago where she tried to rent a car in France. They told her she was too old, and she bought one. But she'll go places that occasionally raise a concern to her son -- Algeria -- and drive herself around with her identical twin sister, who's also a very impressive woman.

About three or four years ago she was driving across country. Her sister, Rowena, lives in Los Angeles, and she decided to spend Christmas in L.A. with her and to drive from Washington to L.A. She was clocked doing 100-and-something outside of Flagstaff, Ariz., on her way. She's something. ...

And does he talk about the old man?

Oh, sure he did. We worked on two books together, and he talked about how he and his father and his grandfather had very similar records at the Naval Academy. All three earned quite a few demerits for various infractions of the rules. But they were the kind of people who had a very firm honor code; that as long as you didn't cross those bright lines, you were, if not encouraged, not terribly reprimanded for being a little iconoclastic in other ways. ...

The things I think he learned from his father, who had learned from his father, were that as long as you risked everything for something bigger than your own self-interest, and as long as you didn't lie, cheat or steal, you had earned respect.

The interesting personal moments within great historical moments of the McCain family always interested me. I had seen a picture John had of his father and his grandfather, both in Navy uniforms, both looking kind of tired. I asked where it had been taken. He said, "It's on a submarine tender in Tokyo Harbor." The Japanese had just surrendered that day on the USS Missouri, and his grandfather had been in the first rank of officers attending the surrender. His father had brought a captured Japanese submarine into Tokyo Harbor, and they had arranged to see each other after the surrender and have lunch in the war room of a submarine tender called the Proteus. So they did, and the photograph was taken on the deck of the Proteus.

And right after that, Adm. McCain, John McCain's grandfather, made the long trek, which probably took two or three days, home to Coronado, [Calif.]. And he basically returned home, they had a welcome home party for him, and he dropped dead of a heart attack at the party. He was only 61, but he looked 90, exhausted from the strain. And some of the officers who had served under him thought he had had a heart attack at sea and kept it quiet, because he was determined to see the war out.

I thought it was a poignant moment, and we decided to begin the book, Faith of My Fathers, with that moment. It was only after [we] had nearly completed the manuscript that I had somehow come across an oral history interview that John's father had given the Naval Institute, where he described that last meeting with his grandfather. And he said, "My father had told me that it's an honor to die for your country and your principles, and that's something I've remembered down through the years." That was his father talking about his grandfather.

I think that ethic is either genetically or environmentally imprinted in the McCain family. There are all sorts of hugely colorful characters in that family. His great uncle, who they called Wild Bill McCain and retired, I think, as a brigadier general in the Army and attended West Point -- the last McCain to go to West Point -- had fought with Gen. [John] Pershing and fought Pancho Villa. They called him Wild Bill for a reason: He rode his horse up into his future father-in-law's front porch and asked for the hand of his daughter.

They were just colorful, big, outsize personalities, but all of them devoted essentially to self-sacrifice; that whatever we are, whatever our colorful ways, we serve something bigger. There's been a McCain in uniform since the Revolution, or a McCain ancestor. A McCain ancestor served on Gen. Washington's staff.

What does that do to a young boy to grow up in a position like that? ... And what does that young boy carry into manhood?

I think he is aware that he is deprived of some things that other sons aren't: the constant presence of a father. ... He attended many, many schools because they moved all the time, from base to base, and I think that bred in him a certain restlessness. And that's why he's always very forward-looking, that he never ... exalts in a moment of triumph or despairs in a moment of defeat. He just moves on. I've met very few people with a capacity to do that to the extent that he's able to.

At the same time, he was rooted in a culture. John is extraordinarily well-read, both fiction and nonfiction, and the kind of books that appeal to him, the fiction, were books with those kind of heroes in it. His favorite book is For Whom the Bell Tolls, in which the hero is aware he's sacrificing himself for a lost cause, sort of this beautiful fatalism of that sacrifice. That is an ethic that's been in his family, I assume, for 200-and-some-odd years.

Now, on the same hand, there was resentment -- he'd be the first to admit to it -- that he was never given a choice about attending the Naval Academy or joining the Navy, ... and that resentment probably showed up when he was quite a challenging midshipman.

How challenging?

Well, he graduated fifth from the bottom of his class, and he managed to accumulate, as he calls it, a very impressive catalog of demerits, but never quite crossed the line. So I think he went through a phase where he not just accepted but understood the sort of nobility of the profession and culture, the calling he had, but worked out whatever resentment or conflicts he had about a lack of autonomy in the matter by being something of a discipline problem.

What's the anger issue?

He's got a temper. Is it outside the normal range? No. I think I probably have maybe a bit bigger one than he does. I can think of quite a good number of members of Congress who have a temper far more outsized than his. He's impatient, there's no doubt about it. And if he thinks something's outrageous, he'll say it.

But it's embellished beyond reality, the legend of his temper. You cannot possibly accomplish things in a bipartisan way or work with as many people as he has if you really have a temper like that. He's very blunt at times and very impatient at times. He'll go down on the floor and mock various pork-barrel projects that obviously are ridiculous, and that offends people. You'll have one or two or three real instances where he's lost his temper with someone [that] sort of migrate into some big legend that doesn't really comport with reality. I mean, he's got staff that work for him for decades. You want to go through the Senate or the House and find out who has the worst tempers, you immediately go and see what the turnover rate in staff is in those offices, and that will pretty much be the most reliable indicator.

In those moments at the back of the bus or whenever you guys sit around and shoot the breeze, does he talk about Vietnam? Does he find himself back there?

Never casually. If you asked him a question, he would. When you say "the back of the bus," we're often back there with reporters. If they ask him, he'll answer and talk about it. ... It's not something he normally brings up on his own. ...

You're a guy, as his biographer, who's probably thought a lot about the narrative arc of his life and the really meaningful parts of his life. Where does Vietnam land on that spectrum for you?

Important but not dominant. I think his character, by and large, was set before the experience. I think whatever self-doubt a young man has, as any young man might have, was probably settled after Vietnam, where he had to make a hard choice [to turn down early release] and made it. It was the correct one. ...

But he reached a point in Vietnam where he could not resist the force opposed to him by himself. At one moment, the Vietnamese were able to break him after several days of torture, and he was quite disconsolate about it. But it was the guy in the cell next to him who tapped him up on the wall and told him he had done the best he could; [that he should] gather his strength, go back at them the next day. And I think that was the great moment of self-discovery for him: that there was no shame, really, in not being able to do everything in life on your own, especially something that had consequences for many more people than yourself. ...

He was still very much himself as he came out of there. He seemed to be able to move past the experience and readjust himself not just to life in America but to modern life. He adapted quite well. He didn't seem burned with resentment about anti-war protests or anything else.

We hear so much about Obama being a guy who people said, from early in his life, he was presidential material. ... Were there very many people who knew John McCain along the road [who felt that way about him]?

He was, I think, always a leader. ... [At] the Naval Academy, for instance, there were two kinds of leaders. There were his good friend, Adm. Chuck Larson, who got four stars and was commander in chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific, superintendent of the academy, was first in his class, along with [National Security Adviser under President Reagan] Adm. [John] Poindexter. "Square-away midshipmen," as they said.

And then there was the other type of leader who was, obviously, more raucous, and a real challenging-authority type of leader. That was John McCain. Very charismatic guy from a boy to the present and always recognized as a leader. I doubt if you'd ask anybody at the Naval Academy or at the Episcopal High School [in Alexandria, Va.], in his early part of his naval career if he'd be president, [they'd say] no, probably not, but he would distinguish himself in some big way. ...

In 2000 he decides to run for the presidency. Why?

Boy, that's a good question. I mean, he ran as a reformer.

What did he say to you when he first told you? Did he ask you, or did he tell you?

It was more [that it] just sort of evolved. I can't remember any climactic moment where he called me and said, "Green light, let's go." I think he talked it over with Cindy. He had allowed some of us to start doing things in the event he did. And one thing led to another, and suddenly we're on a bus in New Hampshire.

He was, obviously, the underdog. The party really had sort of anointed Gov. Bush. He had the money, and he had most of the establishment. And John had already developed a reputation for cutting against the grain a little bit in the party, campaign finance reform and spending and other issues. ...

But there was something about the people of New Hampshire that John just got, and they just got him. ... The expectations they put on candidates for attention -- which I'm sure some campaigns think are excessive and greedy -- is exactly how McCain likes to campaign. There's no venue he enjoys more than a town hall, and they become, especially close to primary day, almost carnival-like. And he just enjoys it so. ...

... He wins New Hampshire, pokes his finger right in Bush and the orthodoxy's eye. Pretty typical story of John McCain's life, right? And how much did he enjoy that?

I think he loved it. I think he loved the experience of New Hampshire. The primary night itself, he smiled; he was pleased; he was happy. I could detect no great joy. I walked in to give him, I think, the 5:00 exit-poll numbers that we had gotten from some reporter, and he was rehearsing his speech in the bedroom of his hotel suite. He said, "What are they?" And I said, "You're going to clobber him 20 points, it looks like." And he just said, "That has implications." And I laughed because it was just so understated. I said, "Yup, you could be president; that might be one of the implications." But he just went back to his speech. And that's a fascinating quality in a personality. He always calls it "steady strain."

Steady what?

"Steady strain." It's a nautical term. When you throw a line to another ship, you don't want any slack in the line; you want to keep this strain on it steady. And he always tells us that: "Steady strain." And that's moments when we're erupting in happiness or joy, or moments where we'd just gotten our asses kicked and aren't feeling too good. ... And especially, [when] some of us on this campaign staff are a little aggrieved in South Carolina on primary night, he was just as calm as could be. And it was the same message.

But during South Carolina [in the 2000 campaign], my God, he must have been [apoplectic] a couple of times.

Well, we got knocked off message, and I think he regrets that. He got knocked off doing what he did and began sort of litigating these exchanges with Gov. Bush: what was fair and not fair, and above the belt and below the belt. And it was pointless. I think he wasn't happy with himself for allowing that to happen.

Did you guys say to him, "Don't get pissed"? ... Did you say "Keep your cool"?

I'm sure we did. I'm sure [then-communications director Mike] Murphy or [then-political director John] Weaver or somebody told him that. But the problem for guys like Weaver and I, we were so pissed that we probably weren't the greatest influence, and I'm sure we didn't serve him as well as we should have or as much as he deserved.

Why were you pissed?

Campaigns are -- it's a very rarified atmosphere, very unlike other jobs. And you work up in most cases sort of a false antipathy to your opponent, whoever he or she might be. And in most cases it's false; it's contrived to get you through the experience that you're battling a great force that must be defeated. It's not real, and it usually dissipates almost immediately when the whole experience is over.

And is he the same way, or is he beyond that?

I think he's [beyond that], because he just doesn't want to dwell on what has happened. He just looks down the road. ...

... The way the story from outside looking in is -- the senator's a little pissed. There's a new Bush administration, and he wants to let them know that he's Mr. Outside. He can tweak them; he can kick them around a little bit.

It's an exaggeration to the point where it's almost not real, to think that the way he conducted himself in the Senate after 2000 was just to tweak the Bush administration. He had established a national identity based on reform issues, and he was intent on being the guy he said he was in that campaign. So he worked on a number of reform issues, and not always in accord with the Bush administration, although on many other issues they were fine.

I'd say I'm sure there was some residual acrimony between staffs. Again, with John, he just doesn't live long enough in a moment that has passed to let it dictate the way forward; he just is not in it. ...

Was he flirting with the Democrats at the time?

No. He was working with Democrats as well as Republicans at the time. I think the occasion when they approached him about crossing the aisle permanently he was working with Sens. [Ted] Kennedy [D-Mass.] and [John] Edwards [D-N.C.] on HMO legislation. And he went to a meeting with Kennedy, which he assumed was going to be on the bill, and it turned out Kennedy had begun an overture. But he rejected it on every occasion.

What did Kennedy say?

I wasn't there. And John said, "Kennedy just asked me if I would consider crossing the aisle, and I said no." But these stories gain currency, and they go on, because out of courtesy when he's asked -- ... I mean, he never lets them think he's going to do it, but he never considered it.

It was like the whole Kerry VP thing. I think he found the offer from Sen. [John] Kerry [D-Mass.] perplexing. He said: "We don't agree on that much. If something happened to you, Democrats are going to be shocked at the president they helped elect." ...

Did he vote for Bush?

Oh, yes.

So that is a canard of the first magnitude.

Yes, it is. When you look at his record in its totality, he's a conservative fellow -- maybe not the most conservative member of the Senate, but he's definitely to the right of center. And he's quite happy to be there. ...

... [Tell me about] the battle with Obama in the Senate [over ethics reform in February 2006].

I believe Sen. Obama had approached John shortly after he'd been elected, on the floor, and said -- I'm grossly paraphrasing based on the usual, very brief debrief you get from John about his conversations: "Hey, I want to work with you on ethics-type issues. I don't want to be another hack in this place." ...

John thought [he was] a very gifted young man -- "Maybe another relationship like I have with Sen. Feingold." This is in the aftermath of the [convicted lobbyist Jack] Abramoff stuff, and John, with others, formed this bipartisan group. They would push ethics reform, and he had invited Sen. Obama to join that. ...

At some point, subsequent to forming this bipartisan group, Senate Democratic Leader [Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] had decided to appoint Sen. Obama the Democratic Party's point man on this. And the Democratic Party leadership was not quite as interested in reform as this bipartisan group was, or in losing the issue to a bipartisan group or any number of Republicans.

So one day -- and John McCain was out of town -- I started getting press calls: "Well, we've got this letter from Obama to McCain attacking you on one piece of this thing." ... And it turns out, I think, that Reid's office had released the letter, and so [Obama had] clearly done it at the behest of Democratic leadership, who was less interested in a bipartisan and more extensive reforms.

Anyway, John ... called me, and he said, "What's going on?" I said, "Well, we got this letter that Obama released to the press." And it kind of offended me, because John had been on the level with the guy. And I know he was brand-new and susceptible to the wily ways of leadership; I get it. But it did kind of offend me, because John had been very genuine and sincere, and this was a very obvious piece of political theater. ...

So I think he said, "Send the letter back and brush him back." My own level of grievance over that was probably a little sharper and greater than McCain's. I obviously beaned him, and wrote too harsh a response. But it was mine; I drafted it.

Your letter.

My letter.

Editor's Note: Read the exchange of letters between Obama and McCain.

Did McCain see it?

After I sent it. (Laughs.) We laughed. It was meant to be humorous, too. Those sorts of things happen. Like I said, the guy was brand-new. Leadership had given him at least the illusion of a leadership role on this issue, and so he decided that was more important to him than the little group of earnest bipartisan reformers that McCain likes to work with. It happens. It would have been better if the letter had been one paragraph rather than several. ...

[Media adviser Mark] McKinnon talked to us about the coffee leading up to the 2004 [convention], where Weaver calls Mark, Mark talks to [Bush adviser Karl] Rove. ... They get together and they sort of figure out a way that McCain and the president and the staffs ... can get together and do something in 2004. Tell us about that.

You described it accurately: John Weaver had a coffee with Karl Rove. A lot of people found it, I don't know, surprising that John campaigned for President Bush's re-election. He's a very senior Republican, and President Bush was the incumbent Republican president. It wasn't that remarkable, to be honest with you. He'd campaigned in 2000 with him. ...

How hard was it for Weaver to get that rolling?

To go see Rove?


It didn't seem hard. I mean, they had issues that predated 2000, obviously, but he wasn't put out by it or anything else. It seemed fine. ...

And that famous picture that everybody makes so much of, the hug photograph [of President Bush and McCain]. What do you make of it?

I don't make a thing out of it. I think he was campaigning for the president, ... and the president embraced him; he embraced the president back. And I know that has become a feature of [Democratic National Committee Chairman] Howard Dean's fevered imagination and an attempt to make it a metaphor for something the American people know is false: that John McCain is running for President Bush's third term. ...

The stories that became national stories about McCain were incidents where he had gone his own way, not in accord with the president, working to accomplish something with Democrats and Republicans. You don't get those reputations overnight. You have to earn them.

Sen. Obama proclaims that he's post-partisan, whatever, but he has not earned that reputation. He has no record of it, and he has not built a national name ID or a national reputation with examples of those things. ...

So no, they want to make that a metaphor for everything: McCain hugged the Bush Iraq war, McCain hugged this -- OK, I get it, but good luck with that. Like I said, he's an extremely hard man to defeat or to box in to a narrative he doesn't belong to or doesn't live. He's quite insistent on being his own person and making sure he's taken as he is. ...

But sometime between 2004 and 2007, when he acts like or looks like or has been surrounded by the apparatus of the front-runner, the heir apparent --

More the buzz. We never had the money or the apparatus, but we had the buzz.

... In that span, it does look like the independent, roguish guy the media loves, the guy that the independents love ... is now suddenly back with Bush on taxes, seems to be embracing stands that he formerly opposed. It looks a little bit like McCain is sliding back. What's going on there?

What's going on? I'm sure the things we did, concentrating on raising money that was never going to really be there for us and not campaigning in the way he campaigns, probably didn't make the candidate happier and gave the press reason to wonder if there's been some change.

But when you look at issues or something -- I mean, the press have a responsibility here. There is a tendency in the press to grasp narratives that aren't really, literally narratives. They're more like comic-book narratives, OK? They're a little thin, a little trite: "Oh, he's a front-runner. He's always been a maverick, and we've anointed him the front-runner. Therefore, he must be changing before our very eyes." ...

There was no surge at that time, no change to a counterinsurgency. There was a war that was being horribly mismanaged, and John McCain was the chief critic of the management of that war. ...

Now, what has happened in the 14 months since the counterinsurgency commenced? A remarkable change in Iraq. You can't ignore that. That should be to John McCain's enormous credit, because at the time he called for this change that produced this progress, he was criticized by Republicans, criticized by Democrats, criticized by the press, criticized in think tanks. But he was right. He was right. It was a moment of astonishing clarity, good judgment and courage. I don't think anybody else running for president this year has quite such an example to point to.

Were there people on the staff who were saying, ... "Don't do it"?

You bet. Remember, the country had had it with this war. And it was particularly acute in New Hampshire; I think almost all Republicans in New Hampshire in the midterm elections in 2006 were defeated. The war was extremely unpopular. We picked that up in the polling; we can read a poll. And plenty of us thought, "You've got to get out from under this thing; it will kill you." Absolutely not.

Wouldn't move.

No, because he knew it was the last chance we had to stop a horrific chain of events.

But he's going to have the president tied around his neck in this incredibly unpopular war.

He puts this country first; that's the code that he has. There are occasions when you have to sacrifice your interests for your country's interests. I don't think he could live with the shame of doing otherwise; I just don't. It's an impressive thing to see from time to time.

Speaking of going the other way, there's the matter of Abu Ghraib and torture and what happened. You don't happen to be around him when he hears about Abu Ghraib, do you?

I believe I was.


He was incensed. He thought it was shameful. I mean, he's a statesman, so he understands how injurious it was to our interests. The way he said it: "These things, it's not about them. When you're fighting a group of people who abhor your values or hold very antithetical values to your own, you defeat them by holding yours all the closer." ...

He was very, very deeply offended by Abu Ghraib. Again, a very unpopular position [during] the same time frame when he had apparently become something he hadn't been before, according to his critics or the press. He fought very hard to get that changed, and I think successfully.

How hard was the fight? And who was the fight against?

Look, it is understandable how most people, not just people in Central Intelligence Agency or in the administration, felt. ... We talk about a "shock the conscience" standard in the treatment of detainees, but the attacks of Sept. 11 shocked the conscience of us. So we understand why people say: "So you pour a little water down the guy's throat, who cares? To prevent some horrific atrocity?" I understand that argument. I understand how human beings can feel that way. I think I probably feel that way.

But again, he's this unique character. And there are many people in the military that feel exactly the way John McCain does about that. He would say, "One of the ways you got through the bad episodes in prison, being tied in ropes and being beaten, was you told yourself, if this situation were reversed, we would never do this." ...

There's a famous video after the amendment [on torture] is passed, and after the particulars are hammered out, he's up there in the Oval Office; the president shakes his hand and basically gives Sen. McCain the moment. How was he about that?

Fine. I mean, he had accomplished what he had set out to accomplish. And he and the president got along fine at the time. That was, I think, if I remember, a nice, generous gesture by the president. I know that the vice president [Dick Cheney] and Secretary [of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld argued against that legislation. Very gracious, and I think he was fine. ...

So how does he feel when the year ends, and over the New Year's weekend, a signing statement is signed that basically negates --

... He was not too happy about it. And I think we immediately contacted the administration: "What does this mean?" We were given assurances back: "Oh, no, no, it's in full force. It's something we do for everything around here." ...

McCain clearly believes that that legislation prevented, by statute, crude and degrading or humiliating treatment of detainees. And when he began to receive reports that that might not be perceived that way, then we addressed the issue again in the Military Commissions Act. The administration doesn't speak very specifically to the issue, but I think it is quite clear that a technique like water boarding is against the law and punishable as a war crime under the Military Commissions Act. And I think the administration understands that.

And for those who say, Mark, he let the CIA off the hook?

I don't know why they say that. I think they're quite wrong. ... We negotiated with several members in the Senate -- John Warner [R-Va.], Lindsey Graham [R-S.C.] and the others -- very senior members of the administration for a long time. And to get a standard in statute that we felt would prevent things like water boarding, we needed to rewrite the war crimes statutes, to change their definitions.

Now remember, some of the violations are punishable by death, serious. And to get them to allow us to do that, we agreed the law would not be retroactive but from date of enactment. I think that's a perfectly respectable decision for a lawmaker to make. ... You're not going to get it done any other way.

When people on his staff see him headed in the direction of the vote he's going to take and the work he's going to do on the immigration bill, are you warning him? What do you say?

"This doesn't look like it's going to be popular." (Laughs.) Sure, yeah, we warned him.

And he said?

The first immigration bill he was involved personally in negotiating almost every detail of it with -- he and Kennedy and others. And we actually passed in the Senate; it died in the House. So they knew we had that. So he kept in touch with Lindsey and Jon Kyl [R-Ariz.] -- very conservative, very well-respected conservative member of the Senate, his Arizona colleague. That was making it, we thought, more attractive for opponents on our side. And Kennedy was agreeing, making concessions. He said: "No, we're making great progress. Kyl's going to sign on and some other conservative members."

What were you on the staff sensing?

... We're sort of making progress, but there wasn't even a bill drafted. But the minute an agreed framework of sorts between this bipartisan group of Democrats and Republicans was announced, conservatives all over the place began attacking, and talk radio began attacking it. So within two weeks, I knew it was probably not a convenient piece of legislation for him at the time. ...

We were starting to raise more money. These fund-raisers, you'd have a certain number of commitments, and there's always a little bit of a gap between what was committed and what actually comes in the door a week or two later after. ... I can't remember what it was, but it was like a 30 percent falloff. ...

Did he know?

He was caught up in trying to get it done. He's trying to run for president. At the same time he's on the phone with Sen. Kyl and Sen. Graham and Sen. Kennedy, trying to convince other senators who might have been wavering not to. I mean, he was trying to be that most difficult of things: a very involved member of the Senate working on a particular piece of legislation that is being considered at that moment and a full-time presidential [candidate]. You really kind of have to shift from one or the other, and he sort of shifted to the other.

But did he know that he was lighting his hair on fire?

Oh, he knew he was paying a price for it. He reads half a dozen newspapers every day, watches cable; he listens to talk radio. He's quite aware of what was going on.

How soon after that do the wheels come off the bus?

The bill died. There just wasn't enough support in the country for it, so it collapsed on the Senate floor. And interestingly, it wasn't just Republicans or conservative talk radio that defeated it, but labor getting amendments in there that were making it more unpalatable to the other side, both left and right. The same thing happened with the tobacco bill years before. I'd seen it before.

Do you ascribe what we think of as the round-McCain-in-the-square-hole period that spring of '07, the collapse of the $150 million campaign model with 10 offices, the front-runner, heir apparent, Bush III -- ... do you ascribe the collapse of all of that to immigration primarily?

Part of it, sure. A significant part of it.

Anything bigger? Anything else going on there?

Well, one, we couldn't raise $150 million, so first and foremost I ascribe it to that. It became even harder to raise after immigration, and immigration hurt, obviously, his poll numbers. We had sort of budgeted higher, and obviously expenses were greater than receipts. And he became very unhappy with that. Changes were made in the campaign that were traumatic for all concerned.

How hard was it for him to let Weaver go after all those years?

I'm sure it hurt. I'm sure it hurt.

Take me there, can you?

No, I don't really want to. Those are personal relationships. I'm very close friends with all parties concerned. But it was difficult for both of them, I have no doubt.

It was possible for him to do it.

Yes. He became very focused in a way -- I don't think I ever saw it quite so as I did starting in July after the campaign imploded, where it was by sheer grit, with no expectation of winning, quite aware that he had gone from front-runner [to] sort of being marked. The most fatal thing to a candidate is the perception that you can't win. It holds down all your other numbers. I'd keep seeing these polls in South Carolina and New Hampshire, and all the measures -- shares your values, leadership qualities -- John was winning all these things. And then the one question -- do you think he's going to win? -- in single digits. ...

The weekend after the campaign changes, he kept the schedule in New Hampshire. He had a speech on Iraq that he was giving there, and then he had a town hall. And we had a larger press contingent than we had had all year and we wouldn't have again until he was effectively the nominee. ... They were there on sort of a political body watch. But he just ignored it. He ignored everything and focused on working New Hampshire the way he knew he could work it.

And we had lots of decisions to make about, ... how are we going to fund the campaign? How much time would we give Iowa? What would we do about South Carolina? But we had to win New Hampshire. We absolutely had to. ...

And what had to happen to everybody else in order for you to win New Hampshire?

We essentially shrank everything down to three states. We still had a campaign in Iowa, diminished, but still extremely able staff. We couldn't give them a lot of money, and we couldn't buy any TV. We still had our structure in South Carolina, and most of the more senior Republican leaders in the state were still with us, and a good naval staff down there. But we couldn't really give them a lot of TV. We had to focus on New Hampshire.

And who was left at the senior level? There was you and [senior media advisor] Mark [McKinnon]; there was this group called the Sedona Five.

Yes, [campaign manager] Rick Davis, [senior aide and spokesman] Charlie Black, [senior adviser] Steve Schmidt, who was sort of a new addition, along with Mark McKinnon, to the McCain world. Immediately liked Mark; developed a bond with John and was very influential. We sort of made decisions to showcase what he did best: work the state the way he knew it, town halls, all comers, rolling press conferences [that] just went on ad nauseam but which were kind of fascinating at times. It was more direct retail campaign than he'd been able to do when he was the perceived front-runner, and he was just extremely focused on it.

And he just kept telling me we'd have our disagreements from time to time. "I'm just going to work as hard as I can. That's all we've got to do, you know, win or lose. I'm going to work as hard as I can so I'm proud of the way it comes to an end, and you're proud of the way it comes to an end. Then we will have done it the way we both feel we should do it." He outworked everybody on this campaign.

Editor's Note: On May 20, 2008, McKinnon resigned from the McCain campaign because he did not want to campaign against Barack Obama.]

He's a warrior.

Yeah, he's a resilient guy. Very focused. Town halls got bigger. It was the weekend before Thanksgiving where you saw a turn, where all of a sudden the town halls were not just the number of people attending them, but a certain exuberance among the people who attended them. It got that kind of circus-like quality back.

New Hampshire is the last state left where you really can get a sense of reality via anecdotes. I mean, it's just small enough, and they all seem to have the same expectations of campaigners that you can feel it on the street. ... And it was that weekend when I turned to Mike Dennehy, who had run his campaign in 2000 in New Hampshire, ... and I said, "I think he's got it." We can feel it. And it became more fun. We're going to fool them again. ...

So you roll into South Carolina more as the establishment candidate.

The question was unsettled, but in South Carolina I think we kind of were. [Former Mass.] Gov. [Mitt] Romney, you'll remember, made a tactical decision at the time ... that it would be too hard for him to beat us in South Carolina, so he went and did Nevada. And so it came down to a contest between us and [former Tenn.] Sen. [Fred] Thompson and [former Ark.] Gov. [Mike] Huckabee in South Carolina. And it was a long night; I think it was a three- or four-point win. It was close, just close. ...

Here's South Carolina, this site of a really difficult time in 2000. Now he's back there, and he's the man. How is that for him?

Like I said, my general observation is that he doesn't really exalt in any moment of triumph or despair in any moment of defeat. He was probably 10 percent more joyful than he would have been otherwise. I believe that's where his mom, Roberta McCain, was with him. She was sort of at stage right, at some remove from the center mic where he was, and he turned and walked over to her and kissed her and came back.

As a longtime McCain watcher, I thought, that's a little bit more joyful than he normally is on these occasions. But he was immediately focused on Florida; I mean, the next day it was all about Florida. ...

He had made peace with [the late Rev. Jerry] Falwell and the Liberty University thing. What was that all about?

Rev. Falwell came to see him, said, put our past differences behind us, or acrimony behind us, or something; and then asked him on the spot if he would consider giving the commencement address at Liberty. And he responded on the spot, "Sure." It's not really too calculating. And it was fine. He usually does several commencements a year when he was in the Senate, anywhere from two to four, I guess. ...

And how about you guys on the staff, when he walks out and says, "I've just agreed to go do the commencement at Liberty University"?

Nobody litigated or anything. Obviously we recognized that people will take that in some symbolic way, but what if he weren't running for president? And that's the thing you've got to kind of remember about him or learn to live with if you work for him. ... He is not going to really do things that much differently as a candidate for president, even as the nominee, than he would otherwise.

Even if it looks like he's blessing Falwell and those guys, that it might have a meaning?

Sure. Look at both the Liberty speech and the [2000] Virginia Beach speech. We let Virginia Beach become about three people, and it wasn't. Remember, we were fighting about the role of soft money in campaigns at the time, and a lot of the opposition that John had gotten from social conservatives in South Carolina was over soft money. ... But because we put Rev. Falwell, Pat Robertson's name in it, it became about that. I think that was a mistake. ...

Of course it was about soft money, but Falwell and [others] were also sending a little message to McCain, right?

Sure, but he ran afoul of a lot of groups. The National Right to Life: Here he's got a solid pro-life voting record, but the National Right to Life at that time were quite a thorn in his side, and it was over [the] McCain-Feingold [Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002]. National Rifle Association: perfectly solid record on Second Amendment issues, basically over McCain-Feingold. That act of bipartisan problem-solving managed to upset quite a number of constituencies of the Republican Party.

He sticks with McCain-Feingold. He even comes to it in some ways growing out of his own experience in it with the Keating Five setup.

Some ways. I think even more impactful to him was ... the 1996 Telecommunications Act, where he sat on the Commerce Committee and they were really trying to deregulate and inject more competition, because obviously everybody's aware at that time that there's an information technology revolution under way, and it's going to be as important as the industrial revolution. ...

Instead, what he saw is everybody got a little piece of the pie, because everybody that came in there had represented a corporation or a union or a trade association that had written a seven-figure check to one, and quite often both, parties. That was as much an eye opener as I think the Keating experience was to him. The importance of appearance -- to make sure not only that you're on the level and ethical but that people saw that you were, that there could be no confusion about it -- that was the lesson, I think, of the Keating experience for him, because he really was kept in that thing because he was the lone Republican. ...

So as long as we're talking about conservatives in such a formidable and positive way, what about CPAC [the Conservative Political Action Conference, where McCain received some boos during his speech]? What happened with what people now describe as the difficulty the senator had going into that environment?

He was the nominee, or about to be the nominee. It seemed pretty clear. We had won most of Super Tuesday. He had a prohibitive delegate lead. Yeah, there were people at CPAC that had been vexed with him, disagreed on immigration, McCain-Feingold again, various other things. Yeah, we knew that. But I think they knew and we knew and he knew that he's the nominee. He has a responsibility to unite the party, and they have a responsibility to give him a fair hearing and let him do that. ...

When you are sitting there and you're planning for the general [election], do you say … what do we do about the fact that we didn't really win the conservative votes in New Hampshire, South Carolina or any other Super Tuesday states?

I think in many, if not most, of the states, we won the conservative votes. We did not win among self-identified very conservatives.

We knew we had a part-perception/part-real problem. He had to go out and show people: "Here's my full record; here's what I completely believe. We're not always going to agree, but 80 percent of the time we are," or 85 percent of the time.

And the press narrative at that time -- they were shifting, but they're almost always predictable; you can always see them coming. You knew well before Super Tuesday that if he won the majority of states on Super Tuesday and had a prohibitive lead among delegates, [if he] were the effective nominee, it would instantly turn to, "How will he ever unite this base?" ...

It's not a legitimate question?

No, it's legitimate, but within a couple of weeks, really, any public poll I looked at, his numbers were exactly where George Bush's were at the same time in 2000 with Republicans. They were basically extremely healthy. It's always a challenging narrative. ...

Talk to me just a minute about the New York Times story [in which the Times reported on McCain's ties to lobbyists and, in particular, to telecommunications lobbyist Vicki Iseman]. ... You guys come back hard. How come? And how does it come about?

We spent a great number of staff answering their questions fully and, I think, persuasively. I don't know how many tens of pages of written answers that never -- not one sentence appeared in the story. [There were] two anonymous sources suggesting there might have been something inappropriate, and no real solid case to make that there was, or that anything untoward had gone on in his responsibilities as a senator. Because I think we made a very persuasive case for his position on various issues, various pieces of legislation, I think the story discredited itself, frankly. I mean, their own ombudsman felt that. ...

And in the end, in a funny way, it resounds positively to him with some conservatives.

Yeah. I mean, he is the Republican nominee. There's going to be a very liberal Democrat running against him. There's a clear choice in this election. So I think things like that are sort of transitory. ...

Are you guys telling him to walk away from the president as much as possible? Can you?

No, you can't. It's not even possible. It's not a secret they're in the same party. But when Barack Obama or Howard Dean or anybody else tries to push this myth, it's incumbent on us to remind everybody: "Wait a minute, here are the many, many occasions where he went his own way on this. So don't listen. No matter how many times they tell you, don't listen to that." It's up to us to point out the fact that John McCain voted against the Bush-Cheney energy bill; Barack Obama voted for it. That we need to remind people. ...

posted october 14, 2008

FRONTLINE series home · privacy policy · journalistic guidelines

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
main photograph © corbis, all rights reserved
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation