The Primal Power of John McCain

There are only a couple of control freaks inside the McCain campaign, and alas, neither of them is in the cockpit of the plane. The McCain people had brashly signed up with some sort of acrobat who liked to push the envelope. He’d veered off a runway in Washington State the other night and parked the 727 in mud for a few hours, and between flights you saw reporters running up to the staff to beg, not for interviews with the candidate-the candidate could be found in a middle row with his right leg propped up on a seat that was turned around to face him-but for a change of pilot.

“We’re going down,” you’d hear reporters say, with brittle resignation, when we made abrupt changes in altitude. It threw Senator McCain’s wife, too. Cindy McCain, having just put on her makeup to arrive in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday, and wearing a neatly tailored suit of gray bouclé wool with three strands of cultured pearls, stiffened in the seat beside her husband as the pilot did something creative with the air pressure and seemed to bounce the craft down a giant staircase.

John McCain himself, one of the most insensitive men in American politics at least since his hero, Teddy Roosevelt, was unflustered. “I keep telling her I’m not going to die in an airplane,” he said, grinning to Bob Woodward, assisting managing editor at The Washington Post , across the aisle. (Senator McCain has crashed several planes himself.)

He was right, this time. We came to a halt, and Senator McCain got stiffly to his feet. I told him I’d registered as a Republican to vote for him and promised my sister that he was no threat to abortion rights. Senator McCain went into a boxer’s crouch. “I want to be a threat! I want to be a threat!” he cried out hoarsely. Then, straightening up, he said, “But the whole point is to have a dialogue. We can discuss it, hearts and minds, and I can try and convince you of the sanctity of human life. Roe versus Wade was a flawed decision, legally, biologically.” Like we haven’t been discussing it for 20 years.

Then I told him that I winced when he talked about arming rebels in “rogue nations.” “Well, what would you do with rogue nations?” he said.

“I’m not sure, but you sound militaristic. It scares me, I think of Nicaragua. And Vietnam. You’d have a hair trigger.”

“Oh, no,” he said, and shut his eyes and shook his head. “Not when I visit the wall and see those names. That is a very grave lesson.”

We both got a little misty. Then some other reporter asked, “Is this on?” Is it on? John McCain is always on. You want to be controlled, get on someone else’s plane.

The bus took us to a field house at Ohio State University. Prince was on the loudspeaker singing “1999,” and the stage was in the middle, like a boxing ring, and Senator McCain got a standing ovation when he said he was going to beat Al Gore like a drum. Some kids in the back row then stood with a bed sheet and heckled him about Navajo relocation in Arizona.

He silenced them with a curl of abuse. “You know something, guys? You’d be a lot more convincing if you brought a Native American with you.”

Three other hecklers in the back began a chant, “Give us a living wage,” a protest of Senator McCain’s votes against raising the minimum wage. “I’d be glad to,” he shouted. “Go to work.”

John McCain’s language is insensitive and laced with abuse. Senator Mike DeWine of Ohio, who endorsed Senator McCain last fall and accompanied him through the state, said that the qualities that “upset” Mr. McCain’s Senate colleagues are the same qualities people now respond to. “You couldn’t have a viable McCain campaign without seven years of Bill Clinton,” he said.

On the stage at Ohio State, Senator McCain thanked Senator DeWine for supporting him when few else would, and then put him down, smiling-and not realizing that he was putting him down-for being longwinded, which Senator DeWine, a sweet and good-natured man, is. After that, Senator McCain said that Senator DeWine has so much to fear from the Establishment, he’s had to hire someone to start his car for him.

It was a violent image, but it is what people respond to. When John McCain says that he’s going to beat Vice President Gore like a drum, this is a man who knows something about beatings. The image works at a lot of levels: It is about John McCain’s beatings in Hanoi, about Mr. Gore’s softness, about the softness of the desk-loving Establishment, about its absence of real experience, about its moral aimlessness. I thought of seeing Mr. Gore a few days before. Speaking on the Hudson, surrounded by Secret Service guys, he had a cosseted, billowy look, with his pleated pants and his sweater that could be charcoal heather or moss heather (but most certainly heather). John McCain’s features and figure are harsh. He has no goons at all around him and rushes into a crowd on knockabout walking shoes. You see his narrow lean butt, his trim hardened figure.

If you love a politician, you love his darkness, then the promoters deny it’s there. The defensive line with John McCain is, Of course he has a temper, so does anyone who gets things done. What they are trying to hide in Senator McCain is his rudeness, his violence, his insensitivity, his instinct. He does not have a courtly bone in his body, and he is not charming, he is thrilling. He has broken out of one club after another. Even veterans don’t completely embrace him. When people talk about eye contact with Senator McCain, it’s because they see the fierceness in his eyes.

I never showed anyone in the McCain campaign any credentials, never read anyone my Social Security number, and what a joy. That’s the McCain culture, instinctual, active. He has already destroyed one Rhodes Scholar in Bill Bradley, and among the paradigms he’d smash is the understanding of the new Establishment that the most important experience is the SAT, that you must seek approval, be chosen, be credentialed, rather than throw yourself at life and maybe injure yourself along the way. At 16, President Bill Clinton sucked up to President John Kennedy on the White House lawn, then he went to Georgetown and Yale Law School. When President Dwight Eisenhower addressed the U.S. Naval Academy at his Annapolis graduation, John McCain, fifth from the bottom of his class, found him boring and hoped he’d finish up so he could begin partying. Then he went to Hanoi.

WE GOT BACK ON THE STRAIGHT TALK Express buses and rode down through farmland to George W. Bush country, Cincinnati, for a McCain book signing. It was a fancy bookstore, called Joseph-Beth Booksellers after the owners’ names, and though notice of the event had only gone out a day before, the place was jammed and crazy. Senator McCain’s book was sold out, they were keeping people from getting in.

“The energy that went through the crowd when we saw him through the tinted glass of the bus as he was walking up the aisle-people were starting to shake,” said Peggy Murphy Barker, a lawyer and lifelong Democrat (who likes Hillary Clinton). Another lifelong Democrat and Clinton voter, Linda Cornell, walked out stunned and enchanted after meeting Senator McCain. “I have not supported a candidate since 1968. First Bobby Kennedy. Then he was shot. Then Eugene McCarthy. I was tremendously involved, and disillusioned. McCain fascinated me since last fall. I gave him money again last night.”

Ms. Cornell wants her youthful feeling back, wants to roll back the cynicism, and of course the McCain movement is nostalgic in many ways. Nostalgic for wartime. Even longhairs in Birkenstocks had bought his book so they might gaze in awe as Senator McCain took off his jacket, the arms stopping stiffly below the shoulders, bones knit shut by injury and beatings. And it’s also about testosterone. John McCain is an unreconstructed man whom men especially love, men who never went to war and maybe didn’t get to say goodbye to their grandfathers who did.

But it’s a deeper romance than that, a connection to a rude and instinctual Whitmanesque figure. The Democrats I met claimed to know his heart from his eyes. An older black woman in Cleveland told me that Senator McCain would be sensitive to minorities. “You can’t tell me he doesn’t know what hardship is. It’s a moral thing that you can tell your grandchildren: Suffering brings about good.” “He was mixed up with Charles Keating,” I reminded Ms. Cornell. “Yes, and I don’t hold it against him; I think it’s part of politics and he knows it, and I don’t think he’s happy about it.”

What’s stunning about Senator McCain’s appeal is that people trust him even when he’s dead against them. Timothy Smith, a lawyer and lifelong Democrat, a radical back in college, said he’d been outspoken on behalf of the hugely controversial Mapplethorpe exhibit in Cincinnati some years ago. Well, Senator McCain has called Mapplethorpe’s work “smut” and “filth,” I told him.

Mr. Smith merely shrugged. “There’s nobody who’s going to agree with me on everything,” he said. “But I know that he’s going to do what he thinks is right. And he’s the only politician I’ve ever had that feeling about.”

Pro-choice people tell you Senator McCain will never really hurt their cause. But his rhetoric is so anti-abortion. “Wait till it’s a situation that he has to deal with,” said Roxanne Russell, a lifelong Democrat. “He will look at both sides.” “I’m scared to death by the Christian right,” said Ms. Cornell. “But I heard him say that if it was his daughter, it would be her decision, and he’d have a family discussion. That’s just what I would do. I know he changed that later, but I heard it.”

This is the level at which John McCain is operating, almost purely emotional, and it’s what has nettled Ivy League reporters. He’s anti-intellectual, can’t even analyze his own success. On the plane I tried to engage him in a discussion of the twilight of the religious right and how that’s made his emergence possible. He didn’t engage. I asked him whether his marriage was modern or traditional. For a second he was stumped. “More traditional than modern,” he said, and let it go. This mind’s not built for nuance.

Senator McCain’s short answers are exciting. They’re part of the romance, pithy morality in an age of materialism and rationalization. The Republican Party may be fragmented, but the Democrats have spent their romance. All the rebellious paradigms of the Democratic left that energized Ms. Cornell and Mr. Smith and me in our youth are over. You may still want to be scared by the Christian right, but it’s powerless and marginalized, even in the Republican Party. We won. Our civil rights battles are mostly won, too-gays, Jews and blacks are in the Establishment. I had to walk out on the Democratic family after I watched Chuck Schumer, Harvard and Jewish like myself, eagerly acting as the point man to attack anyone who challenged the Clinton Administration’s actions in Waco. And after I watched the liberals of the Judiciary Committee shout down Republican Lindsey Graham when he tried to raise the issue of the Clinton machine smearing Clinton women. That was a year ago, and people said that the voters would demand scalps for an impeachment vote. But Senator McCain twice voted Yes to remove Clinton from office, and now no one holds that against him.

WE BUSSED TO LUNKEN AIRPORT, FOUR hours late at 10:30, but there were more than a thousand people pressed against the fences and no sign at all of organization. The McCain people were surprised by it, as they are surprised by everything. Supporters had circulated e-mails about an airport rally, and after that it was the movement itself juicing up out of the spongy spring mud and grass. These people were angrier than the bookstore crowd. They shouted “John McCain!” in a violent rhythm, someone held up a picture of a drum, Senator McCain rushed to the fence to shake hands, hungrily, like a rock star needing blood, pulling his wife along through the spring mud. Mrs. McCain, cool and silver-blue-eyed, dutifully followed, tripping along with a tight smile, in black patent-leather-toed pumps, tripping over twigs. Cindy on the verge, in what looks to be a perfect size four.

A TV reporter asked Senator McCain a question about numbers, and he grinned wildly. “I’m always at a near-death experience in this campaign.”

We got on the plane, and I helped Bob Woodward squeeze his briefcase into the overhead. I reminded him of Senator McCain’s introduction of him at a press conference in Cleveland. “He called you a great American,” I said. “Yeah,” Mr. Woodward said. “Right after he called me a Trotskyite and a Communist.”

The plane took off, and Senator McCain ate ribs and nursed his overly handshaken hand with a hot water bottle his wife had given him. He talked about his marriage a little bit, how poised Cindy is. “But does she know astrology?” I said-a Nancy Reagan reference-and she said, “Somebody asked me what his sign was last night and I didn’t know.”

Then Senator McCain slept for a bit, and I waited for my chance to interview him. He stirred and opened a bottle of water. I sat down across from him, saying I wanted to ask some questions. “Anything,” he said.

I wanted to talk about his father. The media write about George W. Bush’s father issues, and Vice President Gore’s too, as if they are still struggling with them, but those Ivy boys were favored in a way that John McCain was not. His daddy issues are subterranean, and darker. The picture of his father that emerges from Faith of Our Fathers is a little scary-undersized, awkward, distant, stern, ferociously brave, and a drinker to boot. He appears suddenly at Midshipman McCain’s door at the Naval Academy, with a disapproving expression. “This room is in gross disorder. John, meet me downstairs in five minutes.”

I asked him about his father’s distance. Senator McCain said, “I came to terms with that in prison. I gained a lot of maturity there. I understood him more. I understood his devotion to the Navy, and his deep and abiding ambition for me. But his personality didn’t make it easy for him to express it. It was generational. Fathers didn’t go camping with their kids back then.”

“I heard that you say ‘I love you’ to your sons. Did your father say ‘I love you’ to you?”

“Late in life he did,” Senator McCain said. “Late in life.”

The word that occurs over and over again in the rambunctious first half of John McCain’s book is resentment. Resenting authority. And some of that unfocused father anger still lingers. What does it mean when he says he came to terms with it? How did he deal with his father’s aloofness when he was in prison and his father was the Pacific commander for the Navy? When John McCain was burned and punctured by shrapnel in the terrible Forrestal fire of 1967, his father reported to friends that he came through “without a scratch.” Senator McCain is too pre-Freudian a personality ever to embark on an analysis of these matters. There is nothing touchy-feely about him. He doesn’t want to feel his own pain; in the meantime he brings a stand-up comic’s savagery to his performance, joking that he wins “Miss Congeniality” every year in the Senate.

John McCain’s mother was a sophisticated, cultured woman who now keeps distance from his campaign, and Cindy McCain is something like her, sophisticated, cool and ready to play Nancy. Her suits look like styles by Adolfo or St. John, conservative and corporate. “Expensive and good,” said Ms. Cornell. “I see class, sophistication. I see a little bit of something that I would strive to be,” said Ms. Barker. “Old lady suits,” my wife said. Mrs. McCain plays old. She’s let her hair go gray to look 45 going on 55 to her husband’s 63 going on 70.

She’s cool to his hot. I told Senator McCain I related to him because I was an angry young man myself, and he chucked me on the leg with affection. Then he said, “I wasn’t angry but rebellious. I enjoyed life.”

I reminded Senator McCain that voters like me are angry and are responding to a man of passion. “I know. I know. But every time I do something because I get angry, I regret it. I’m trying to run an honorable campaign. And it’s frustrating. But I say, Look, John, it ain’t going to do you any good. If I let him”-it was a reference to Bush or Clinton, I wasn’t sure-“make me angry then the next you do is pull an Ed Muskie.”

On the podium at the airport, Senator McCain said that win or lose, he’s had a great time. That’s the geezer in him, a man being ravished by wonder in the fourth act of his life. Because this has taken him by surprise, this instinctual American fierceness that has risen to meet his own. Conditioned by his first three acts-by life as a rebel and pleasure-seeker, at once brutalized and indulged, a thoroughly punished outsider who doesn’t care about the dark cloud he has for leaving his wife and marrying a rich guy’s daughter-Senator McCain can’t believe that he’d ever really get to go inside. Last fall when he announced, he says, he had three points of support.

But it irritates us when John McCain tries to step away a little from the movement. He’s unleashed something that’s bigger than he is, and now he has the responsibility.

I asked John McCain whether if he loses he would run on a third party, like Teddy Roosevelt walking out of the Republican convention in 1912.

“The Bull Moose,” he said. “I don’t think so. One reason, I don’t see the viability. You have to have money and organization.”

“Nothing you’ve done has involved big organization. People respond to the candidate quot;

“I see the logic of your point, but it’s not something that I think I could consider,” he said simply.

What does a movement demand for being born? John McCain’s coalition has imagination, more than he does. What will it demand of him if, as seems inevitable, he loses? “I left my family religion to vote for you,” I told him when I introduced myself. Doesn’t he owe as much to me?

THE PLANE WAS LOSING ALTITUDE AND I SAT back down, and the campaign control freak, Todd Harris, came over.

“You will never do that again-ambush the candidate,” he said.

“I asked him if I could interview him.”

“You know that he can’t say No,” Mr. Harris said.

“I don’t know that, this is the most fluid situation I’ve ever been in in my life.”

Mr. Harris frowned. “He didn’t sleep last night, we’re trying to give him a modicum of rest!”

The next morning I understood what he was concerned about. Senator McCain looked groggy and tired on This Week With Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts . And he’d been caught in a lie, his public claim that the campaign had nothing to do with calls to Michigan voters about Bush’s anti-Catholic connections. “But Senator, you did approve those calls,” Cokie Roberts said, insistently, picking up on a scoop by The New York Times .

“The calls I approved of are the calls that were made,” Senator McCain weaseled nonsensically. The armor had slipped, the claim that he’d never lie to us was broken; Senator McCain looked like another politician. Yet once again, Governor Bush managed to turn things to John McCain’s advantage. Instead of letting Senator McCain stew, he got the headline the next day by releasing his letter to John Cardinal O’Connor, apologizing.

Meantime, the plane bumped down through fog, my right eardrum imploded, and the pilot got the wild notion that he was going to land. He seemed to do a barrel roll and change his mind halfway. Or maybe he was trying to find the horizon. He stood on the left wing to right the plane, and as the fog wiped I saw the runway’s blue lights tilted scarily, a hundred or so feet below, and the fat Associated Press photographer who is the campaign’s Falstaff looked out his window, as he bellowed later, to see someone on a porch, sitting sideways.

The plane skittered diagonally along the runway and came to a stop. John McCain sat calmly with his hands folded on his stomach, still alive for a few more days.