A close adviser to Republican Senator John McCain is informally advising Senator John Kerry on his Presidential bid and may go to work for the Democrat’s campaign.
The aide is John Weaver, a rangy Texan who served as political director to Mr. McCain’s failed campaign against George W. Bush for the G.O.P. Presidential nomination in 2000. Since Mr. McCain’s defeat, Mr. Weaver’s life has turned upside-down: He has left the Republican Party, given up San Antonio for Greenwich Village and narrowly survived a grueling bout with leukemia. Now he’s back on his feet, and hoping to apply the lessons of Texas politics to Mr. Kerry’s effort this year.
Referring to the Bush campaign, Mr. Weaver told The Observer : “They’re going to drop pianos on Kerry’s head. It’s going to be very distasteful, and you’re going to see as negative a campaign as you’ve ever seen on the Bush side.”
Mr. Weaver, who Mr. McCain calls his “most trusted adviser and strategist,” said Mr. Kerry has called him about once a week since the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 3, and that he’s in talks with the campaign about a paid consulting role. It’s tempting to see the fledgling relationship as evidence that Mr. Kerry is considering Mr. McCain as his Vice Presidential candidate. It’s a prospect that Mr. McCain flatly dismissed in an interview with The Observer , and that Mr. Weaver said he hasn’t discussed with either Mr. Kerry or Mr. McCain.
“I think it could be a strong ticket, but I think it’s so farfetched,” Mr. Weaver said.
What would he tell Mr. Kerry if the Democrat asked his advice about Mr. McCain?
“I’d tell him, ‘Be careful what you wish for,'” he said with a laugh.
Regardless of who becomes Mr. Kerry’s running mate, the 43-year-old Mr. Weaver is unusually qualified to understand, and anticipate, Mr. Bush’s re-election campaign. Before he signed on to Mr. McCain’s underfunded, maverick bid four years ago, he worked for two decades in the trenches of Texas Republican politics. He served as executive director of the Texas Republican Party and ran the Texas arm of George H.W. Bush’s 1988 Presidential campaign. He grew so close to Karl Rove-now the President’s senior adviser-that the two thought of going into business together in the 1980’s before they had a bitter falling-out.
“[Mr. Weaver] knows how the Republican game plan works. He has a sense of how the strategists at Bush Inc. think, and that’s a tremendous asset,” said Rick Davis, who was Mr. McCain’s campaign manager.
Mr. Weaver spoke to The Observer on a recent Sunday morning as he waited for Mr. McCain to appear on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos . The 6-foot-3 consultant occupies a sunny apartment in a converted factory on Horatio Street. He still looks a little wan from the nine rounds of chemotherapy over 16 months. His dark hair, which has grown back, is flecked with gray, and his face has some new lines. But he hasn’t lost his brooding, nervous energy, or the gallows humor that won him the nickname “Sunny” from Senator McCain.
“Get divorced, quit your job, switch parties and get leukemia in one year-this is not a recipe for success,” he said.
Mr. Weaver eyed Mr. McCain’s image on his 27-inch television like a proud and slightly nervous parent as the Senator serenely fended off questions on gay marriage and the possible nomination for the Vice Presidency, then meted out faint praise for Mr. Bush that felt-though you couldn’t quite put your finger on it-a little damning.
Was that a carefully disguised shot at the President from a former rival?
“You couldn’t take the transcript and pick it apart, could you?” Mr. Weaver asked. “Yeah, that’s the whole point.”
A few minutes later, his cell phone rang: It was the Senator, calling to discuss his appearance. Mr. Weaver was more than just Mr. McCain’s political director in 2000-he also was the Senator’s traveling aide, the first staffer he saw in the morning and the last one he spoke to at night. Now the two men speak every day, more or less, and they grew closer during Mr. Weaver’s bout with cancer.
“There was a point when I didn’t think I was going to make it,” Mr. Weaver said. Mr. McCain’s wife, Cindy, “sent her plane here to pick me up, flew to Mississippi to pick up my daughter, who lives with her mother, and flew me and my daughter to Arizona. We spent Thanksgiving weekend with them at their cabin.”
Mr. Weaver first grew close to Mr. McCain in 1996, when Mr. Weaver was field director for the ill-fated Presidential campaign of his political mentor, Texas Republican Senator Phil Gramm. (“One of the ones that I’m doing penance for,” Mr. Weaver said.) A year after Mr. Gramm’s defeat, Mr. Weaver and another consultant met in a bar in Birmingham, Ala., and sketched out Mr. McCain’s run on a cocktail napkin. After they convinced the Arizona Senator, Mr. Weaver officially became the campaign’s political director, but he did a little of everything. He christened the Senator’s famous bus the “Straight Talk Express” and enforced a kind of frontier discipline.
“One of the hardest parts of any campaign like that-as Howard Dean learned-was to keep everybody working together, and John was a very key player there,” Mr. McCain said.
But the campaign also reopened an old rivalry for the consultant.
Friends No More
Once the lean, dark Mr. Weaver and the fair, pudgy Mr. Rove had been the Texas Republican Party’s two young stars. The two men worked together in Texas races in the 1980’s, and also on the first President Bush’s Texas campaign, for which Mr. Rove produced direct-mail fund-raising appeals. But that campaign ended with a dispute between Mr. Rove and Mr. Weaver that neither has discussed publicly. It is said to have centered on Mr. Weaver’s refusal to pay Mr. Rove for work that, Mr. Weaver reportedly said, the campaign had not asked for. After that, the two men became passionate rivals. And after Mr. McCain’s 2000 campaign, Mr. Weaver’s allies say, Mr. Rove ran him out of the party.
Mr. McCain said Mr. Weaver was “blackballed by the White House and the Republican establishment,” and McCain aides told The Observer that after Mr. Bush took the White House, his staff told members of Congress not to hire Mr. Weaver.
“Rove made it clear that if you want help from this President in your campaign, you’ll be careful about what consultant you hire-meaning not John Weaver,” said Mr. McCain’s chief of staff, Mark Salter.
Mr. Rove didn’t return a call to the White House press office seeking comment on his relationship with Mr. Weaver.
Mr. Weaver said the feud between him and Mr. Rove is one-sided. “Karl never lets go of anything. I think there’s a one-sided feud, but Karl has a one-sided feud with about 3,000 people,” he said.
Mr. Weaver said that despite the White House’s enmity, he could have kept working as a Republican, but that his “disgust with the Republican hierarchy” swelled on the campaign trail with Mr. McCain. In Texas in 1988, Mr. Weaver had worked amid a flood of soft money and had become a personal target of campaign-finance reformers. Later, he said, he began to question the role of money in politics. “There are clients of mine who are in Congress today who wouldn’t take a position unless they knew how a specific donor or industry felt first-and that’s sickening,” he said.
That reaction matched Mr. McCain’s reformist message, and the ferocity of the Bush campaign’s attacks on Mr. McCain may have been the final straw to push Mr. Weaver out of the party. There were rumors that Mr. McCain was insane, rumors that he’d fathered a child with a prostitute.
“They had a campaign without a moral compass,” Mr. Weaver said. “Campaigns set tones, and they could have stopped all that if they wanted to, at the very least.”
Now Mr. Weaver is giving Mr. Kerry advice that departs from the current conventional wisdom-apparently embraced by Mr. Rove-which holds that parties should focus on motivating their “bases” to turn out in huge numbers, rather than waste time on the dwindling numbers of swing voters and independents.
“I don’t understand this. It’s like a football game,” Mr. Weaver said. “Maybe you have a good defense and you have good special teams and you’re suspect of your offense. But who goes out there and says, ‘Let’s go out there and let’s win it 10 to 7, boys!'”
But he’s also telling Mr. Kerry to stay on offense, because Mr. Rove will play for keeps.
“That would be my warning to the Kerry folks: If they did that on the road to the kingdom, what do you think they’re going to do to keep it?”