THERE’S NOTHING MORE fun in politics than good, old-fashioned hate. How would LBJ screw Bobby next? To what depths would Ken Starr sink in his crazed pursuit of Bill Clinton? Sadly, however, the days of pure, unabashed malice have faded. Hillary Clinton now clamors to sponsor legislation with the people who voted to impeach her husband. Dishonest civility has replaced honest hatred as the ruling ethos in the capital. People who despise each other pretend to get along just fine. Maybe it’s a side-effect of one-party rule or the antiseptic, non-partisan nature of recent political investigations. Whatever the reason, there is a disturbingly large enemy gap in Washington.
Perhaps that’s why connoisseurs of political enmity have savored the relationship between John McCain and his nemesis, the lobbyist Grover Norquist. A Hollywood-perfect hero/villain pairing, the two men have spewed bile at each other for almost a decade, ever since McCain began touting campaign finance reform, a crusade Norquist abhors. But what began as a policy spat has grown intensely personal. Norquist has regularly denounced McCain as a fraud, a flip-flopper, and, on one occasion, a nut job. The McCain camp, in turn, has condemned Norquist as corrupt, a shill for dictators, and (with just a dose of sarcasm) Jack Abramoff’s gay lover. In a Washington devoid of grand political duels, the mutual hatred of McCain and Norquist has always been refreshing.
And now it’s in danger of being snuffed out. McCain is as famous for forgiving his enemies—the North Vietnamese, George W. Bush—as he is for collecting them. And, lately, as he prepares to run for president, he’s been on a tear, reconciling with many of the same characters who derailed his last run for the White House. Indeed, he’s in such a forgiving mood that his surrogates are said to have approached Norquist to broker a truce. To be sure, some in the McCain camp deny it—“not true,“ insists his top operative, John Weaver. But, these days, you can’t even get a McCainiac to bash Norquist. The official position on their feud is, What feud? “I don’t know that the senator could pick him out of a lineup,” Weaver says of Norquist.
BUT IT WASN’T long ago that the fight against Norquist defined McCain. More than any other activist, it was Norquist who shattered McCain’s presidential ambitions. It all started in the fall of 1999, when McCain’s insurgency against Bush took flight and Norquist personally organized the conservative counterattack. Decamping to New Hampshire and dragging along the leaders of the National Rifle Association, the Christian Coalition, and other right-wing luminaries, he assailed McCain’s campaign finance proposal as “a trick and a trap” and an affront to the First Amendment. He hammered the point home with TV spots that memorably morphed McCain’s face into Clinton’s, the ultimate insult in a Republican primary.
The McCain campaign greeted Norquist as a threat to its success but also as an opportunity. McCain decided to embrace Norquist as his enemy and treat him as a symbol of everything he was fighting against. Aides told reporters that the true reason Norquist opposed a soft money ban was that it threatened his profits, not his principles. (The RNC once paid his organization, Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), $4.6 million to conduct a direct-mail and phone campaign.) They claimed that a recent Senate investigation had found evidence that Norquist skirted campaign finance rules, and Warren Rudman, McCain’s chief New Hampshire surrogate, fumed that Norquist was “the root of what’s wrong in American politics today.” McCain even complained about Norquist in an exchange with Bush during a South Carolina presidential debate.
This death match carried over into the Bush years. As McCain pressed forward on campaign finance reform, Norquist led the opposition, popping up on television to bash the senator. “He got his hand caught in the cookie jar taking money from that crook, Mr. Keating,” Norquist spat in one appearance, referring to the S&L scandal that once ensnared McCain. But, in the end, McCain won the round, passing the bill and forcing Bush to sign it.
Even after that victory, McCain could hardly have anticipated the cosmic convergence of events that would lead to Norquist’s head being delivered to him on a platter. Jack Abramoff, Norquist’s longtime friend, had been directing his gambling clients to write checks to ATR. Norquist in turn set up White House meetings for tribal leaders, or, after taking a cut, passed the money on to other conservative organizations, which were queasy about pocketing cash directly from gambling interests. Reading the first details of the Abramoff scandal in the papers, McCain decided to investigate. As it turned out, he just happened to head the committee, Indian Affairs, with jurisdiction over the juiciest political finance scandal since Watergate. And at the center of it all just happened to be Norquist.
McCain aides salivated. They whispered that the investigation would destroy Norquist. McCain subpoenaed volumes of e-mails and donor records from ATR. In the midst of the fight, the two sides elevated the hostility to new heights. Norquist referred to McCain as “the nut-job from Arizona.” Asked about the comment, he told a reporter he actually meant to say the more subtle “gun-grabbing, tax-increasing Bolshevik.” McCain’s chief of staff, Mark Salter, returned fire, calling Norquist a bore and a blowhard and noting that “most Reagan revolutionaries came to Washington to do something more patriotic than rip off Indian tribes.“ In a 2005 New Yorker article, the two sides traded their most personal barbs yet, with Norquist hinting that McCain is crazy (“completely unstable,” he charged) and with the McCainiacs hinting back that Norquist is gay (“Grover couldn’t be any closer to Abramoff if they moved to Massachusetts and got married,” said Salter).
The fight even spilled into the streets. In a radio interview, Norquist sputtered that McCain’s entire investigation was actually an elaborate plot to help McCain’s favored influence-peddlers score Abramoff’s ex-clients. Scott Reed, a die-hard McCainiac lobbyist who had indeed picked up some of Abramoff’s Indian business, went ballistic. Spying Norquist in front of his building, he told him to go fuck himself.
As McCain’s investigation reached its denouement, rumors flew through Washington that his committee was sitting on a trove of damning evidence. He seemed to have a gun to Norquist’s head. And then ... nothing. At the very moment when McCain could have pulled the trigger, he let Norquist walk away. Some mildly damaging e-mails were released by McCain’s committee, but the most tantalizing leads were never pursued. McCain gave up his fight for information about Norquist’s donors, and Norquist himself was never called to testify.
MCCAIN’S BALK FITS into a broader pattern of forgiveness. Most of the grudges left over from the Bush-McCain wars have thawed, the mutual contempt gradually giving way to mutual self-interest. In early 2004, their respective political advisers, Karl Rove and John Weaver—bitter rivals—made a bargain to move beyond their ugly history. Soon after, McCain made his peace with Bush and vigorously campaigned for his reelection. Other enemies have been scratched off McCain’s list. Late last year, he hosted a meeting in his Senate office with Jerry Falwell, a man he once condemned as a “force of evil.” This rapprochement has paid huge dividends for McCain’s budding 2008 presidential run. Bush donors are sending the senator money. Former Bush officials like Dan Coats and Mark McKinnon have signed on as advisers. Local conservative pooh-bahs who backed Bush in early primary states, such as Chuck Yob in Michigan, are now saying sweet things about McCain.
Is Norquist next? It depends on whether McCain needs Norquist and the conservatives with whom he holds sway to win the Republican nomination or whether Norquist and his anti-McCain holdouts need McCain, a perhaps unbeatable candidate. When I ask Weaver the answer, he’s coy: “Well, there’s not a campaign now, so we’re not at that stage of political chicken.” One of McCain’s senior Senate aides is similarly blasé. “Grover?” he snarks. “I don’t know if Grover is important or not. I doubt they’ve met each other more than twice. ... He’s just not an audience that anybody around here worries about.” When I ask Norquist whether he might reconsider his opinion of the senator’s conservative credentials, he claims he’s open to the possibility. “If it’s credible,” he says. “But credible means doing something, not talking about it.”
McCain seems to get the message. He voted last month to extend tax cuts he voted against in 2003. He’s wooing Norquist’s key allies, such as Mallory Factor, an influential New York conservative with whom McCain has met several times. McCain has even agreed to attend Factor’s monthly Monday Meeting, a forum Norquist helped create. Factor is clear-eyed about how the political dynamics have changed since 2000, when conservatives like Norquist could afford to kneecap McCain. “McCain is probably the front-runner,” he says. “As much as we think he needs us, given his strengths, we may need him even more.”
This article appeared in the March 20 & 27, 2006 issue of the magazine.