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Salter Ego

On September 27, 1999, as John McCain traveled to Nashua, New Hampshire, to announce his first campaign for the presidency, one of his top aides was nervous. The speech McCain was set to deliver was mostly standard fare, filled with promises of reform and assertions of America's greatness, but its closing passages struck a more somber note. "I have passed from a young man to an old one in the service of my country," the text read. "When my time is over, I want only the satisfaction of knowing I was true to the faith of our fathers." Another line referred to McCain's determination to protect the United States "until my life's end." "If you read those words on paper they sound eloquent but really gloomy," recalls Dan Schnur, who was the campaign's communications director. Schnur sought out Mark Salter, the author of the speech, to discuss his reservations.

Salter, who has worked for McCain for nearly 20 years, is the senator's chief speechwriter. He is also the co-author, with McCain, of five best-selling books detailing McCain's life story and worldview. Burly and goateed, Salter is a rare combination of strategist, buddy, therapist, and favorite-son figure to the candidate. A heavy smoker with a sharp tongue, he can also be a brooding presence. Some McCain aides joke that they are relieved when he leaves campaign headquarters because they find his grim moods contagious.

Salter is the main architect, via the many books and speeches, of what you might call the McCain code. McCain, says Salter, "is not an introspective or contemplative guy. But he has instincts, or a code of behavior, that I guess is a kind of philosophy." It's been Salter's job to articulate and package this code. The 53-year-old Salter is, as Schnur puts it, "the custodian of John McCain's identity."

With the dark passages in the New Hampshire kickoff speech, however, Schnur wondered whether Salter had made a misstep in his marketing of the code--and the candidate. "I remember really arguing with Mark," Schnur says. "I said, 'You're going to make him sound like Edgar Allen Poe!'" But Salter held firm and McCain delivered the speech as written. Schnur says he realized, while listening, that Salter was right after all. "Mark understood McCain well enough to know that, when those lines were delivered, they lent a sense of sobriety and seriousness that was very appropriate."

Almost nine years later, Salter is still McCain's chief wordsmith as well as a top campaign operative and, for all practical purposes, McCain's brain. Indeed, he is the one senior aide to have survived McCain's multiple campaign staff shakeups. "Salter's just spent so much time with McCain that I don't know if McCain's figured out Salter or Salter's figured out McCain," says former McCain media adviser Mark McKinnon. Another person friendly with both men calls it a "mind meld." But Salter not only channels McCain better than anyone. He has also demonstrated a one-of-a-kind instinct for how to craft McCain's public image. Over the years, he has taken the raw material of McCain's biography and temperament and turned it into a compelling narrative that supersedes politics--one about an independent-minded war hero who celebrates courage and humility, demands individual sacrifice, and excoriates vanity.

The belief that McCain represents ideals above and beyond politics made him into a household hero across the United States. But now McCain and the code that Salter has crafted for him are facing a mighty challenge in the form of Barack Obama, who offends their core principles. It is particularly vexing for Salter that Obama the orator so outshines McCain, who, though now ridiculed as an inept speaker, has in past years delivered several powerful addresses.

Desperate to reverse this perception, Salter is working hard on McCain's crucial address for September's Republican convention. To beat Obama, he'll have to update the McCain brand for a changed political environment. That won't be easy. Salter's vision of McCain wasn't just tailored for public consumption. It was also fashioned for himself.

A few months after he returned home from Vietnam in 1973, John McCain wrote a 12,000-word account of his five-and-a-half years captivity in a Vietnamese prison for U.S. News & World Report. The detailed narrative is crude, offering precious little insight or writerly grace: "The Oriental, as you may know, likes to beat around the bush quite a bit"; "A lot of [the guards] were homosexual, although never toward us"; "you never can fathom the 'gooks.'" McCain's conclusions tend to be banal. "Now I see more of an appreciation of our way of life. There is more patriotism. The flag is all over the place."

Twenty-six years later, in 1999, McCain published the autobiographical book Faith of My Fathers. Once again, McCain sought to articulate the lessons of his Vietnam experience. But, this time, the results were radically different. Captivity, he wrote,

helped me achieve a balance in my life, a balance between my own individualism and more important    things. ... I discovered I was dependent on others to a greater extent than I had ever realized, but    that neither they nor the cause we served made any claims on my identity. On the contrary, they gave me a larger sense of myself than I had had before.

McCain's newfound eloquence was less the result of intellectual maturation than of a chance meeting with a young political operative, Mark Salter. During the 1988 Republican convention, Salter, then a press aide for former U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, got lost in the massive New Orleans Superdome and was spotted by McCain aide Torie Clarke, who mistook the stocky Iowan for a bodyguard. The two hit it off, and Salter shared some writing with Clarke, who encouraged McCain to hire him. "McCain had a speech coming up on bilingual education. It was very controversial," remembers Clarke. Salter penned the remarks for McCain, "and it was a big success." Salter was hired as a mid-level aide, and, within four years, he'd ascended to McCain's chief of staff.

McCain hadn't previously relied on a true speechwriter. But, with Salter's help, McCain began to focus on the theme that redefined his career and helped transform him from a little-known senator to a national celebrity: an intense, moralistic patriotism and fetishization of character. He memorably articulated this theme in a speech celebrating the 1996 Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole at the GOP convention. "In America," McCain said, "we celebrate the virtues of the quiet hero; the modest man who does his duty without complaint or expectation of praise; the man who listens closely for the call of his country, and, when she calls, he answers without reservation, not for fame or reward, but for love. He loves his country."

The speech was a departure from McCain's usual inelegant, choppy banter; but it was a hit. (William Safire pronounced it a "gem ... constructed well and delivered with extraordinary authority.") "Mark is about commas and semicolons, " says Schnur. "John McCain speaks in periods and exclamation points. Mark's eloquence can lift him."

The following year, a New York literary agent approached McCain about writing a book on his family's storied military history (McCain's father and grandfather were also decorated Navy men). McCain and Salter collaborated on the project, with McCain dictating memories to his partner at night in his Senate office. Salter would limn those memories with his solemn, dramatic prose and give drafts to McCain to edit on flights back to Arizona.

Salter's role during this time was as much therapist as editor. McCain was initially reluctant to discuss his Vietnam experience, Salter has explained, preferring to write about his father and grandfather. But Salter convinced McCain to chronicle his own trials as well--a critical choice along McCain's path to national fame. The result was Faith of My Fathers, whose 1999 publication--and long stay on the best-seller list--was timed perfectly for McCain's first presidential bid, amplifying as it did the McCain code of patriotism and courage as the building blocks of character.

Faith of My Fathers was also the first installment of a literary franchise for McCain and Salter. The two men have since pumped out, at the rate of about one every other year, four more best-sellers, all promoting the same essential code. In each case, the books identify McCain as the author, "with Mark Salter"; Salter's name is always featured prominently, in contrast to the collaborators and ghostwriters so often given little or no credit by their politician-employers. Each of them uses short portraits of (mostly) famous people to illustrate McCain's core values (which is also a neat way of dodging the appearance of narcissism, even if the books are of course really meant to be about McCain himself). Thus, 2002's Worth the Fighting For recounts McCain's post-Vietnam years via sketches of heroes from Theodore Roosevelt to Ted Williams to Henry "Scoop" Jackson. In 2004, Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life celebrated such figures as civil rights hero John Lewis and Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. The next year brought Character Is Destiny: Inspiring Stories Every Young Person Should Know and Every Adult Should Remember, hailing everyone from Gandhi to Mandela. And last year's Hard Call recaps high-stakes decisions by the likes of Winston Churchill and Mikhail Gorbachev. It is possible that some great man or woman has not yet been lionized in a McCain book, but not terribly likely.

Salter's writing is consistently elegant, if occasionally grandiloquent. He unfurls a story as adroitly as he articulates McCain's broader worldview--that what matters in a leader is not ideology, or even a set of defined policy-based principles, but character. "It is your character, and your character alone, that will make your life happy or unhappy," McCain declares in Character Is Destiny.

Preachy? Sure. But the McCain-Salter books have served their purpose. As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne noted in an admiring review of Character Is Destiny: "[Y]ou can make the case that the greatest success of the Republican senator from Arizona has not been as a politician but as a creator of his own public personality--as an existential hero and the author of inspirational books."

The McCain reinvention project engineered by Salter was, at first, perfectly calibrated for its time. When Faith was published in 1999, the Monica Lewinsky scandal had left America fretting over its leaders' morality. Politics in the '90s also seemed exceedingly plastic and phony. People yearned for men of "character." The McCain code would never have a more propitious moment.

But times have changed, and McCain has come to represent something different: a wistful philosophy that hearkens back to dying, traditional American values and the crucibles of long-ago wars. What voters now seem to want more than anything is change, a new direction, a break from the past--all the things so perfectly embodied by Barack Obama.

When McCain is on the road, Mark Salter is a fixture at his side--"like a shadow," says one scribe who has logged many miles on the Straight Talk Express. Reporters who have covered McCain typically recall Salter clad in mud clogs and jeans, perhaps a shabby sweater, nervously pacing in the shadows of a McCain event. When outdoors, he can usually be found in aviator sunglasses and, whenever possible, sucking on a cigarette. But, while McCain likes to ham it up on his bus, Salter is a worrier. Former McCain adviser John Weaver recalls getting a call from a fretful Salter at 3 a.m. on the morning after a major McCain speech asking, like a child in a horror movie, "Are they coming?" ("They, " in this case, being the unforgiving press.)

Salter has reason to worry--he is a central player in the campaign, particularly when it comes to communications tactics and strategy. After McCain finishes an important speech or debate, Salter is often the first aide he consults for feedback. And, beyond managing McCain's psyche--Salter can speak more candidly to his boss than virtually anyone on staff--Salter also has real operational clout over McCainland. After The New York Times reported in February that suspicious McCain aides had blocked a comely Washington lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, from the senator's orbit, Salter denied the claim to on the grounds that the only person with "the authority to ban a person from the office or instruct staff to keep their distance from someone" was himself, and he had not done so. (While Salter's clout waned after McCain's summer 2007 staff purge, this month's latest shakeup, sidelining campaign manager Rick Davis, may reverse that, a person close to the campaign says.)

But Salter's anxiety has roots far deeper than the immediate concerns of the campaign. Friends say he has a fascination with the darker side of the human condition. It is revealing that his literary hero is William Trevor, the Irish writer famed for the tragic cast of his novels and voluminous short stories. (A Washington Post review of Trevor's most recent story collection described it as "built around dark incidents" and chronicling "how people's lives are shaped and bound together by calamity.") McCain, too, is a Trevor devotee. And, while this may be just one enthusiasm, it hints at a common worldview: Beneath their fixation on character and moral rectitude, Salter and McCain also have "a shared literary sensibility"--in the words of Jake Tapper, an ABC News correspondent who has covered McCain extensively and knows Salter well--that is heavy on themes of loss and fatalism. "Salter is very much like McCain," adds one friend. "They both have a worldview that is tragic."

This is most notable, perhaps, in McCain's oft-stated reverence for Robert Jordan, the protagonist of Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. An entire chapter of Worth the Fighting For is dedicated to Jordan, an American who fights and dies on a futile mission in the Spanish Civil War. "For a long time," McCain and Salter write, "Robert Jordan was the man I admired above almost all others in life and fiction." For McCain, Jordan seems to resonate with his experience as a defiant Vietnam POW: "In the war that Hemingway remembered," he explains in the book, anti-fascist fighters like Jordan "were dedicated to the cause, willing to sacrifice their lives for it, but vulnerable to disappointment at the hands of cynical politicians who controlled their fate and the weary realism of the people they had come to save. Their heroism was a beautiful fatalism."

More than anything, however, McCain seems to admire Jordan's sheer hopelessness. This worldview makes sense in McCain's case--he endured years of torture and solitary confinement, after all. Less clear is why it became Salter's. Some friends attribute Salter's darkness to his rough-and-tumble youth. "Mark is a complicated person," says someone who knows him. "He grew up in a really tough way."

Salter was born into a Catholic household in Davenport, Iowa, in 1955. His mother was a schoolteacher, and his father, Pete, was a traveling salesman and an Army veteran awarded a Silver Star in Korea. Pete Salter never talked much about his military experience, however, and it was only later that Mark would learn the full story of his service.

As a boy, Salter delighted in toy soldiers and Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos comic books, he recently told The Boston Globe's Sasha Issenberg. His life initially followed the civilian trajectory of a working-class baby-boomer. A feckless high school student, Salter sang in a rock band and wound up swinging heavy tools on the Iowa railroads for a few years to the tune of $4.25 an hour. The work was known as section gang labor. "It was one at a time," he explained to me, somewhat reluctantly, over a dark Irish ale at a Washington restaurant. "You pulled the spikes from the tie with a giant crowbar, five feet long. Jacked up the track, dug the old ties out. Dug a deeper hole and spiked it up and then went on to the next tie." (Salter's barrel chest and thick arms testify to this.) Layered in thick wool, the gang would work through winter temperatures reaching 20 below. On Thursdays, his crewmates would get their paychecks and cash them at a local bar "and drink half of it," he says. But, in time, Salter looked around and saw "men in their fifties who looked like they were in their eighties." Thinking that "there doesn't seem to be a future here, " he decided to enroll at a nearby university.

Salter transferred to Georgetown University and, after graduation, ended up working for Kirkpatrick, before his fated hiring by McCain. The two men bonded quickly, thanks in part to their shared military heritage--even though Salter himself, to his regret, never had the opportunity to serve. Moreover, McCain was reticent to talk about the wartime horrors he'd witnessed, reminding Salter of his own father's reticence. "People write about how McCain is unnecessarily modest," Salter told Salon in 1999. "But it's perfectly consistent with the way my father talked about his war experience."

The project of drawing out McCain helped to complete Salter's understanding of his own father. The culmination of that effort was a section in Why Courage Matters that describes Pete Salter's long-obscured Korean War valor, with many details his son learned only while researching the book. Remarkably, Salter found a way to salute his own father in what many readers no doubt took as McCain's voice. The book reveals how Pete Salter fought alongside a Native American corporal named Mitchell Red Cloud, a minor hero of Army history. During a brutal battle with Chinese soldiers near Chonghyon, Korea, Red Cloud was severely injured but insisted on staying behind to give his retreating comrades cover. At his urging, Pete Salter tied his wounded comrade to a tree so he could continue firing while others escaped.

Though the younger Salter, who never injects himself into this narrative, doesn't note it, this was an eerie echo of the demise of Hemingway's Robert Jordan, who urges his companions on to safety as he waits alone on a hilltop with his rifle awaiting an unstoppable Fascist charge. (Later that day, the elder Salter would kill two Chinese soldiers, including one he choked with his bare hands.) Pete Salter died in 1999, but, according to some friends, Mark has not been fatherless. "McCain is his dad--that's how he feels about it," says one Salter friend. (Salter himself rejects such talk.)

Salter's writing about his father makes clear that he, like McCain, is keenly aware of his ties to a past legacy, to an era of U.S. wars now fading into mythology. Thanks to Red Cloud, he wrote, Pete Salter "owed his life, and all that came of his life, including his children, to another man's courage ... he knew [that debt] would survive him and be carried by his descendants."

And, perhaps because Salter's fascination with McCain is so heavily rooted in a receding and romanticized past--an ethos that many say will condemn McCain's candidacy to a Bob Dole-like fate--melancholy notes often creep into his work. Echoing the campaign announcement speech that unnerved Dan Schnur, McCain's 2000 Republican convention address also departed from partisan cant to touch on the theme of mortality. "America's greatness is a quest without end, the object beyond the horizon," McCain said. "And it is an inescapable and bittersweet irony of life that the older we are, the more distant the horizon becomes. I will not see what's over America's horizon. The years that remain are not too few, I trust, but the immortality that was the aspiration of my youth, has, like all the treasures of youth, quietly slipped away." In the speech's closing line McCain ominously concluded: "I am haunted by the vision of what will be."

This vision of the future came to Salter on a Saturday night in late May 2006, as he sat down at his home computer to check the latest news about McCain. A search led Salter to a fresh blog item on the liberal Huffington Post. Titled "Why I Spoke Up," it was written by a young woman named Jean Rohe. A day earlier, Rohe had spoken just before McCain at the commencement ceremony of Manhattan's New School. Rohe unexpectedly castigated McCain, roundly condemning his support for the Iraq war. Now she was amplifying the incident across the Internet via The Huffington Post.

Salter is neither a humorless man nor an intolerant one. McKinnon recalls a campaign swing through Kentucky, during which a jug of moonshine appeared on the Straight Talk Express after the candidate had called it a night. "Salter gets it and takes like five huge gulps of the thing," he recalls. "We call Mark the next morning, and he says he's paralyzed from the waist down and blind." He also counts among his close friends several members of the D.C. media establishment--a rare quality in a senior Republican operative. Reporters return the compliment. "I never once found him to lie to me or deceive me," says one person who has covered McCain extensively for a major news outlet. "And I don't give that compliment too lightly. I think he works pretty hard at that reputation."

But reading Rohe's words, and especially what he calls the "toxic" anti-McCain vitriol of the blog's often-anonymous commenters, Salter felt his blood boil. He hammered out a ferocious response:

Once upon time, even among the young, the words courage and hero were used more sparingly, more precisely. It took no courage to do what you did, Ms. Rohe. It was an act of vanity and nothing more. ... [McCain] has, over and over again, risked personal ambitions for what he believes, rightly or wrongly, are in the best interests of the country. What, pray tell, have you risked? The only person you have succeeded in making look like an idiot is yourself. ... Should you grow up and ever get down to the hard business of making a living and finding a purpose for your lives beyond self-indulgence some of you might then know a happiness far more sublime than the fleeting pleasure of living in an echo chamber. And if you are that fortunate, you might look back on the day of your graduation and your discourtesy to a good and honest man with a little shame and the certain knowledge that it is very unlikely any of you will ever posses one small fraction of the character of John McCain.

Salter posted this screed under Rohe's item at 10:28 p.m. By the next day, The Huffington Post was featuring it under the giddy headline TOP MCCAIN AIDE INSULTS ENTIRE COLLEGE GRADUATING CLASS. Today, Salter admits he may have gotten carried away, perhaps with the aid of a couple of glasses of wine with dinner.

But, while he couldn't know it then, the episode foreshadowed the way that Salter would come to view the current campaign. In Rohe's place, today, is Barack Obama. And he, too, according to Salter's view of him, violates the McCain code in nearly every way: He is vain but not experienced; his campaign is focused on an individual, not the greater good; he has not demonstrated real courage in life or politics. Meanwhile, a supercilious culture is tearing down Salter's idol. McCain, once revered as a hero, is now regularly mocked as a doddering buffoon on liberal blogs and "The Daily Show" by people--unlike John McCain and Pete Salter--who often have made no sacrifice of their own for America.

And, as with Rohe, Salter has been firing back with increasing verve. After Newsweek published a May cover story predicting that Republicans would mount scurrilous racially tinged attacks against Obama, Salter fired off a long response to the magazine's editor, Jon Meacham. "Without a trace of skepticism, your reporters embraced the primary communications strategy the Obama campaign intends to follow," Salter fumed. After a detailed Washington Post report about McCain's allegedly explosive temper, Salter e-mailed National Review Online dissecting "one of the more shoddy examples of journalism I've ever encountered" and, with one exception, "the worst smear job on McCain I'd ever seen." Arianna Huffington, Salter quipped recently, is "a flake and a poser and an attention-seeking diva."

But nothing seems to rile up Salter like Obama himself. In a February speech drafted by Salter, McCain cracked that he did not harbor the "presumption that I am blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save my country in its hour of need"--clearly a taunt aimed at Obama. Salter recently told The Boston Globe that Obama's campaign is based around a "messianic complex." "Yeah, I think politics have changed," Salter said to me, referring to Obama's campaign. "The politics are: 'Elect me!'"

Like Jean Rohe, Obama also provoked Salter into some intemperate typing--even before the campaign began. After Obama and McCain differed over ethics reform, in early 2006, Salter wrote a long and overheated letter under McCain's name ripping Obama for "self interested partisan posturing," leading to unhelpful press chatter about McCain's temper. (Salter says Weaver often jokes about removing the "send" button from his keyboard.)

All the more galling for Salter is his belief that Obama the candidate is lifting from McCain's oeuvre. Obama has recently described his transformation from a selfish young man who thought "life was all about me" to an adult who realizes "that life doesn't count for much unless you're willing to do your small part to leave our children--all of our children--a better world. Even if it's difficult. Even if the work seems great. Even if we don't get very far in our lifetime." Salter hears in this an echo of McCain's longtime account of outgrowing his troublemaking and self-centered youth to find a higher purpose in serving others. ("I often regret that we didn't copyright 'serving a cause greater than your self-interest,'" he cracks.)

Even more provocatively, Obama recently cited as one of his favorite novels--you guessed it--For Whom the Bell Tolls. When I relayed this to Salter, he was initially incredulous, then burst into laughter. "Is that right? Well, that's another thing he steals from McCain! That's amazing."

Salter may feel a particular rivalry with Obama because so much of Obama's success derives from his ability to write and deliver a beautiful speech. Salter confesses he hasn't yet forced himself to read Obama's memoir, Dreams From My Father. But, while he concedes that Obama is an excellent writer and speaker, he believes McCain's oratory has been unfairly derided. "I know we're running against a once-in-a generation orator. I get all that," he says. "But the idea that McCain is not an effective political orator ..." Salter trails off in frustration, then goes on to note that McCain's speeches at the 1996, 2000, and 2004 GOP conventions--the last being a speech in support of the Iraq war that many described as better than any George W. Bush had delivered--were all show-stealers. "When he nominated [Bob] Dole--for all the crap he takes compared to Obama, that was generally remembered as the best speech of the '96 convention," Salter grouses.

Salter concedes McCain's current campaign hasn't done itself any favors. "We did not well serve our candidate" on June 3, he says, the night Obama claimed the Democratic nomination, and when McCain spoke to a sparse crowd before a garish green banner that made the candidate look ghostly pale and earned him ridicule even from Fox News commentators. Salter added that he regrets the speech's anti-Obama refrain, "That's not change we can believe in." "That wasn't really an authentic McCain construct," he adds.

Salter's own style may be part of the problem. Some fellow wordsmiths wonder whether his writing voice, so fluid in the books, is well-suited for McCain's delivery. Salter's is "a complex, nuanced prose that McCain has trouble reading, even though he is more comfortable with it than any other rhetorical style," says former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet, who adds that "McCain is most comfortable delivering these speeches as if he were giving a reading at a bookstore, not trying to rouse a large crowd."

Now Salter has one last chance to write a great convention speech for his boss. He is headed to his summer cottage in Maine--purchased with his share of the book royalties he splits with McCain (who gives his half to charity)--to focus on a task fellow McCainiacs acknowledge will be critical. "It's a big moment," says Mark McKinnon. "The convention is a big damn deal." Salter hints the speech will spotlight McCain's moments of self-sacrifice, as when he refused early release from captivity in Vietnam or challenged his own party over campaign finance reform. The contrast, he says, will be the "selfishness" of "self-interested" political partisans--i.e. Obama--who, he argues, have risked nothing of substance in their lives.

Like his stemwinder on The Huffington Post, the challenge Salter's convention speech encapsulates is the generational showdown this election has become. The baby-boomer speechwriter must come up with an address that explains why voters should choose the elderly McCain's experience and grounding in traditional values over the youthful Gen-X audacity of Obama. In the Salter narrative, the self-sacrificing war hero could not meet a better foil than the Obamamaniacs' narcissistic world of Facebook and YouTube and Scarlett Johansson. But voters aren't likely to base their decision on the past. With the economy on fire, gas prices soaring, and the Bush presidency a disaster, voters are feeling the fierce urgency of now. Even many Republicans concede John McCain may be waging an unwinnable fight.

But there is a consolation prize to be had--or, at the least, a dark irony. Should McCain be steamrolled by the Obama juggernaut, that just might complete the narrative arc that Mark Salter has constructed for his friend and hero and father figure. To be overrun by the iPhone hordes, after all, would simply make John McCain, like Hemingway's Robert Jordan, a figure of beautiful fatalism. And, by extension, Salter himself would finally experience the glorious futility that his own generation was denied.

Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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