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Race Against Himself

Is John McCain trying to lose?

LIKE THE REPUBLICAN PARTY, the reporters on the Straight Talk Express are currently divided into two camps––only their disagreement centers not on ideology but on a more immediate concern: Who has unearthed the most peculiar John McCain moment? The first camp says it happened right after the New Hampshire primary, when the senator was holed up in his eighth-floor hotel room watching the returns on CNN with his family and friends. It was shortly after 7 p.m., and the network had finally declared McCain the victor by a 19-point landslide. The senator’s children began jumping up and down under a picture of former President George Bush, which hung on the wall in the presidential suite. McCain’s wife, Cindy, put her hand over her mouth and cried. And that’s when it occurred. While everyone else was celebrating, McCain just stood there, his body wound tight as a coil, his face expressionless—a perfect portrait of despair. His wife embraced him, saying, “It really happened.” But McCain still didn’t smile. “It was the oddest thing,” remembers one of the reporters in the room. “He looked as if he were watching his own funeral.”

On the Straight Talk Express, that scene in the New Hampshire hotel room has become renowned. (“Everyone keeps asking me why I wasn’t more excited,” McCain said when I inquired about it.) But another group of reporters says something even weirder happened two weeks later. According to them, the most bizarre McCain moment occurred not at the height of his campaign but at its nadir, when the senator was being routed in South Carolina. As the returns filtered in—showing McCain trailing by eleven points—his aides headed for the bar, where they drank and smoked cigarettes, too depressed to spin more than sporadically. Cindy McCain began to cry once again, only this time in despair. “How could they believe all that about you?” she asked, as exit polls showed how effective George W. Bush’s attacks had been.

But, as it became clear that McCain had lost the primary he had only days earlier declared “make or break”—in part because he refused to “win in the worst way,” as he later put it—he seemed almost joyful. “Come on, guys,” he said as he boarded the plane to Michigan, squeezing aides’ arms and smiling. The next morning he seemed more upbeat than he had in days. On the Straight Talk Express he lustily attacked Bush—“If he’s a reformer, I’m an astronaut”––and joked with reporters. He said he had renamed his once-lucky shoes “unlucky” and vowed that even if he lost he would do so nobly. “You don’t have to win every skirmish to win...a crusade,” he said. Afterward one reporter quipped: “I don’t want to spout psychobabble, but I think he was happier when he lost.”

In fact, the moments the journalists found so strange were not strange at all; they were a glimpse of the true John McCain, the one often masked by his candor. And they reveal the central dilemma of his campaign, a dilemma less ideological or strategic than psychological. McCain wants to win, but he often seems more comfortable losing. Throughout his adult life, first in the military and then in politics, he has sought out hopeless causes, championed them brilliantly, and enhanced his stature through their defeat. And in this campaign the pattern has reasserted itself: At critical moments he has opted for glorious failure rather than dishonorable success. Now, as the campaign enters its final days, he may no longer be able to rescue his candidacy from his crusade.

IN THE U.S. Naval Academy, McCain used to instinctively ally himself with lost causes. He endlessly defended hapless plebes, as Navy freshmen are called, from the upperclassmen—even when it put his own standing at risk. In one legendary incident, recounted by Robert Timberg in The Nightingale’s Song, McCain came to the rescue of a Filipino steward in the mess hall. As an upperclassman dressed the steward down for no reason, McCain, although outranked, rose from his table and said, “Hey, mister, why don’t you pick on someone your own size?”

Such insubordination made McCain the bane of his superior officers; he racked up so many demerits he was nearly expelled. Yet in the process he captivated his classmates’ imagination—a kind of lone figure, collar turned up, cigarette dangling from his mouth, resisting the establishment.

After graduation, McCain became an icon not just to his classmates but to his country. Shot down over Hanoi, he was imprisoned and tortured for nearly six years. Unlike Dwight D. Eisenhower or Ulysses S. Grant, he did not take a hill or sink a ship. Instead, he became a new kind of hero. He “had to learn to suffer,” says Wes Schierman, a fellow POW who recently showed up at a McCain rally in Washington state. “He couldn’t really win any battles, but he was a good resister, an honorable one.” He emerged from the ashes of the country’s greatest lost cause as one of its only symbols of pride.

In the Senate, perhaps out of political calculation, perhaps out of instinct, McCain again embraced lost causes that burnished his image. He fought futilely for campaign finance and tobacco reform—issues that he framed in bright lines of right and wrong. “John is a great romantic,” says Mike Murphy, one of McCain’s strategists. “It is always him and a small band of senators or warriors up against the world.”

But, because McCain saw the world in Manichaean terms, he resisted compromise—and often viewed those who did not with contempt. His demonization of his foes and his refusal to accept backroom deals made him, in the words of one GOP Senate aide, “the only senator who became a legend by losing.”

IT IS HARDLY surprising, then, that when McCain set out to run for president he conceived of it from the beginning as a moral mission. In a memo, his top strategist, John Weaver, listed the 15 things he had to do. Number 15: “Be big, establish the crusade.”

When I met up with McCain a year ago in South Carolina, when the Straight Talk Express was nothing more than a van with two backseats and three reporters, he said he wanted to take the government back from the “evil” forces in Washington. He promised to be the un-Clinton, to say and do what was right even if it meant losing. Over his aides’ initial objections, he insisted on championing campaign finance reform, even though conventional wisdom held it had little popular appeal. Even tactical decisions became part of a larger morality play—he spurned the Iowa caucuses not just because he didn’t have the resources to compete but (in the campaign narrative) because he refused to change his position on ethanol subsidies and kowtow to the “ special interests.”

In the post-Clinton moment, politics as unadorned morality struck a chord. People flocked to see McCain. After he won his stunning victory in New Hampshire, he declared to a roaring crowd: “A wonderful New Hampshire campaign has come to an end, but a great national crusade has just begun.”

But the statement itself suggested the impending problem. McCain seemed to believe his quest for office had reached a higher plain, a realm more noble than the usual campaign. In South Carolina, Bush pounded him with negative ads. Rather than fight back, McCain pulled his one negative spot and retreated into a kind of noble resistance, retelling the story, in almost mythical fashion, of the woman who stood up at a town-hall meeting and recounted how her child had received a phone call depicting the senator as a “ cheat” and a “liar.” McCain said he would never use such “political tactics” and made the conduct of his campaign, more than the issues themselves, the center of his appeal. “If we don’t prevail, my friends,” he said on the eve of the vote, “we know that we have taken the honorable way.”

Indeed, McCain’s crushing defeat in South Carolina seemed in an odd way to reduce Bush to McCain’s caricature—a money-backed, mean-spirited instrument of the establishment. At his campaign rallies, McCain now played Star Wars music and said, as if he believed it, “I am just like Luke Skywalker fighting the Death Star.” He seemed to relish being the underdog and the victim once again. “I lived in a hotel once where there were no mints on the pillow,” he said. “I know how to take a punch, and I know how to fight back.”

But he seemed at a loss as to how. For the next few days he appeared to vacillate between playing politics and retreating into a noble crouch. One day he authorized scathing phone messages to Michigan Catholics, attacking Bush’s visit to Bob Jones University; the next day he said he would never go negative. One day he vowed he was a die-hard conservative; the next he said he would embrace “libertarians and vegetarians.” “I’ve got to stay on the message,” he said. “I can’t just talk about push polls like I did in South Carolina.” But he couldn’t seem to fully stop himself. He talked about Pat Robertson’s scurrilous phone calls in Michigan and about how Bush was coordinating Robertson’s smear campaign. In a desperate fight for California—where Asian Americans represent an important voting bloc—he apologized for calling his Vietnamese captors “gooks,” but then a few days later, when another reporter asked him about the remarks, he said he did not view them as a misstep and had called his captors worse.

It almost seemed that the more his campaign failed, the more his crusade succeeded. His events had the feel of spiritual revivals. In Washington state, he got off a ship in Bremerton, where 5,000 people had waited for hours in the cold and rain. As he came down the plank, a spotlight followed him and the Rocky theme music played. Teenage girls reached out and tried to touch him, shrieking. Men surged forward, beseeching him for his autograph. When we climbed on a bus afterward, they pushed their hands up against the windows. “It’s like traveling with Mick Jagger,” Cindy McCain said. At a rally in Sacramento a mother stood up and brought her child forward, saying she was horrified when she learned about Clinton’s scandals. She asked McCain to touch the boy, as if to make him pure.

THE PROBLEM IS that presidential campaigns are not really about purity. They require, as Bush seemed to accept after New Hampshire, an ignobility—a tolerance, even a passion, for the unseemly fray. Crusaders who refuse to tarnish themselves end up, like Eugene McCarthy or Ralph Nader, with their dignity. But they watch from history’s sidelines.

As McCain approached Super Tuesday, his aides seemed to recognize that his defeat would probably mean the defeat of their cause as well. “I think John McCain is our last chance to save the political system,” said Weaver. But by then McCain had become a creature of the crusade. In an act of political courage that effectively immolated his campaign, he began to call the leadership of the very movement he needed to court—the Christian right—“evil.” When I asked him on the Straight Talk Express one morning if there were any crusaders he admired from history or literature, he named Robert Jordan from For Whom the Bell Tolls.

What happened to him? someone asked.

McCain described how Jordan had gotten trapped on the hill that the fascists were about to overrun, how he lay down on the ground and cocked his rifle, telling the woman he loved that she would always be with him. Then he waited to die.

There was a moment of silence as everyone contemplated the story. Then McCain smiled. “Hell of an ending,” he said.

This article appeared in the March 13, 2000 issue of the magazine.