The love bus
On the road with John McCain -- and the media
horde that adores him. Plus, trailing George W. Bush.
by Dan Kennedy
GREENVILLE, SOUTH CAROLINA -- The Straight Talk Express -- a bus
that's expanded into a three-vehicle caravan since John McCain's unexpectedly
large victory in New Hampshire -- has just pulled up in front of City Hall. A
crowd of people has gathered, waiting expectantly for the candidate. Among them
is Geno Church, a city employee who's holding his five-year-old daughter,
MacKenzie, so she can get a closer look. She points to a huge sign on one of
the buses that says MCCAIN and asks, "Daddy, why does that sign say MEDIA?"
Out of the mouths of babes and all that.
The McCain campaign is many things. An insurgent effort by an underfunded
challenger against an establishment candidate -- George W. Bush -- who's been
anointed with more than $65 million in contributions. A crusade to clean
up a hopelessly corrupt political system. A book tour to promote Faith of My
Fathers, which, McCain jokingly but carefully notes at every stop, was
published by Random House and is available from Amazon.com for $24.95. (It's
working: Faith of My Fathers was Amazon's 36th hottest-selling book as
Above all else, though, the McCain campaign is a media moment. The press has
fallen hard for McCain, harder than it fell for Bill Clinton in 1992, harder
than it fell for Gary Hart in 1984 or George McGovern in 1972. Aboard the
Straight Talk Express, it's clear that the reporters believe they're in the
midst of something historic -- something akin, perhaps, to the 1960 campaign of
John F. Kennedy, the last time a war hero with a sense of humor and a
proclivity for mixing it up with the press ran for president.
"It's kind of a running dialogue that goes on on the McCain bus. The
extraordinary thing about the McCain campaign is that everything is on the
record. I've never seen anything like it," says veteran Boston Globe
reporter Curtis Wilkie. Wilkie -- one of the characters who pops up in Timothy
Crouse's classic on the 1972 campaign, The Boys on the Bus -- calls
McCain's dealings with the media something of a "throwback" to the days when
"you didn't have nearly as many press people running around, and in general the
candidates were more accessible." And for the press, there is no higher value
It's not that the press is consciously in the tank for McCain, or that he
escapes all critical scrutiny. The beat reporters say they're careful not to
let their easy access to the candidate twist their coverage. But the cumulative
effect of McCain's blunt candor, his nonstop, on-the-record chatter, his sense
of brio and his insouciance, has been to create an aura of goodwill in which
the candidate -- unlike perhaps any other national politician -- automatically
receives the benefit of the doubt.
Collectively -- with, of course, certain exceptions (Time magazine broke
from the pack last week with excellent pieces on McCain's ultraconservative
ideology and lack of a substantive agenda beyond campaign-finance reform) --
the media have concluded that McCain is capable of transcending his
unremarkable career in the Senate, his run-of-the-mill influence-peddling, and
his doctrinaire conservatism to reform a political system that has grown
hopelessly corrupt and out of touch with average Americans. Are they right?
To believe that McCain is the one who can break what he calls the "iron
triangle" of lobbyists, money, and legislation is, in many ways, an enormous
leap of faith. He claims he got religion after getting caught up in the Keating
Five savings-and-loan scandal of the 1980s, yet Washington lobbyists who do
business with the Senate Commerce Committee, which he chairs, continue to be
among his biggest contributors. But McCain argues that he's got to play the
game by the rules as they are now until he's in a position to change them. And
the media have chosen to believe him.
There is, to be sure, a convincing argument for that faith: the stark fact of
McCain's five and a half years in a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp, a
hell he could have gotten out of at any time simply by telling his captors he'd
had enough. A man who would submit to torture rather than hand his tormentors a
propaganda victory is obviously someone who possesses remarkable courage and
integrity. And if he has been a somewhat ordinary senator up until now, the
fact is that he does seem to have undergone a battlefield conversion -- not in
terms of ideology, as Jonathan Chait overheatedly argued in the New
Republic recently, but, rather, in redefining the bounds of what is
acceptable political conduct. Perhaps the appropriate analogy is not to John
Kennedy but to Harry Truman, who, upon Franklin Roosevelt's death, found it
within himself to rise above his mediocrity and become a near-great
Bush, meanwhile, is actually running a pretty good campaign in South Carolina.
Freed of the constraints his handlers imposed on him in New Hampshire, he's
doing hour-and-a-half rallies, speaking without notes, taking all questions,
answering with a surprising degree of specificity and detail. But, at least as
far as the media are concerned, it's not doing him much good: coverage of the
Bush campaign has mainly focused on sleazy anti-McCain ads by the campaign and
its allies, such as the right-to-lifers, and on charges -- denied directly by
Bush -- that he's hired push-pollers who call potential voters and spread dirt
It's a dramatic confrontation, and one that will climax this Saturday, when
South Carolina holds its Republican primary. The polls show it to be a toss-up,
but the truth is that the outcome may not be close. A big turnout among
Democrats and independents could translate into a big McCain victory; on the
other hand, if they stay home, Bush could win by a substantial margin. The only
thing that's certain is that the winner will be in a strong position to roll to
the nomination. If Bush wins, he'll stop McCain's momentum, depriving the
insurgent of money and, more important, media. But if McCain wins, party elders
who backed Bush because he looked like a winner may start to defect.
With Al Gore looking increasingly like a sure thing on the Democratic side, the
McCain-Bush race is the year's biggest political story. What happens this
weekend will go a long way toward determining how it's going to end.
The Straight Talk Express is heading south on I-26, from the state capital,
Columbia, to Charleston, when a state cop pulls up alongside, lights flashing,
ordering us to stop. A young trooper gets out of his cruiser, and he's
immediately surrounded by about a dozen members of the press, thrusting
microphones, cameras, and notebooks in his face.
It turns out that the trooper, Michael O'Donnell, is an ex-Marine who's been
dying to meet McCain. Trouble is, McCain's not even with us: he stayed behind
in Columbia to do an editorial board with the State, South Carolina's
largest newspaper. A McCain aide hands the cop a bumper sticker. We all laugh,
and we're back on our way. "The poor guy. He says, 'This isn't going to be on
the news, is it?' Oh, noooo," jokes a TV producer as she returns to the
bus. I ask a McCain aide if the senator will help the trooper get his job back
after he gets fired. She smiles, but doesn't answer.
McCain's military service may win him respect from the media, but it makes him
a five-star celebrity in South Carolina, a state chock full of veterans and
active personnel. McCain knows how powerful that is. At an event at the
Charleston Ice Palace, in North Charleston, McCain asks all the veterans in the
audience to stand (it is an impressive showing), and promises them more pay and
benefits. "There will be no food-stamp army when I am president of the United
States," he says. At almost every stop, someone in the audience gets up and
thanks McCain for his service, a gesture that is invariably followed by a
But stressing his military service isn't the only way McCain has tried to
counter the Bush-camp spin that he's some sort of closet liberal and Clinton
clone. This is Strom Thurmond country, and McCain has been tacking right since
he landed here at 3 a.m. on February 2, the day after the New Hampshire
primary. Everywhere he goes he's introduced by Representative Lindsey Graham,
one of the House impeachment managers, who never fails to cite McCain's support
for the Contract with America, which is still popular here, even if its author,
Newt Gingrich, isn't. At a speech on education reform at the University of
South Carolina at Spartanburg, McCain bashed "self-serving union bosses" and
promised to appoint judges "who don't divine from our Constitution nonexistent
prohibitions on basic rights such as voluntary school prayer, posting the Ten
Commandments, or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance." During an appearance on
MSNBC's Hardball, at Clemson University, McCain stressed his
archconservative stand on social issues including gay marriage ("it's crazy"),
abortion rights (he hopes the Supreme Court will someday overturn Roe v.
Wade), and affirmative action (he's staunchly against quotas). McCain also
wimped out once again on the controversy over the Confederate flag (South
Carolina is the last state in the union to fly that symbol of slavery), calling
it an issue that should be left to South Carolina residents. Some closet
These positions are perfectly consonant with the votes McCain's taken during
his long Senate career, but they're not exactly what he chose to emphasize in
libertarian New Hampshire, where he pretty much stuck to the populist-reformer
theme. Then again, there aren't many university crowds in the Northeast that
would applaud McCain's anti-gay-marriage remarks, as the kids at Clemson did.
Indeed, if those students found anything McCain had to say about lesbians and
gay men controversial, it was probably this statement: "I don't believe in
Perhaps the biggest change in McCain's campaign, though, isn't in what issues
he's choosing to emphasize, but in his much-vaunted accessibility. Months ago,
anyone who wanted to ride with McCain was able to do so. Even during the final
weeks of New Hampshire, reporters say, he was able to accommodate all comers.
But in South Carolina, a hierarchy has clearly emerged. Someone like Alison
Mitchell, of the New York Times, is with McCain virtually at all times
-- she speaks of how exhausting it is to listen to him rattle on, hour after
hour, while she takes notes, attuned continuously to whether he's making news
or just marking time. The local media, too, are treated well: Rachel Graves, of
the Charleston Post and Gazette, is a fixture on the lead bus --
squeezed, she jokes, into "this horrific place called the perch, because I fit
But reporters from smaller news organizations, who can't really do much to help
McCain, are no longer invited to sit with the candidate. Take Melissa
Charbonneau, of Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network. (Robertson,
who's based in South Carolina, is backing Bush.) Charbonneau dropped in one day
last week hoping to do a stint on McCain's bus. First she was told that perhaps
she could get on, but not her cameraman. Then she was strung along for the rest
of the day until she had to leave to catch up with the Bush campaign. "They
should want to reach all the voters they can, instead of having the same
reporters on continually," she says.
Indeed, Charbonneau points to a perverse effect of McCain's policy: Bush right
now is actually more accessible to a broader range of media than McCain.
McCain, unlike Bush, doesn't hold formal "media availabilities," where any
reporter can ask a question. Sometimes McCain will pause to answer a few
questions on the way back to his bus, but he's invariably surrounded by a tight
pack of journalists, making it impossible to hear what he's saying if you're
more than four feet away. Jim Pierpoint, who's covering McCain for Reuters,
notes that this creates "practical problems," since some beat reporters -- him,
for instance -- do not have constant access, and yet are expected by their
editors not to miss anything. At the moment, such problems are being resolved
informally: during a lull before an AARP appearance in Columbia, for example,
an Associated Press reporter who'd just had an audience with McCain read back
his notes to an eager audience of about a half-dozen other reporters. But it's
clearly a problem McCain's staff is going to have to deal with if he wins in
South Carolina, in which case the media horde will only grow.
I was luckier than Charbonneau. On the morning of my second day with the
campaign, spokesman Todd Harris told me I wasn't going to get on the lead bus.
Thus liberated from having to play nice, I hung around the elevator of the
Greenville Hilton, waiting for McCain. I got between him and the bus and asked
him a question I'd had on my mind for a couple of weeks: whether he was aware
that 40,000 Pittsburgh residents were opposed to a television-license transfer
that he had urged the Federal Communications Commission to act on and that
would benefit one of his campaign contributors (see "Media," News and
Features, January 28).
"No, what I had urged them [the FCC] was to act, not to take a specific
position. And that was to order them to act after 700 days of not acting," he
replied, repeating an answer he had given many times already. I pressed him on
the fact that there was considerable opposition to the transfer, but he didn't
drop a beat: "What the citizen activists wanted was an act against, some wanted
an act for. I just wanted them to act, so I wasn't in any way harming the views
of those citizen-activists. I was asking them to act. Now if I had been asking
them to act affirmatively, then that would have somehow been in opposition to
those activists. So I don't see how you draw the conclusion that I was in any
way in opposition to them."
I wanted to ask a follow-up. His bus was waiting. I said, "Thank you." He said,
"Thank you," smiled, asked where I was from, and was on his way, Cindy on one
side, an aide on the other.
So much for Straight Talk.
George W. Bush is about halfway through his spiel at the Exchange Park Flower
Building, in Ladson, a Charleston suburb. A huge banner reads ONE ON ONE WITH
GOVERNOR BUSH. Several hundred people have packed the hall for an old-fashioned
rally, and Bush is turning in a pretty impressive performance. It's easy to see
why party professionals were so taken with Bush early on, and it's impossible
to fathom why his handlers kept him out of view in Iowa and New Hampshire. Bush
may be terrible in televised debates, but in front of a crowd he's energized,
engaged, even a little charismatic, speaking without notes, interrupting,
showing a mastery of detail that, if it's not Clintonesque, nevertheless should
put to rest any lingering questions about his intelligence.
George W. seems more relaxed -- even charismatic -- in South Carolina.
He uses a lovely phrase -- "the soft bigotry of low expectations" -- to
describe the pernicious effects of expecting too little of African-American and
Hispanic students. He calls being a single mother "the toughest job in
America." And he's not afraid to tell people things they don't want to hear.
When a teacher tells Bush that public schools "need more national help," he
responds: "Implicit in that question is the federalization of the school
system." In other words, forget about it. Hey, he's wrong, but it's still an
admirable show of backbone for someone who is often accused of trying to be all
things to all people.
Then a man rises to his feet to ask Bush about the media. "What gives them the
right of deciding who we should have for president when it's our vote?" he
asks. Translation: why is the press sucking up to McCain and trashing
you? Bush answers carefully, casting it mainly in terms of his opposition
to campaign-finance reform, which, he argues, would take away the right of
interest groups -- not just right-to-life organizations, but also liberal
groups, such as the Sierra Club -- to get their message out, thus enhancing the
power of the "opinion makers" in the news media. "People ought to have the
right to advocate life," he says. "This is America. People ought to have the
right to advocate positions." But he refuses to take on the media directly,
saying, "Anyway, you tried to get me to say something bad about the press, and
I'm not going to." He looks up toward the battery of TV cameras on a riser at
the back of the hall and smirks, saying, "I love you all."
Nor does Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes take the bait when I corner her. "I do
think because the governor has been a front-runner for eight or nine months,
he's been held to a higher degree of scrutiny," she says. She does fault the
media for not following up on charges that McCain has engaged in practices he
has criticized, such as rolling money from his Senate account over into his
presidential campaign. But pressed to be more pointed, she says simply, "I
think that's a question for journalists themselves to sort out."
In fact, reporters who cover Bush say that campaign officials are obsessed with
what they see as favorable coverage for McCain and brickbats for their guy.
"The Bush people really feel that McCain has gotten a free ride, or an easier
ride than Bush has," says Glen Johnson, of the Associated Press, who got his
start in Greater Boston by working for the Salem Evening News and the
Newsweek's Martha Brant adds that Bush aides say of reporters on the
McCain bus: "They've all drunk the Kool-Aid."
It's a perception that has trickled down to the volunteer ranks as well. Take
Roxanne Wilson, who was holding a Bush sign outside the Columbiana Centre, an
enormous shopping mall on the outskirts of Columbia, on an evening when Bush
was meeting-and-greeting in the mall's food court. Wilson -- whose husband,
Joe, is a state senator from Lincoln County -- is infuriated with the
State, which, she says, has endorsed McCain and which she accuses of
unfair coverage of Bush. "The State newspaper is the most biased
newspaper in the South," Wilson complains. (In fact, the State endorsed
Bush this past Tuesday.)
But the Bush campaign, to its credit, isn't just complaining -- it's pushing
its man out of the bunker. Since New Hampshire, Johnson says, there has been "a
lot more occasion for casual conversation and interaction." Bush no longer
flies on separate airplanes or holds fundraisers or one-on-ones that the beat
reporters aren't informed of, Johnson says.
Brant characterizes Bush as being "quick-witted and funny" when he comes to the
back of the plane or the bus to chat up the press. But she adds, "A
free-association free-for-all it is not, and it's rarely in an on-the-record
The media elite may not find Bush as accessible as McCain, but reporters who
are further down the food chain benefit from his more formal approach. After
his appearance in Ladson, it was off to Kiawah Island, a luxury retirement
resort on the ocean that's surrounded by miles of trailers and shacks. Before
speaking to the lunchtime crowd, Bush held a quickie news conference -- a
"media avail," in campaignspeak -- in which all comers were welcome to fire
away. He opened with a statement about McCain's alleged hypocrisy on
campaign-finance reform, but the questions were all about something that had
happened the day before, at McCain's education-reform speech in Spartanburg. A
mother had gotten up to say that her 13-year-old, who apparently is something
of a McCain groupie, had received a nasty call from a push-poller. "Mom,
someone told me that Senator McCain is a cheat, a liar, and a fraud," she
quoted her son as telling her, and McCain milked it for all it was worth, even
to the point of telling a local reporter later that he was too overcome with
emotion to talk about his education plan.
Bush repeated his earlier denials that his campaign has had nothing to do with
such alleged calls. I asked whether he had checked with any of the
organizations that are supporting him as to whether they had authorized
the calls. He looked at me as if I had two heads, and for a moment I thought I
had asked a stupid question. "I have no idea," he responded. But a couple of
other reporters followed up, asking him whether the National Right to Life
Committee, for instance, might have done any push-polling. "We are not working
with people on my behalf," he answered. In other words, maybe they did, maybe
they didn't, and he doesn't care one way or the other as long as they're not on
He then signaled that the "avail" was over: "Okay, you ready for another 'One
on One with George Bush'? Let's hear it." He flashed the smirk and was gone.
Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz is following McCain, and I
can't resist the chance to interview another media reporter about McCain and
the media. Talking to other reporters is one thing; talking to another reporter
who talks to reporters is quite another. "A postmodern moment," I tell Kurtz.
"A post-postmodern moment," he replies, correcting me.
This is Kurtz's fourth trip with the Straight Talk Express, and he continues to
marvel at McCain's openness. (Of course, as a media bigfoot who also does a CNN
show, Kurtz can benefit from McCain's openness any time he wishes.) "I've never
seen a phenomenon like this in all my years of covering politics," Kurtz says.
"It's not simply that McCain answers questions on his bus for hours and hours
and hours. It's that he plays out his daily drama in front of inquisitive,
sometimes annoying, reporters in a way that no modern presidential candidate
has ever attempted. Even when things are going badly there's no place to hide,
so it's sort of like every journalist's fantasy."
Kurtz gets at something important: it's not just that McCain has subjected
himself to far more media scrutiny than almost any other presidential
candidate. It's that this scrutiny provides a window into a very different type
of person than what's usually sent down from Candidate Central. Indeed, McCain,
like any candidate, puts his foot in it from time to time, most recently when
he bumbled upon being asked what he'd do if his 15-year-old daughter became
pregnant. At first he said it would be her decision whether to get an abortion;
he later corrected it to say it would be a family decision. That sounds
suspiciously like a pro-choice statement, and he took some grief for it from
the hard right.
"This notion that he's buying off the press with coffee and doughnuts misses
the fact that he has to hit major-league pitching every day," Kurtz says. "Some
elements of the press are clearly in love with John McCain, not necessarily for
ideological reasons. But I think the best reporters admire what he's doing, but
never forget to do their jobs by pressing him." As for whether his courtship of
the media gives him an unfair advantage, Kurtz says simply: "There's nothing to
stop the other candidates from playing the same game."
Yet though reporters may be on guard not to tilt their coverage toward McCain,
the very fact that he's always talking makes it difficult not to give him a
break, if only because they know so much about the way he thinks. Boston
Globe reporter Yvonne Abraham, a former Phoenix writer, says, "I
always worry" about going soft on McCain. She says she tries to balance the
positive vibes generated on the bus by staying in frequent contact with the
Globe reporter who's following Bush, Anne Kornblut, and by reading as
much as she can about what's going on elsewhere on the campaign trail. Still,
the fact that McCain is always talking can't help but work to his advantage,
Abraham says, because he's "constantly revising" and putting his words in a
context that politicians don't generally offer. For instance: Abraham says that
McCain, on the bus, recently called Bush "an unwitting pawn." A short time
later, though, he took it back, saying he had overstated the case, and few if
any reporters used it. "With Bush," Abraham notes, "he says so little that when
he drops a clunker or says something controversial, that's one of the few
things he'll have said in the course of the day." And, thus, it will
immediately become news.
The Weekly Standard's David Brooks, who's also spent his time with
McCain, goes further than Kurtz or Abraham. In Brooks's view, many of the
reporters certainly have drunk the Kool-Aid, and though they ask tough
questions, he notices a lack of bite and follow-up that he doesn't see when the
press questions other candidates. "Obviously he's just the coolest guy, and
people like cool guys," Brooks says. "Reporters on his campaign enjoy being
here, and they don't enjoy being with other candidates."
Of course, it can be argued that the media are merely reflecting reality, which
is exactly what they're supposed to do. McCain is an articulate, refreshing,
courageous, funny guy who, despite his conservative stands on social issues and
his dalliances with lobbyists, seems genuinely committed to reforming the
system. And he's the only interesting horse in the race: the Democratic Party,
usually a hotbed of entertaining weirdness and intrigue, is down to two
establishment types, one who can't tell people the truth (Al Gore) and one who
can't keep them awake (Bill Bradley).
Sure, the media are being tough on Bush, but it's Bush who's running a
negative, insider-driven campaign. It was Bush's allies who tried to keep
McCain off the New York ballot. According to a report in Salon this
week, the Republican establishment, desperate to stop McCain, is now planning
to keep voting places in Democratic and African-American areas of South
Carolina closed this Saturday, thus boosting the chances of a hard-core
Republican turnout and a Bush victory. A truly ugly Bush radio ad in South
Carolina last week linked McCain's push for campaign-finance reform to a
racially charged labor riot that took place on the South Carolina waterfront
several weeks ago (the tenuous connection: McCain's campaign-reform plan
wouldn't do anything about union political contributions). An "independent" ad
by an anti-choice group inveighed against McCain's alliance with pro-choice
former senator Warren Rudman, who was essentially depicted as the Antichrist.
It's all pretty tawdry stuff, and it might even work. It would be a shame to
see McCain's insurgency end because of garbage like that.
But at some point, the normal scrutiny to which any candidate should be
subjected has got to kick in. The Wall Street Journal, Time, and
the Boston Globe, among others, have all done good reporting showing
that McCain criticizes lobbyists out of one side of his mouth and cuts deals
with them out of the other side. But there's little sense in the media of what
kind of a president he would make, or how he would differ from Bush -- or from
Bill Clinton. McCain, after all, is a foreign-affairs wonk who has publicly
admitted that he's bored by domestic policy, who has feuded bitterly with the
press in his home state of Arizona, who is loathed by Arizona's Republican
governor and by many of his Republican Senate colleagues. He may be "just the
coolest guy," but can he govern? And can he go all the way to November without
any agenda other than campaign-finance reform and a promise to start paying
down the national debt?
The media truly have experienced love at first sight with John McCain. Now the
time has come to get over the initial crush and see whether this is someone we
can all live with for the next four years. For better or worse, in sickness and
Also, in 'Don't Quote Me' from February 12, 1999:
the national media have given John McCain their unconditional love. As
he tests the presidential waters, that's about to change.
Articles from July 24, 1997 & before can be accessed here