“As a candidate, John (McCain) has become a walking disaster,” the distraught voice calling from a Washington suburb told me late Thursday night. “As much as I once believed in him, now I’m really worried he’ll be a disaster as president. Maybe even worse than Bush, if that’s possible.”
The voice belongs to an old friend, someone I’ve known since the days when I lived in Chicago about 100 lifetimes ago.
Since the primaries, my pal has been on the staff of McCain’s campaign. For much of the campaign season, he and another long-time friend connected with the campaign – a woman I dated for a while when we both lived on the West Coast – have been providing me information about life inside the not-so-Straight Talk Express for a book I plan to write after the election. (Three friends inside the Obama campaign are doing the same thing.)
It’s almost midnight on Thursday, Sept. 25, and we’ve been speaking for nearly 45 minutes – I noted the time because he returned my call just as CBS News’ chief Washington correspondent and Face the Nation moderator Bob Schieffer was coming on The Daily Show to promote his new book.
In exchange for their cooperation, I promised each that nothing they said, or copies of documents and e-mails they provided me, would be published prior the election. But with the news events of the past week and McCain’s increasingly erratic comments and reaction to the economic crisis, on Wednesday I asked each if I could use some of what they’ve told or gave me now for an article. My former girlfriend agreed at once; my friend from Chicago took a day to think about it before calling me last night.
“It’s so bad around (the campaign), I’m thinking of resigning,” he continues. “McCain seems to have lost his way, Rick (Davis, McCain’s campaign manager) is making bad decisions because he’s desperate. I don’t know who made the Palin selection, maybe John but who knows, but she’s turned out to be a nightmare. Did you see her (Katie) Couric interview? Meanwhile, everybody’s running in 10 different directions trying to figure out some way to reverse the (poll) numbers.”
He adds sadly that internal polling shows McCain in even more trouble that the public polls reveal “because our core supporters are starting to question his judgement.”
My friend has been my access to and interpreter of the conservative movement since around the time of the Reagan years. Now, for the first time in the decades that I’ve known him, he sounds dispirited, dismayed and disappointed.
But mostly he sounds betrayed: “This isn’t what I signed on for.”
Throwing Dead Cats
The woman who was once my lover is working in a campaign office in one of the key swing states. She sounds no less dejected, perhaps reflecting the views of voters. “In the beginning, the office was jammed with people showing up to help every day. Now, there are some days when you can throw a dead cat and not hit a volunteer, there are so few of them.”
Why, I asked her on Thursday morning. Why are people who should be excited about their candidate losing their enthusiasm?
“Who knows?” I’m told in the throaty, Kathleen Turner, whiskey voice that’s played havoc with my libido across the decades. “Different reasons for different people. Mostly, though, I think it’s because he’s come across this week as indecisive, not knowing the facts, not appearing to be in touch. I suppose voters see that as not caring. Whatever. The faithful are losing faith.”
She points to McCain telling a television interviewer that he hadn’t read Treasury’s three page bailout plan a day or two after it was e-mailed to the road warriors – the travelling campaign staff – as a prime example.
“I sat there watching him and thinking to myself, ‘This isn’t happening,’” she recalls when we spoke for the second time yesterday. “Even if he didn’t read it, I can’t believe that somebody didn’t give him one or two talking points to use in a Q-and-A. He had to know it would come up.”
What about his decision to “suspend” the campaign to return to Washington?
“Nothing’s been ‘suspended,’” she replied. “We (people in the office) heard about it when a reporter called, hours later.
“Listen,” she goes on, working up a real head of steam. “At first I thought I was a brilliant political move. Take charge. Get in front of an issue he’s been behind on for two weeks. But then he lied to Letterman which turned John into a punch line. Turns out he stayed in New York to give a couple more speeches, met with a few donors, and took 22 hours to mosey down to Washington. Christ, an Amtrak local stopping in every village, hamlet and burgh doesn’t take that long.
“Overnight, he went from acting like a leader to appearing to be an opportunistic liar. Voters remember that kind of shit, especially the undecided.”
Saving John’s Ass
It’s now Friday morning and my friend in Virginia is calling from his cell phone en route to the office. The traffic noise is drowning him out so he closes the car window.
“The morning papers are blaming John for the bailout plan tanking,” he says. “Why the fuck didn’t he stay on the campaign trail and be getting ready for the debate? I’ve had 15 texts already on my BlackBerry … “
The one John invented, I interrupt asking in jest.
“Jesus fucking Christ, whatever made him say that?” my friend grumbles bitterly, referring to a conference call on Sept. 16 with reporters where economic advisor Douglas Holtz-Eakin gave McCain credit for inventing the ubiquitous device. “Yeah, that one. Anyway, now people are trying to figure out how to pull John’s ass out of the fire.
“Go to the debate, don’t go debate. And what kind of a plausible explanation will play well for whatever he does.”
There’s a brief pause as my friend curses at someone cutting him off to run a red light on Wisconsin Ave.
“What McCain did was back himself into a corner. A politician never does that. Can you imagine Reagan or Clinton doing something so idiotic? If he doesn’t go, he looks bad because Obama will be debating an empty chair. If he goes, the last two days come across looking like a stunt.
“How do we save him from himself?”
How did the head office react at McCain’s announcement to suspend his campaign?
“Some people thought it was a brilliant way to finesse Obama, some thought it was a disaster waiting to happen, some just shrugged and went for coffee,” I’m told. “I mean, John’s on YouTube saying he doesn’t understand the economy and now he’s going to fix the most complicated piece of legislation in decades?”
I remind my buddy that Barney Frank described McCain’s action as “the Hail Mary of Hail May passes in the history of hails and the history of Mary.”
“There was a one-in-10 chance it might have worked,” he concedes ruefully, “and it still might. But so far, John has not been smelling exactly like roses.”
The campaign knew there were serious risks from the moment McCain and Davis came up with the idea, I’m told. For one thing, they thought they’d pushed Obama into a corner and he finessed his way around the manoeuvre. Then, they convinced a very reluctant White House to host a “summit meeting” which turned into a dog’s breakfast because the GOP went from backing a bi-partisan plan to tossing a totally new proposal on the table – hours after Republicans appeared at a joint news conference to announce a basic deal.
“I heard the Cabinet Room meeting went ballistic when Boehner said, ‘No deal, try this,’” he tells me. “Even the president was taken aback. Things got so rough, he had to shout to get some order in the room. Treasury and the Fed were pleading with Boehner not to screw things up at such a late hour.”
In fact, Politoco.com is reporting this morning that, after the meeting adjourned, Democrats went into the Roosevelt Room for a private discussion. Treasury Secretary Paul Paulson followed them and, on bent knee, begged Nancy Pelosi to keep her party on board. “I didn’t know you were Catholic,” Pelosi shot back, referring to Paulson’s genuflecting.
Apparently, someone saved McCain’s ass because by 11.30 EDT today, Politico was reporting that McCain announced he would, indeed, participate in tonight’s debate. As my two friends understood, Republicans realised the “debate later” concept was hurting McCain's campaign, and that he would look terrible if he didn't attend the debate while Obama sat alone onstage, answering Jim Lehrer’s questions.
The Other Shoe
Meanwhile, I’m told that many in the campaign seem to be waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Just before sending this article off, I received calls from both of my sources. While relieved that McCain has regained a bit of common – and political – sense, they’re each worried about what might happen next.
Lehrer has said that despite the foreign policy theme for tonight’s debate, he intends to open with questions about the economy and crisis on Wall St. Both McCain and Palin have looked bad on the issue since it broke. Polls show the nation already believes – by nearly 20 points – that Obama is better suited to fix the economy so anything McCain says will be measured from that perspective by viewers.
“It’s going to be hard for my guy to recover from what people already think about him,” The Voice tells me from her office. Adds my friend stuck in DC traffic, “I’m hoping he can run downfield and catch his own Hail Mary pass.”
*When I was young, oh so much younger than today, I believed that the United States would become completely unhinged at some point in my lifetime. This...