7to 13 February is pitched to Rolling Stone as a “down week” on the GOP Trail, an interval almost breathtaking in its political unsexiness. Last week was the NH shocker; next week is the mad dash to SC’s 19 Feb. primary, which the Twelve Monkeys all believe could now make or break both McCain and the Shrub. This week is the trenches: flesh-pressing, fundraising, traveling, poll-taking, strategizing, grinding out eight-event days in Michigan and Georgia and New York and SC. The Daily Press Schedule goes from 12-point type to 10. Warren MI Town Hall Meeting in Ukrainian Cultural Center. Saginaw County GOP Lincoln Day Dinner. Editorial Meeting w/ Detroit News. Press Conference at Weird Meth-Lab-Looking Internet Company in Flint. Redeye to North Savannah on Chartered 707 with Faint PanAm Still Stenciled on Tail. Spartanburg SC Town Hall Meeting. Closed Circuit TV Reception for McCain Supporters in Three States Broadcast Out of Charleston. AARP Town Forum. North Augusta THM. Live Town Hall Forum at Clemson U with Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s Hardball . Goose Creek THM. Press Conference in Greenville. Door-to-Door Campaigning with Congressmen Lindsey Graham and Mark Sanford and Senator Fred Thompson (R-TN) and About 300 Media in Florence SC. NASCAR Tour and Test-Drive at Darlington Raceway. National Guard Armory THM in Fort Mill. Six Hours Flying for Two-Hour Fundraiser with NYC Supporters. Congressman Lindsey Graham Hosts Weird BBQ for a Lot of Flinty-Eyed Men in Down Vests and Trucker’s Hats in Seneca SC. Book Signing at Chapter 11 Books in Atlanta. Taping of Tim Russert show for CNBC. Greer THM. Cyber-Fundraiser in Charleston. Larry King Live with Larry King Looking Even More Like a Giant Bug Than Usual. Press-Avail in Sumter. Walterboro THM. On and on. Breakfast a Krispy Kreme, lunch a sandwich in Saran and store-brand chips, supper anyone’s guess. Everyone but McCain is grim and stolid. “We’re in maybe a little bit of a trough in terms of excitement,” Travis concedes in his orientation for new pencils on Monday morning . . .
. . . Until that very day’s big tactical shift, which catches the McCain press corps unawares and gets all sorts of stuff underway for midweek’s dramatic tactical climax, the Chris Duren Incident, all of which is politically sexy and exciting as hell, though not quite in the kind of way you cheer for.
The big tactical shift starts in the F&F Room of something called the Riverfront Hotel in the almost unbelievably blighted and depressing Flint MI, where all the Express’s and Pimpmobile’s media are at 1500h. on 7 February while McCain is huddled with the staff High Command in a suite upstairs. There is no more definitive behind-scene locale in a primary campaign than the F&F Room, which is usually some hotel’s little third-string banquet- or meeting room off the lobby that McCain2000 rents (at the media’s expense, precisely prorated and tallied, just like each day’s seat on the buses and plane and the continental breakfasts before Baggage Call and even the F&F Rooms’ “catered lunches,” which today are weird bright-red ham on Wonder Bread, Fritos, and coffee that tastes like warm water with a brown crayon in it, and the pencils all bitch about the McCain2000 food and wistfully recount rumors that the Bush2000 press lunches are supposedly hot and multi-food-group and served on actual plates by unctuous men with white towels over their arm) so that those media with P.M. deadlines can write their stories and File and Feed. In Flint, the F&F Room is a 60' x 50' banquet room with fluorescent chandeliers and overpatterned carpet and eight long tables with fax machines and outlets and jacks and folding chairs (padded) for the corps to sit in and open notebooks and set up laptops and Sony SX- and DVS-Series Digital Editors and have at it. By 1515h., each chair is filled by a producer or pencil trying to eat and type and talk on the phone all at once, and there’s an enormous bespectacled kid of unknown origin and status going around with NoGlare™ Computer Screen Light Filters and Power Strip™ Anti-Surge Eight-Slot Adapters and offering technical support for people whose laptops or phones are screwing up, and Travis and Todd and the other Press Liaisons are handing out reams of daily Press Releases, and the whole F&F Room is up and running and alive with the quadruple-ding of Windows booting up, the honk and static of modem connections, the multiphase clicking of 40+ keyboards, the needly screech of fax gear saying Hi to New York and Atlanta and the murmur of people on headset phones doing same. The Twelve Monkeys have their own long table and are seated there in some very precise hierarchical order known only to them, each positioned exactly the same with his ankles crossed under his chair and a steno notebook and towering bottle of Evian at his left hand.
Everyone seems very touchy about anybody looking over their shoulder to see what they’re working on.
Those McCain2000 media without a daily deadline—meaning the techs, a very young guy from one of those weeklies that people can pick up free at Detroit supermarkets, and (after having no luck wandering around the tables trying to look over people’s shoulders) Rolling Stone —are at the back of the F&F room on a sort of very long makeshift ottoman composed of coats and luggage and non-hard cases of electronic gear. Even network techs, who are practically Zen masters at waiting around and killing time, are bored out of their minds at today’s F&F, where after racing back and forth to get all their gear off the bus in this scary neighborhood and making a chaise of it here in the back there’s nothing to do but they also can’t really go anywhere because their field producer might suddenly need help feeding tape. The way the techs handle deep boredom is to become extremely sluggish and torpid, so that lined up on the ottoman they look like an exhibit of lizards whose rock isn’t hot enough. Nobody reads. Pulse rates are about 40. The ABC cameraman lets his eyes almost close and naps in an unrestful way. The CBS and CNN techs, who like cards, today are not even bothering to play cards but are instead describing memorable card-games they’ve been in in the past. When Rolling Stone rejoins the techs on the ottoman there’s a brief and not unkind discussion of deadline-journalism’s privations and tensions and why looking over reporters’ shoulders when they’re typing is a faux pas. There are a lot of undistributed Power Strip Adapters lying around, and for a while the techs do a gentle snipe-hunting-type put-on of the Detroit free-weekly kid involving plugging in a whole lot of multi-outlet Power Strips and playing something they claim is called Death Cribbage, complete with rules and fake anecdotes about games of Death Cribbage in past F&F Rooms, until Jim C. finally explains that they’re just kidding and says the kid (who’s extremely nervous-seeming and eager to please) might as well put all the Power Strips back.
It’s taken less than a day to learn that the network techs—most of whom, granted, look and dress like aging roadies but are nevertheless 100% pro when it comes time to scrum or film a THM—are exponentially better to hang out with and listen to than anybody else on the Trail. It’s true that McCain’s younger staff and Press Liaisons are all very cool and laid-back and funny, with a very likable sort of Ivy League–frathouse camaraderie between them (their big thing this week is to come up to each other and pantomime karate-chopping the person’s neck and yell “Hiiii- ya!” so loudly it annoys the Twelve Monkeys), but their camaraderie is insular, sort of like a military unit that’s been through hard combat together, and even at the late-night bars they’re oddly cautious and reserved around pencils, and even off-record won’t talk very much about themselves or the campaign, clearly warned by the High Command to avoid diverting attention from their candidate or letting something slip that could hurt him in the press.
Even the techs can be guarded if you come on too much like press. Here at the Flint F&F one of the sound guys recounts an unverified and almost incredible incident involving some older tech friends of his actually smoking dope in the lavatory of then-candidate Jimmy Carter’s campaign plane in Feb. ’76—“There was some really wild shit went on back then, a lot more, like, you know, relaxed than the Trail is now”—but when asked for these older friends’ names and phone numbers (another serious faux pas, Jim C. explains later), the sound guy’s face clouds and he refuses both the names and permission to put the narrative in the RS notebook under any attribution less general than “one of the sound guys,” so the incident is mentioned here only as unverified, and for the rest of the week this particular sound guy clams up completely whenever he sees Rolling Stone anyplace around, which feels both sad and kind of flattering.
“OTS” is, as previously mentioned, Trailese for Opportunity To Smoke, which with very few exceptions only the techs seem to do—a lot —and which is sternly prohibited on the buses, even if you promise to exhale very carefully out the window; and so just about the only good thing about F&Fs is that they’re basically one long OTS, although even here you have to go all the way outside in the cold and look at Flint and the techs are required to get OTS-permission from their producers and let them know exactly where they’ll be. Outside the Riverfront’s side door off the parking lot, where it’s so cold and windy you have to smoke with mittens on (a practice Rolling Stone in no way recommends), Jim C. and his long-time friend and partner Frank C. detail various other Trail faux pas and expand with no small sympathy on the brutality of these campaign reporters’ existence: living out of suitcases and trying to keep their clothes pressed; praying that night’s hotel has Room Service; subsisting on the Campaign Diet, which is basically sugar and caffeine (diabetes is apparently the Black Lung of political journalism). Plus constant deadlines, and the pencils’ only friends on the Trail are also their competitors, whose articles they’re always reading but trying to do it secretly so they don’t look insecure. Four young men in jackets over sweatshirts with the hoods all the way up are circling the press’s Pimpmobile bus and boosting each other up to try the windows, and the two veteran techs just roll their eyes and wave. The Pimpmobile’s driver is nowhere in sight; no one knows where drivers go during F&Fs (though there is speculation). Also not recommended is trying to smoke in a high wind while jumping up and down in place. Plus, the NBC techs say, it’s not just campaigns: political media are always on the road in some type of box for weeks at a time, very alone, connected to loved ones only by cellphone and 1-800 answering service. Rolling Stone speculates that this is maybe why everybody in the McCain2000 press corps, from techs to 12M, sports a wedding band: it’s important to feel like there’s someone to come home to. (His wife’s slightly obsessive micromanagement of his health aside, Jim C. credits her presence on the Trail with preserving his basic sanity, at which Frank C. drolly credits his own wife’s absence from the Trail with preserving same.) Neither tech smokes filtereds. Rolling Stone mentions being in hotels every night, which before the faux pas shut him down as a source the anonymous sound guy had said was probably the McCain campaign media’s number-one stressor. The Shrub apparently stays in five-star places with putting greens and spurting-nymph fountains and a speed-dial number for the in-house masseur. Not McCain2000, which favors Marriott, Courtyard by Marriott, Hampton Inn, Hilton, Signature Inn, Radisson, Holiday Inn, Embassy Suites. Rolling Stone , who is in no way cut out to be a road journalist, invokes the soul-killing anonymity of chain hotels, the rooms’ terrible transient sameness: the ubiquitous floral design of the bedspreads, the multiple low-watt lamps, the pallid artwork bolted to the wall, the schizoid whisper of ventilation, the sad shag carpet, the smell of alien cleansers, the Kleenex dispensed from the wall, the automated wakeup call, the lightproof curtains, the windows that do not open—ever. The same TV with the same cable with the same voice saying Welcome To ____________ on its Channel 1’s eight-second loop. The sense that everything’s been touched by a thousand hands before. The sounds of others’ plumbing. RS asks whether it’s any wonder that over half of all U.S. suicides take place in chain hotels. Jim and Frank say they get the idea. Frank raises a ski glove in farewell as the young men at the bus give up and withdraw. RS references the chain hotel’s central paradox: the form of hospitality with none of the feeling—cleanliness becomes sterility, the politeness of the staff a vague rebuke. The terrible oxymoron of “hotel guest .” Hell could easily be a chain hotel. Is it any coincidence that McCain’s POW prison was known as the Hanoi Hilton ? Jim shrugs; Frank says you get used to it, that it’s better not to dwell. Network camera and sound techs earn incredible overtime for staying in the field with a campaign over long periods. Frank C. has been with McCain2000 w/o break since early January and won’t rotate out until Easter; the money will finance three months off during which he’ll engineer Indie records and sleep til eleven and not think once of hotels or scrums or the weird way your kidneys hurt after jouncing all day on a bus.
Monday, the first and only File & Feed in Michigan, is also the day of Rolling Stone ’s introduction to the Cellular Waltz, one of the most striking natural formations of the Trail. There’s a huge empty lobbylike space you have to pass through to get from the Riverfront’s side doors back to the area where the F&F and bathrooms are. It takes a long time to traverse this space, a hundred yards of nothing but flagstone walls and plaques with the sad pretentious names of the Riverfront’s banquet halls and conference rooms—the Oak Room, the Windsor Room—but on return from the OTS now out here are also half a dozen different members of the F&F Room’s press, each fifty feet away from any of the others, for privacy, and all walking in idle counterclockwise circles with a cellphone to their ear. These little orbits are the Cellular Waltz, which is probably the digital equivalent of doodling or picking at yourself as you talk on a regular landline. There’s something oddly lovely about the Waltz’s different circles here, which are of various diameters and stride-lengths and rates of rotation but are all identically counterclockwise and telephonic. We three slow down a bit to watch; you couldn’t not. From above—like if there were a mezzanine—the Waltzes would look like the cogs of some strange diffuse machine. Frank C. says he can tell by their faces something’s up. Jim C., who’s got his elderberry in one hand and cough syrup in the other, says what’s interesting is that media south of the equator do the exact same Cellular Waltz but that down there all the circles are reversed.
And it turns out Frank C. was right as usual, that the reason press were dashing out and Waltzing urgently in the lobby is that sometime during our OTS word had apparently started to spread in the F&F Room that Mr. Mike Murphy of the McCain2000 High Command was coming down to do a surprise impromptu -Avail regarding a fresh two-page Press Release (still slightly warm from the Xerox) which Travis and Todd are passing out even now, and of which the first page is reproduced here:
This document is unusual not only because McCain2000’s Press Releases are normally studies in bland irrelevance—“McCAIN TO CONTINUE CAMPAIGNING IN MICHIGAN TODAY”; “McCAIN HAS TWO HELPINGS OF POTATO SALAD AT SOUTH CAROLINA VFW PICNIC”—but because no less a personage than Mike Murphy has indeed now just come down to Spin this abrupt change of tone in the campaign’s rhetoric. Murphy, who is only 37 but seems older, is the McCain campaign’s Senior Strategist, a professional political consultant who’s already had eighteen winning Senate and gubernatorial campaigns and is as previously mentioned a constant and acerbic presence in McCain’s press salon aboard the Express. He’s a short, bottom-heavy man, pale in a kind of yeasty way, with baby-fine red hair on a large head and sleepy turtle eyes behind the same type of intentionally nerdy hornrims that a lot of musicians and college kids now wear. He has short thick limbs and blunt exremities and is always seen either slumped low in a chair or leaning on something. Oxymoron or no, what Mike Murphy really looks like is a giant dwarf. Among political pros, he has the reputation of being (1) smart and funny as hell and (2) a real attack-dog, working for clients like Oliver North, New Jersey’s Christine Todd Whitman, and Michigan’s own John Engler in campaigns that were absolute operas of nastiness, and known for turning out what the NY Times delicately called “some of the most rough-edged commercials in the business.” He’s leaning back against the F&F Room’s wall in that way where you have your hands behind your lower back and sort of bounce forward and back on the hands, wearing exactly what he’ll wear all week—viz. yellow twill trousers and brown Clark Wallabies and an ancient and very cool-looking leather jacket—and surrounded in a 180º arc by the Twelve Monkeys, all of whom have steno notebooks or tiny professional tape recorders out and keep clearing their throats and pushing their glasses up with excitement.
Murphy says he’s “just swung by” to provide the press corps with “some context” on the strident Press Release and to give the corps advance notice that the McCain campaign is also preparing a special “response ad” which will start airing in South Carolina tomorrow. Murphy uses the words “response” or “response ad” nine times in two minutes, and when one of the Twelve Monkeys interrupts to ask whether it’d be fair to characterize this new ad as Negative, Murphy gives him a long styptic look and spells “r-e-s-p-o-n-s-e” out very slowly. Where he’s leaning and bouncing against is the part of the wall between the F&F door and the little round table still piled with uneaten sandwiches (to which the hour has not been kind), and the Twelve Monkeys and some field producers and lesser pencils form a perfect half-scrum around him, with various press joining the back or peeling away to go out and Cell-Waltz these new developments in to HQ.
Mike Murphy tells the hemispheric scrum that the Press Release and new ad reflect the McCain2000 campaign’s decision, after much agonizing, to respond to what he says is G. W. Bush’s welshing on the two candidates’ public handshake-agreement in January to run a bilaterally positive campaign. For the past five days, mostly in New York and SC, the Shrub has apparently been running ads that characterize McCain’s policy proposals in what Murphy terms a “willfully distorting” way. Plus there’s the push-polling (see P. Release supra ), a practice that is regarded as the absolute bottom-feeder of sleazy campaign tactics (Rep. Lindsey Graham, introducing McCain at tomorrow’s THMs, will describe push-polling to South Carolina audiences as “the crack cocaine of modern politics”). But the worst, the most obviously unacceptable, Murphy emphasizes, was the Shrub standing up at a podium in SC a couple days ago with a wild-eyed and apparently notorious “fringe veteran” who publicly accused John McCain of “abandoning his fellow veterans” after returning from Vietnam, which, Murphy says, without going into Senator McCain’s well-documented personal bio and heroic legislative efforts on behalf of vets for nearly twenty years (Murphy’s voice rises an octave here, and blotches of color appear high on his cheeks, and it’s clear he’s personally hurt and aggrieved, which means that either he maybe really personally likes and believes in John S. McCain III or else has the frightening ability to raise angry blotches on his cheeks at will, the way certain great actors can make themselves cry on cue) is just so clearly over the line of even minimal personal decency and honor that it pretty much necessitates some sort of response.
The Twelve Monkeys, who are also old pros at this sort of exchange, keep trying to steer Murphy away from what the Shrub’s done and get him to give a quotable explanation of why McCain himself has decided to run this “response ad,” a transcript of which Travis and Todd are now distributing from a fresh copier-box and which is, with various parties’ indulgence, also now replicated here—
I guess it was bound to happen.
Governor Bush’s campaign is getting desperate with a negative ad about me.
The fact is, I will use the surplus money to fix Social Security, cut your taxes, and pay down the debt.
Governor Bush uses all the surplus for tax cuts, with not one new penny for Social Security or the debt.
His ad twists the truth like Clinton.
We’re all pretty tired of that.
As President, I’ll be conservative, and always tell you the truth, no matter what.
—of which ad-transcript the 12M point out that in particular the “twists the truth like Clinton” part seems Negative indeed, since in ’00 comparing a GOP candidate to Bill Clinton is roughly equivalent to claiming that he wears ladies’ underwear while presiding over Black Masses. But Mike Murphy—part of whose job as Senior Strategist is to act as a kind of diversionary lightning rod for any tactical criticism of McCain himself—says that he, Mike Murphy, was actually the driving force behind the ad’s “strong response,” that he “pushed real hard” for the ad and finally got “the campaign” to agree only after “a great deal of agonizing, because Senator McCain’s been very clear with you guys about wanting a campaign we can all be proud of.” One thing political reporters are really good at, though, is rephrasing a query ever so slightly so that they get to keep asking the same basic question over and over when they don’t get the answer they want, and after several minutes of this they finally get Murphy to bring his hands out and up in a kind of what-are-you-gonna-do and to say: “Look, I’m not going to let them go around smearing my guy for five days without retaliating,” which then leads to several more minutes of niggling semantic questions about the difference between “respond” and “retaliate,” at the end of which Murphy, reaching slowly over and poking at one of the table’s sandwiches with clinical interest, says: “If Bush takes down his negative ads, we’ll pull the response right away. Immediately. Quote me,” then turning to go. “That’s all I swung by to tell you.” The back of his leather jacket has a spot of what’s either White-Out or bird guano on it. Murphy’s hard not to like, though in a very different way from his candidate. Where McCain comes off almost brutally open and direct, Murphy’s demeanor is sly and cagey in a twinkly-eyed way that makes you think he’s making fun of his own slyness. He can be direct, though. One of the scrum’s oldest and most elite 12M calls out one last time that surely after all there aren’t any guns to candidates’ heads in this race, that surely Mike (the Monkeys call him Mike) would have to admit that simply refusing to “quote, ‘respond’” to Bush and thereby “staying on the high road” was something McCain could have done; and Murphy’s dernier cri , over his dappled shoulder, is: “You guys want a pacifist, go support Bradley.”
For the remainder of the at least half hour before John McCain is finally ready to get back on the Express (N.B. that McCain is later revealed to have had a sore throat today, apparently sending the staff High Command into paroxysms of terror that he was coming down with the same Campaign Flu that’s been ravaging the press corps [Jim C.’s own Campaign Flu will turn into bronchitis and then probably slight pneumonia, and for three days in South Carolina the whole rest of Bullshit 1’s regulars will rearrange themselves to give Jim a couch to himself to sleep on during long DTs, because he’s really sick, and it isn’t until Friday that there’s enough free time for Jim even to go get antibiotics, and still all week he’s up and filming every speech and scrum, and is in RS ’s opinion incredibly manly and uncomplaining about the Campaign Flu, unlike the Twelve Monkeys, many of whom keep taking their temperatures and feeling their glands and whining into their cellphones to be rotated out, so that by midweek in SC there are really only nine Monkeys, then eight Monkeys, although the techs, out of respect for tradition, keep referring to them as the Twelve Monkeys], and it emerged that the Flint F&F was so protracted because Mrs. McC. and Wendy and McCain2000 Political Director John Weaver had McCain up there gargling and breathing steam and pounding echinacea) to head over to Saginaw, the techs, while checking their equipment and gearing up for the scrum at the Riverfront’s main doors, listen to Rolling Stone ’s summary of the Press Release and Murphy’s comments, confirm that the Shrub has indeed gone Negative (they’d heard about all this long before the Twelve Monkeys et al., because the techs and field producers are in constant touch with their colleagues on the Shrub’s buses, whereas the Monkeys’ Bush2000 counterparts are as aloof and niggardly about sharing info as the 12M themselves), and kill the last of the time in the Flint F&F by quietly analyzing Bush2’s Negativity and McCain’s response from a tactical point of view.
Leaving aside their aforementioned coolness and esprit de corps, you should be apprised that Rolling Stone ’s one and only real journalistic coup this week is his happening to bumble into hanging around with these camera and sound guys. This is because network news techs—who all have worked countless campaigns, and who have neither the raging egos of journalists nor the self-interested agenda of the McCain2000 staff to muddy their perspective—turn out to be way more acute and sensible political analysts than anybody you’ll read or see on TV, and their assessment of today’s Negativity developments is so extraordinarily nuanced and sophisticated that only a small portion of it can be ripped off and summarized here.
Going Negative is risky. Countless polls have shown that voters find Negativity distasteful, and if a candidate is perceived as going Negative, it usually costs him. So the techs all agree that the first question is why Bush2000 started playing this card. One possible explanation is that the Shrub was so personally shocked and scared by McCain’s win in New Hampshire that he’s now lashing out like a spoiled child and trying to hurt McCain however he can. The techs reject this, though. Spoiled child or no, G. W. Bush is a creature of his campaign advisors, and these advisors are the best that $70 million and the full faith and credit of the GOP Establishment can buy, and are not spoiled children but seasoned tactical pros, and if Bush2000 has gone Negative there must be solid political logic behind the move.
This logic turns out to be indeed solid, even brilliant, and the NBC, CBS, and CNN techs flesh it out while the ABC cameraman puts several emergency sandwiches in his lens bag for tonight’s flight south on a campaign plane whose provisioning is notoriously inconsistent. The Shrub’s attack leaves McCain with two options. If he does not retaliate, some SC voters will credit McCain for taking the high road. But it could also come off as wimpy, might compromise McCain’s image as a tough, take-no-shit guy with the balls to take on the Washington kleptocracy. Not responding could also look like “appeasing aggression,” which for a candidate whose background is military and who spends a lot of time talking about rebuilding the armed forces and being less of a candy-ass in foreign policy would not be good, especially in a state with a higher percentage of both vets and gun nuts than any other (which SC’s got). So McCain pretty much has to strike back, the techs agree. But this is extremely dangerous, for by retaliating—which of course (despite all Murphy’s artful dodging) means going Negative himself—McCain runs the risk of looking like just another ambitious, win-at-any-cost politician, when after all so much time and effort and money has gone into casting him as the 180º opposite of that. Plus an even bigger reason why McCain can’t afford to let the Shrub “pull him down to his level” (this in the phrase of the CBS cameraman, a Louisianan who’s quite a bit shorter than the average tech and so besides all his other equipment has to lug a little aluminum stepladder around to stand on with his camera during scrums, which decreases his mobility but is compensated for by what the other techs agree is an almost occult ability to always find the perfect place to set up his ladder and film at just the right angle for what his HQ wants—Jim C. says the tiny Southerner is “technically about as good as they come”) is that if Bush then turns around and retaliates against the retaliation and so McCain then has to re-retaliate against Bush’s retaliation, and so on, the whole GOP race could quickly degenerate into just the sort of boring, depressing, cynical charge-and-counter-charge contest that turns voters off and keeps them away from the polls . . . especially Young Voters, cynicism-wise, Rolling Stone and the underage pencil from the free Detroit weekly thing venture to point out, both now scribbling just as furiously with the techs as the 12M were with Murphy. The techs say well OK maybe but that the really important tactical point here is that John S. McCain cannot afford to have voters get turned off, since his whole strategy is based on exciting the people and inspiring them and pulling more voters in , especially those who’d stopped voting because they’d gotten so disgusted and bored with all the Negativity and bullshit of politics. In other words, RS and the Detroit free-weekly kid propose to the techs, it’s maybe actually even in the Shrub’s own political self-interest to let the GOP race get ugly and Negative and have voters get so bored and cynical and disgusted with the whole thing that they don’t even bother to vote. Well no shit Sherlock H., the ABC techs in essence respond, good old Frank C. then explaining more patiently that, yes, if there’s a low voter-turnout, then the majority of the people who get off their ass and do vote will be the Diehard Republicans, meaning the Christian Right and the party faithful, and these are the groups that vote as they’re told, the ones controlled by the GOP Establishment, an Establishment that’s got $70,000,000 and 100% of its own credibility invested in the Shrub. CNN’s Mark A. takes time out from doing special stretching exercises that increase bloodflow to his arms (sound techs are very arm-conscious, since positioning a boom mike correctly in a scrum requires holding 10-foot sticks and 4.7-pound boom mikes [that’s 4.7 without the weasel] horizontally out from the tops of their fully extended arms for long periods [which try this with an industrial broom or extension pruner sometime if you think it’s easy], with the added proviso that the heavy mike at the end can’t wobble or dip into the cameras’ shot or [God forbid, and there are horror stories] clunk the candidate on the top of the head) in order to insert that this also explains why the amazingly lifelike Al Gore, over in the Democratic race, has been so relentlessly Negative and depressing in his attacks on Bill Bradley: since Gore, like the Shrub, has his party’s Establishment behind him, with all its organization and money and the Diehards who’ll fall into line and vote as they’re told, it’s in Big Al’s (and his party’s bosses’) interest to draw as few voters as possible into the Democratic primaries, because the lower the overall turnout, the more the Establishment voters’ ballots actually count (w/r/t which reasoning see also WHO EVEN CARES WHO CARES , supra ). Which fact then in turn, the short but highly respected CBS cameraman says, helps explain why, even though our elected representatives are always wringing their hands and making concerned sounds about low voter-turnouts, nothing substantive ever gets done to make politics less ugly or depressing or to actually induce more people to vote: our elected representatives are incumbents, and low turnouts favor incumbents for the same reason soft money does.
Let’s pause here one second for a quick Rolling Stone PSA. If you are demographically a Young Voter, it is again worth a moment of your valuable time to consider the implications of the techs’ last couple points. If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who rest assured are not dumb and are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible psychological reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV Spring Break on Primary Day. By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting : you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.
So anyway, by this time all the press in the Flint F&F Room are demodemizing and ejecting diskettes and packing up their stuff and getting ready to go cover John McCain’s 1800h. speech at the GOP Lincoln Day Dinner in Saginaw, where a Republican dressed as Uncle Sam will show up on 8Zfoot stilts and totter around the dim banquet hall through the whole thing and nearly crash into the network crews’ riser several times and bug the hell out of everyone, and where the Twelve Monkeys will bribe or bullshit the headwaiter into seating them at a no-show table and feeding them supper while all the rest of the press corps has to stand in the back of the hall and try to help the slightly mad Economist guy cabbage breadsticks when nobody’s looking. Watching the techs gear up to go scrum around McCain as he boards the Express is a little like watching soldiers outfit themselves for combat: there are numerous multi-part packs and devices and cases to strap across backs and chests and to loop around waists and connect and lock down, and pieces of high-priced machinery to load with filters and tape and bulbs and reserve power cells and connect to each other with complex cords and co-ax cable, and weasels to wrap around high-filter boom mikes and sticks to choose and carefully telescope out all the way til they look like probosces of some monstrous insect and bob, slightly—the sound men’s sticks and mikes do—as the techs in the scrum keep pace with McCain and try to keep his head in the center of their shot and right underneath the long stick’s mike in case he says something newsworthy. McCain has on a fresh blue pinstripe suit, and his complexion is hectic with CF fever or tactical adrenaline, and as he passes through the Riverfront lobby toward the scrum there’s a faint backwash of quality aftershave, and from behind him you can see Cindy McCain using her exquisitely manicured hands to whisk lint off his shoulders, and at moments like this it’s extremely hard not to feel enthused and to really like this man and want to support him in just about any sort of feasible way you can think of.
Plus the single best part of every pre-scrum technical gear-up: watching the cameramen haul their heavy $40,000 rigs to their shoulders like rocket launchers and pull the safety strap tight under their opposite arm and ram the clips home with practiced ease, their postures canted under the camera’s weight. It is Jim C.’s custom always to say “ Up, Simba”in a fake-deep bwana voice as he hefts the camera to his right shoulder, and he and Frank C. like to do a little pantomime of the way football players will bang their helmets together to get pumped for a big game, although obviously the techs do it carefully and make sure their equipment doesn’t touch or tangle cords.
But so the techs’ assessment, then, is that Bush2’s going Negative is both tactically sound and politically near-brilliant, and that it forces McCain’s own strategists to walk a very tight wire indeed in formulating a response. What McCain has to try to do is retaliate without losing the inspiring high-road image that won him New Hampshire. This is why Mike Murphy took valuable huddle-with-candidate time to come down to the F&F and spoonfeed the Twelve Monkeys all this stuff about Bush’s attacks being so far over the line that they had no choice but to “respond.” Because the McCain2000 campaign has got to Spin today’s retaliation the same way nations Spin war, i.e. McCain has to make it appear that he is not being actually aggressive himself but is merely “repelling aggression.” It will require enormous discipline and cunning for McCain2000 to pull this off. And tomorrow’s “response ad”—in the techs’ opinion as the transcript’s passed around—this ad is not a promising start, discipline-and-cunning-wise, especially the “twists the truth like Clinton” line that the 12M jumped on Murphy for. This line’s too mean. McCain2000 could have chosen to put together a much softer and smarter ad patiently “correcting” certain “unfortunate errors” in Bush’s ads and “respectfully requesting” that the push-polling cease (with everything in quotes here being Jim C.’s suggested terms) and striking just the right high-road tone. The actual ad’s “twists like Clinton” does not sound high-road; it sounds pissy, aggressive. And it will allow Bush to do a React and now say that it’s McCain who’s violated the handshake-agreement and broken the 11ththCommandment (= “Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of Another Republican,” which Diehard GOPs take very seriously) and gone way over the line . . . which the techs say will of course be bullshit, but that it might be effective bullshit, and that it’s McCain’s aggressive ad that’s giving the Shrub the opening to do it.
If it’s a mistake, then, why is McCain doing it? By this time the techs are on the bus, after the hotel-exit scrum but before the Saginaw-entrance scrum, and since it’s only a ten-minute ride they have their cameras down and sticks retracted but all their gear still strapped on, which forces them to sit up uncomfortably straight and wince at bumps, and in the Pimpmobile’s mirrored ceiling they look even more like sci-fi combat troops on their way to some alien beachhead. The techs’ basic analysis of the motivation behind “twists the truth like Clinton” is that McCain is genuinely, personally pissed off at the Shrub, and that he has taken Murphy’s leash off and let Murphy do what Murphy does best, which is gutter-fight. McCain, after all, is known for having a temper (though he’s been extremely controlled in the campaign so far and never shown it in public), and Jim C. thinks that maybe the truly ingenious thing the Shrub’s strategists did here was find a way to genuinely piss McCain off and make him want to go Negative even though John Weaver and the rest of the staff High Command had to have warned him that this was playing right into Bush2000’s hands. This analysis suddenly reminds Rolling Stone of the thing in The Godfather where Sonny Corleone’s fatal flaw is his temper, which Barzini and Tattaglia exploit by getting Carlo to beat up Connie and make Sonny so insanely angry that he drives off to kill Carlo and gets assassinated in Barzini’s ambush at that tollbooth on the Richmond Parkway. Jim C., sweating freely and trying not to cough with forty pounds of gear on, says he supposes there are some similiarities, and Randy van R.—the taciturn but cinephilic CNN cameraman—speculates that the Shrub’s brain-trust may actually have based their whole strategy on Barzini’s ingenious ploy in The Godfather , whereupon Frank C. observes that Bush’s equivalent to slapping Connie Corleone around was standing up with the wacko vet who claimed McCain dissed his Vietnam comrades, which at first looked kind of stupid and unnecessarily nasty of Bush but from another perspective might have been sheer genius if it made McCain so angry that his desire to retaliate outweighed his political judgment.3 Because, Frank C. warns, this retaliation, and Bush’s response to it, and McCain’s response to Bush’s response—this will be all that the Twelve Monkeys and the rest of the pro corps are interested in, and if McCain lets things get too ugly he won’t be able to get anybody to pay attention to anything else.
It would, of course, have been just interesting as hell for Rolling Stone to have gotten to watch the top-level meetings at which John McCain and John Weaver and Mike Murphy and the rest of the campaign’s High Command hashed all this out and decided on the Press Release and response ad, but of course strategy sessions like these are journalistically impenetrable, if for no other reason than that it is the media who are the real object and audience for whatever strategies these sessions come up with, the critics who’ll decide how it plays (with Murphy’s “special advance notice” in the F&F being the strategy’s opening performance, as everyone in the F&F Room was aware but no one said aloud).
But it turns out to be good enough just to get to hear the techs pass the time by deconstructing today’s big moves, because events of the next few days bear out their analysis pretty much 100 percent. On Tuesday morning, on the Radisson’s TV in North Savannah SC, both Today and G.M.A. lead with “The GOP campaign takes an ugly turn” and show the part of McCain’s new ad where he says “twists the truth like Clinton”; and sure enough by midday the good old Shrub has put out a React where he accuses John S. McCain of violating the handshake-agreement and going Negative and says (the Shrub does) that he (the Shrub) is “personally offended and outraged” at being compared to W. J. Clinton; and at six THMs and -Avails in a row all around South Carolina McCain carps about the push-polling and “Governor Bush’s surrogates attacking [him] and accusing [him] of abandoning America’s veterans,” each time sounding increasingly reedy and peevish and with a vein that nobody’s noticed before starting to appear and pulse in his left temple when he starts in on the veteran thing; and then at a Press-Avail in Hilton Head the Shrub avers that he knows less than nothing about any so-called push-polling and suggests that the whole thing might have been fabricated as a sleazy political ploy on McCain2000’s part; and then on Wednesday A.M. on TV at the Embassy Suites in Charleston there’s now an even more aggressive ad that Murphy’s gotten McCain to let him run, which new ad accuses Bush of unilaterally violating the handshake-pledge and going Negative and then shows a nighttime shot of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.’s famous façade with its palisade of blatantly ejaculatory fountains in the foreground and says “Can America afford another politician in the White House that we can’t trust?,” which grammatical problems aside Frank C. says that that shot of the White House is really going low with the knife and that if McCain loses South Carolina it may very well be because of this ad; and sure enough by Wednesday night focus polls are showing that South Carolina voters are finding McCain’s new ad Negative and depressing, which focus polls the Shrub seizes on and crows about while meanwhile Bush2000’s strategists, “in response” to McCain’s “outrageous” equation of Bush2with W. J. Clinton, which “impugns [Bush’s] character and deeply offends [him],” start running a new ad of their own that shows a clip of the handshake in NH and then some photo of McCain looking angry and vicious and says “John McCain shook hands and promised a clean campaign, then attacked Governor Bush with misleading ads” and then apparently just for good measure tosses in a quote from 4 Feb.’s NBC Nightly News that says “McCain solicited money from organizations appearing before his Senate Committee . . . and pressured agencies on behalf of his contributors,” about which quote Jim C. (who, recall, works for NBC News) says the original NBC Nightly News report was actually just about Bush supporters’ charges that McCain had done these things, and thus that the ad’s quote is decontextualized in a really blatantly sleazy and misleading way, but of course by this time—Thursday 10 Feb., 0745h., proceeding in convoy formation to the day’s first THMs in Spartanburg and Greenville—it doesn’t matter, because there’ve been so many charges and deep offenses and countercharges that McCain’s complaining about the deceptive quote would just be one more countercharge, which Jim C. says is surely why Bush2000 felt they could mangle the quote and get away with it, which verily they appear to have done, because SC polls have both McCain’s support and the primary’s projected voter-turnout falling like rocks, and the techs are having to spend all their time helping their field producers find the “fighting words” in every tape and feed them to the networks because that’s all the networks want, and everyone on Bullshit 1&2 is starting to get severely dispirited and bored, and even the 12M’s strides have lost a certain pigeon-toed spring . . .
. . . And then out of nowhere comes the dramatic tactical climax mentioned way above, which hits the media like a syringe of Narcan and makes all five networks’ news that night. It occurs at the Spartanburg THM, whose venue is a small steep theater in the Fine Arts Center of a small college nobody ever did find out the name of, and is so packed by the time the McCain2000 press corps gets there that even the aisles are full, so that everybody except the techs and their producers is out in the lobby, which is itself teeming with college kids who couldn’t get a seat either and are standing around taking notes for something called Speech Com 210—McCain’s visit’s apparently some sort of class assignment—and rather gratifying RS by continually looking over the 12M’s shoulders to see what they’re writing. Next to the free-pastry-and-sign-up-for-McCain2000-volunteering table is a heavy vertical oak joist or beam, to each of whose four sides has been attached somehow a 24-inch color monitor that’s tapping CNN’s video feed, which stays tight on McCain’s face against the backdrop’s huge flag (where do they get these giant flags? What happens to them when there’s no campaign? Where do you even store flags that size? Or is there just one, that McCain2000’s advance team has to take down afterward and hurtle with to the next THM to get it put up before McCain and the cameras arrive? Do Gore and the Shrub and all of the candidates each have their own giant flag?), and if you pick your path carefully you can orbit the beam very fast and see McCain delivering his 22.5 to all points of the compass at once. The lobby’s front wall is glass, and in the gravel courtyard just outside is a breathtaking twenty-part Cellular Waltz going on around two local news vans throbbing at idle and raising their 40-foot microwave transmitters, plus four well-dressed local male heads with hand mikes doing their standups, each attached to his tech by a cord. Compared to Schieffer and Bloom and the network talent on the S.T. Express, the local male heads always seem almost alienly lurid: their makeup makes their skin orange and their lips violet, and their hair’s all so gelled you can see things reflected in it. The local vans’ transmitters’ dishes, rising like huge ghastly flowers on their telescoping poles, all turn to face identically southwest toward Southeast Regional Microwave Relay #434B outside Greenville.
To be honest, all the national pencils would probably be out here in the lobby even if the theater weren’t full, because after a few days McCain’s opening THM 22.5 becomes almost wrist-slittingly dull and repetitive. Journalists who’ve covered McCain since Christmas report that Murphy et al. have worked hard on him to become more “Message-Disciplined,” which in politicalspeak means reducing everything as much as possible to brief, memory-friendly slogans and then punching those slogans over and over. The result is that the McCain corps’ pencils have now heard every Message-Disciplined bit of the 22.5—from McCain’s opening joke about getting mistaken for a Grampa at his children’s school, to “It doesn’t take much talent to get shot down,” to “The Iron Triangle of money, lobbyists, and legislation,” to “Clinton’s feckless photo-op foreign policy,” to “As president, I won’t need any on-the-job training,” to “I feel like Luke Skywalker trying to get off the Death Star,” to “I’m going to beat Al Gore like a drum,” plus two or three dozen other bits that sound like crosses between a nightclub act and a motivational seminar—so many times that they just can’t stand it anymore, and while they have to be at the THMs in case anything big or Negative happens they’ll go anywhere and do just about anything to avoid having to listen to the 22.5 again, plus of course to the laughter and cheers and wild applause of a THM crowd that’s hearing it all for the first time, which is basically why they’re now all out here in the lobby ogling coeds and arguing about which silent-movie diva the poor local heads’ eyeshadow most resembles.
In fairness to McCain, he’s not an orator and doesn’t pretend to be. His métier is conversation, back-and-forth. This is because he’s bright in a fast, flexible way that most candidates aren’t. He also genuinely seems to find people and questions and arguments energizing—the latter maybe because of all his years debating in Congress—which is why he favors Town Hall Q&As and constant chats with press in his rolling salon. So, while the media marvel at his accessibility because they’ve been trained to equate it with vulnerability, they don’t seem to realize they’re playing totally to McCain’s strength when they converse with him instead of listening to his speeches. In conversation he’s smart and alive and human and seems actually to listen and respond directly to you instead of some demographic abstraction you might represent. It’s his speeches and 22.5s that are canned and stilted, and also sometimes scary and Right-Wingish, and when you listen closely to some of them it’s as if some warm pleasant fog suddenly lifts and it strikes you that you’re not at all sure it’s John McCain you want to be your Commander in Chief of the War on Drugs or to choose the three or four new Justices who’ll probably be coming onto the Supreme Court in the next term, and you start wondering all over again what makes the guy so attractive.
But then the doubts again dissolve when McCain starts taking questions at THMs, which by now is what’s underway in Spartanburg. McCain always starts this part by telling the crowd he invites “questions, comments, and the occasional insult from any U.S. Marines who might be here today” (which, again, gets radically less funny with repetition [apparently the Navy and Marines tend not to like each other] ). The questions always run the great vox populi gamut, from Talmudically bearded guys asking about Chechnya and tort reform to high-school kids reading questions off printed sheets their hands shake as they hold, from moms worried about their babies’ future SSI to ancient vets in Legion caps who call McCain “Lieutenant” and want to trade salutes, plus the obligatory walleyed fundamentalists trying to pin him down on whether Christ really called homosexuality an abomination (w/ McCain, to his credit, pointing out that they don’t even have the right Testament), and arcane questions about index-fund regulation and postal privatization, and HMO horror stories, and Internet porn, and tobacco litigation, and people who believe the Second Amendment entitles them to own grenade launchers. The questions are random and unscreened, and the candidate fields them all, and he’s never better or more human than in these exchanges, especially when the questioner is angry or wacko—McCain will say “I respectfully disagree” or “We have a difference of opinion” and then detail his objections in lucid English with a gentleness that’s never condescending. For a man with a temper, a reputation for suffering fools ungladly, McCain is unbelievably patient and decent with people at THMs, especially when you consider that he’s 63, sleep-deprived, in chronic pain, and under enormous pressure not to gaffe or get himself in trouble. He doesn’t. No matter how stale and Message-Disciplined the 22.5 at the beginning, in the Town Hall Q&As you get an overwhelming sense that this is a decent, honorable man trying to tell the truth to people he really sees. You will not be alone in this impression.
Among the techs and non-simian pencils, the feeling is that McCain’s single finest human moment of the campaign so far was at the Warren MI Town Hall Meeting on Monday, in the Q&A, when a middle-aged man in a sportcoat and beret, a man who didn’t look in any way unusual but turned out to be insane—meaning literally, as in DSM IV–grade schizophrenic—came to the mike and said the government of Michigan has a mind-control machine and influences brainwaves and that not even wrapping roll after roll of aluminum foil around your head with only the tiniest pinpricks for eyes and breathing stopped them from influencing brainwaves and says he wants to know if McCain is president will he use Michigan’s mind-control machine to catch the murderers and pardon the Congress and compensate him personally for sixty long years of government mind-control, and can he get it in writing. The question is not funny; the room’s silence is horrified. Think how easy it would have been for a candidate then to blanch or stumble, or have hard-eyed aides remove the man, or—worst—to have made fun of the guy in order to defuse everyone’s horror and embarrassment and try to score humor-points with the crowd, at which most of the younger pencils would probably have fainted dead away from cynical disgust because the poor guy is still standing there at the mike and looking earnestly up at McCain, awaiting an answer. Which McCain, incredibly, sees —the man’s humanity, the seriousness of these issues to him—and says yes, he will, he’ll promise to look into it, and yes he’ll put this promise in writing, although he “believe[s] [they] have a difference of opinion about this mind-control machine,” and in short defuses the insane man and treats him respectfully without patronizing him or pretending to be schizophrenic too, and does it all so quickly and gracefully and with such basic decency that if it was some sort of act then McCain is the devil himself. Which the techs, later, after the post-THM Press-Avail and scrum, degearing aboard the ghastly Pimpmobile, say McCain is not (the devil) and that they were, to a man, moved by the unfakable humanity of the exchange, and yet at the same time impressed with McCain’s professionalism in disarming the guy, and Jim C. urges Rolling Stone not to be so cynical as to reject out of hand the possibility that the two can coexist—human genuineness and political professionalism—because it’s the great yin-and-yang paradox of the McCain2000 campaign, and is so much more interesting than the sort of robotic unhuman all-pro campaign he’s used to that Jim says he almost doesn’t mind the grind this time.
Maybe they really can coexist. Humanity and politics, shrewdness and decency. But it gets complicated. In Spartanburg’s Q&A, after two China questions and one on taxing Internet commerce, as most of the lobby’s pencils are still at the glass making fun of the local heads, a totally demographically average thirty-something middle-class soccer mom in rust-colored slacks and those round, overlarge glasses totally average thirty-something soccer moms always wear gets picked and stands and somebody brings her the mike. It turns out her name is Donna Duren, of right here in Spartanburg SC, and she says she has a 14-year-old son named Chris, in whom Mr. and Mrs. Duren have been trying to inculcate family values and respect for authority and a non-cynical idealism about America and its duly elected leaders. They want him to find heroes he can believe in, she says. Donna Duren’s whole story takes a while, but nobody’s bored, and even on the four-faced monitor you can sense a change in the THM’s theater’s voltage, and the national pencils come away from the front’s glass and start moving in and elbowing people aside (which they’re really good at) to get close to the monitor’s screens. Mrs. Duren says that Chris—clearly a sensitive kid—was “made very very upset” by the M. Lewinsky scandal and the R-rated revelations and the appalling behavior of Clinton and Starr and Tripp and pretty much everybody on all sides during the impeachment thing, and Chris had a lot of very upsetting and uncomfortable questions that Mr. and Mrs. D. struggled to answer, and that basically it was a really hard time but they got through it. And then last year, at more or less a trough in terms of idealism and respect for elected authority, she says, Chris had discovered John McCain and McCain2000.com, and got interested in the campaign, and the parents had apparently read him some G-rated parts of Faith of My Fathers , and the upshot is that young Chris finally found a public hero he could believe in: John S. McCain III. It’s impossible to know what McCain’s face is doing during this story because the monitors are taking CNN’s feed and Randy van R. of CNN’s lens is staying hard and steady on Donna Duren, who appears so iconically prototypical and so thoroughly exudes the special quiet dignity of an average American who knows she’s average and just wants a decent, non-cynical life for herself and her family that she can say things like “family values” and “hero” without anybody rolling their eyes. But then last night, Mrs. D. says, as they were all watching some wholesome nonviolent TV in the family room, the phone suddenly rang upstairs, and Chris went up and got it, and Mrs. D. says a little while later he came back down into the family room crying and just terribly upset and told them the phone call had been a man who started talking to him about the 2000 campaign and asked Chris if he knew that John McCain was a liar and a cheater and that anybody who’d vote for John McCain was either stupid or un-American or both. That caller had been a push-poller for Bush2000, Mrs. Duren says, knuckles on her mike-hand white and voice almost breaking, distraught in a totally average and moving parental way, and she says she just wanted Senator McCain to know about it, about what happened to Chris, and wanted to know whether anything can be done to keep people like this from calling innocent young kids and plunging them into disillusionment and confusion about whether they’re stupid for trying to have heroes they believe in.
At which point (0853 EST) two things happen out here in the Fine Arts lobby. The first is that the national pencils disperse in a radial pattern, each dialing his cellphone, and the network field producers all come barreling out of the theater doors pulling their cellphone antennas out with their teeth, and everybody tries to find an empty 4-ftto Waltz in while they call the gist of this riveting Negativity-related development in to networks and editors and try to raise their counterparts in the Bush2000 press corps to see if they can get a React from the Shrub on Mrs. Duren’s story, at the end of which story the second thing happens, which is that CNN’s Randy van R. finally pans to McCain and you can see McCain’s facial expression, which is pained and pale and looks actually more distraught even than Mrs. Duren’s face had looked. And what McCain does, after looking silently at the floor a second, is: apologize. He doesn’t lash out at Bush2or at push-polling or appear to try to capitalize politically in any way. He looks sad and compassionate and regretful and says that the only reason he got into this race in the first place was to try to help inspire young Americans to feel better about devoting themselves to something, and that a story like what Mrs. Duren took the trouble to come down here to the THM this morning and tell him is just about the worst thing he could hear, and that if it’s OK with Mrs. D. he’d like to call her son—he asks his name again, and Randy van R. pans smoothly back to Donna Duren as she says “Chris” and then pans back to McCain—Chris and apologize personally on the phone and tell Chris that yes there are unfortunately some bad people out there and he’s sorry Chris had to hear stuff like what he heard but that it’s never a mistake to believe in something, that politics is still worthwhile as a Process to get involved in, and he really does look upset, McCain does, and almost as what seems like an afterthought he says that maybe one thing Donna Duren and other concerned parents and citizens can do is call the Bush2000 campaign and tell them to stop this push-polling, that Governor Bush is a good man with a family of his own and it’s difficult to believe he’d ever endorse his campaign doing things like this if he knew about it, and that he (McCain) will be calling Governor Bush again personally for the umpteenth time to ask him to stop the Negativity, and McCain’s eyes look . . . wet , as in teary, which maybe is just a trick of the TV lights but is nevertheless disturbing, the whole thing is disturbing, because McCain seems upset in a way that’s a little too, well, almost dramatic . He takes a couple more THM questions, then stops abruptly and says he’s sorry but he’s just so upset about the Chris Duren thing that he’s having a hard time concentrating on anything else, and he asks the THM crowd’s forgiveness, and thanks them, and forgets his Message-Discipline and doesn’t finish with he’ll always. Tell them. The truth but they applaud like mad anyway, and the four-faced monitor’s feed is cut as Randy and Jim C. et al. go shoulder-held to join the scrum as McCain starts to exit.
And now none of this is simple at all, especially McCain’s almost exaggerated-seeming distress about Chris Duren, which really did seem a little much, and a small set of very disturbing and possibly cynical interconnected thoughts and questions start whirling around in the journalistic head. Like the fact that Donna Duren’s story was a far, far more devastating indictment of the Shrub’s campaign tactics than anything McCain himself could say, and is it possible that McCain, on the theater’s stage, wasn’t aware of this? Is it possible that he didn’t see all the TV field producers shouldering their way through the aisles’ crowds with their cellphones and know instantly that Mrs. Duren’s story and his reaction were going to get big network play and make Bush2000 look bad? Is it possible that some part of McCain could realize this—that what happened to Chris Duren is very much to McCain’s political advantage—and yet he’s still such a decent, uncalculating guy that all he feels is horror and regret that a kid was disillusioned? Was it human compassion that made him apologize first instead of criticizing Bush2000, or is McCain just maybe shrewd enough to know that Mrs. D.’s story had already nailed Bush to the wall and that by apologizing and looking distraught McCain could help underscore the difference between his own human decency and Bush’s uncaring Negativity? Is it possible that he really had tears in his eyes? Is it—ulp—possible that he somehow made himself get tears in his eyes because he knew what a decent, caring, non-Negative guy it would make him look like? And come to think of it hey, why would a push-poller even be interested in trying to push-poll someone who’s too young to vote? Does Chris Duren maybe have a really deep-sounding phone voice or something? But wouldn’t you think a push-poller’d ask somebody’s age before launching into his spiel? And how come nobody asked this question, not even the jaded 12M out in the lobby? What could they have been thinking?
Bullshit 1 is empty except for Jay, who’s grabbing an OTC way back in the ERPP, and through the port windows you can see all the techs and heads and talent in a king-size scrum around Mrs. Donna Duren in the gravel courtyard, and there’s the additional cynical thought that doubtless some enterprising network crew is even now pulling up in front of poor Chris Duren’s junior high (which unfortunately tonight on TV turns out to be just what happened). The bus idles empty for a very long time—the post-event scrums and standups last longer than the whole THM did—and then when the BS1 regulars finally do pile in they’re all extremely busy trying to type and phone and file, and all the techs have to get their SX and DVS Digital Editors out (the CBS machine’s being held steady on their cameraman’s little stepladder in the aisle because all the tables and the ERPP are full) and help their producers find and time the clip of Mrs. Duren’s story and McCain’s response so they can feed it right away, and the Twelve Monkeys have as more or less one body stormed the Straight Talk Express, which is just up ahead on I-85 and riding very low in the stern from all the weight in McCain’s rear salon. The point is that none of the usual media pros are available for RS to interface with and help deconstruct the Chris Duren Incident and help try to figure out what to be cynical about and what not to and which of the many disturbing questions the whole Incident provokes are paranoid or irrelevant and which ones might be humanly and/or journalistically valid . . . such as was McCain really serious about calling Chris Duren? How was he going to get the Durens’ phone number when Mrs. D. was scrummed solid the whole time he and the staff were leaving? Do they plan to just look in the phonebook or something? And where were Mike Murphy and John Weaver through that whole thing, who can usually be seen Cell-Waltzing in the back at every THM but today were nowhere in sight? And is Murphy maybe even now in the Express’s salon in his red chair next to McCain, leaning in toward the candidate’s ear and whispering very calmly and coolly about the political advantages of what just happened and various tasteful but effective ways they can capitalize on it and use it to escape the tactical box that Bush2’s going Negative put them in in the first place? What’s McCain’s reaction if that’s what Murphy’s doing—like, is he listening, or is he still too upset to listen, or is he somehow both? Is it just possible that McCain—maybe not even consciously—played up his reaction to Mrs. Duren’s story and framed his distress to give himself a plausible, good-looking excuse to get out of the Negative spiral that’s been hurting him so badly in the polls that Jim and Frank say he may well lose SC if things keep on this way? Is it too cynical even to consider such a thing?
Because at the following day’s first Press-Avail, John S. McCain III issues a plausible, good-looking, highly emotional statement to the whole scrummed corps. This is on the warm, pretty morning of 11 February outside the Embassy Suites (or maybe Hampton Inn) in Charleston, right after Baggage Call. McCain informs the press that the case of young Chris Duren has caused him such distress that after a great deal of late-night soul-searching he’s now ordered his staff to cease all Negativity and to pull all the McCain2000 response ads in South Carolina regardless of whether the Shrub pulls his own Negative ads or not.
And, framed as it now is in the distressed context of the Chris Duren Incident, McCain’s decision now in no way makes him look wimpy or appeasing, but rather like a truly decent, honorable, high-road guy who doesn’t want young people’s political idealism fucked with in any way if he can help it. It’s a stirring and high-impact statement, and a masterful -Avail, and everybody in the scrum seems impressed and in some cases deeply and personally moved, and nobody (including Rolling Stone ) ventures to point out aloud that, however unfortunate the phone call was for the Durens, it turned out to be just fortunate as hell for John S. McCain and McCain2000 in terms of this week’s tactical battle, that actually the whole thing couldn’t have worked out better for McCain2000 if it had been . . . well, like scripted , if like say Mrs. Donna Duren had been a trained actress or gifted amateur who’d been somehow secretly approached and rehearsed and paid and planted in that crowd of over 300 random unscreened questioners where her raised hand in that sea of average voters’ hands was seen and chosen and she got to tell a moving story that made all five networks last night and damaged Bush2badly and now has released McCain from this week’s tactical box. Any way you look at it (and there’s a nice long DT during which to look at it), yesterday’s Incident and THM were an almost incredible stroke of political luck for McCain, or else maybe a stroke of something else that no one—not the Twelve Monkeys, not Alison Mitchell or the marvelously cynical Australian Globe lady or even the totally sharp and unsentimental and astute Jim C.—ever once broaches or mentions out loud, which might be understandable, since maybe even considering whether it was just even possible would be so painful it would break your heart and make it hard to go on, which is what the press and staff and Straight Talk caravan and McCain himself have to do all day, and the next, and the next—go on.