Never a scripted politician, the unguarded John McCain warms to
New Hampshire, and vice versa
By Steve Lopez/Manchester
December 6, 1999
Web posted at: 1:30 p.m. EST (1830 GMT)
If Senator John McCain is elected President, there's going to be
a mad dash for the exits at the Secret Service agency. There will
be no way to protect this man. Three well-fed officers from the
North Hampton, N.H., police department were trying to buffer
McCain from an admiring swarm after a town hall meeting last
Thursday, but the cops didn't stand a chance.
McCain had killed yet again with an act that was part Johnny
Carson and part Harry Truman, and the locals were hot to squeeze
his hand, get an autograph or just get close. None of which
requires any great effort, because McCain is easier to get
access to than a Hong Kong hooker.
When he had patiently heard every last World War II remembrance
and prescription-drug horror story, he boarded his bus, the
Straight Talk Express, and reporters crowded around him like
ants invited to a picnic. In most campaigns, a reporter has to
grovel, scream or fake a nervous breakdown to get some chat time
with a candidate. But all access, all the time has been McCain's
way for years. Three senior campaign officials were squished
against the bathroom door of his bus last week to leave seats
open for print and TV crews.
Among McCain's first unguarded words that morning were, "Where's
the goddam doughnuts?" Before long, he had insulted the French,
teased his wife Cindy about a former boyfriend and flogged
Democrats and Republicans alike for being bought and paid for by
one shameless lobby or another. And it was only 10 a.m.
"[Ten] years ago, the richest man in the world was ...?" McCain
asked, springing a pop quiz and calling on George Stephanopoulos,
the former Clinton wunderkind and now ABC commentator, who
couldn't answer. Sultan of Brunei, McCain said, going on to make
his point that three of the five richest men in the world now
live near Seattle, and the new millennium presents challenges and
opportunities no one imagined. And then, with schoolboy delight,
he called out, "Stephanopoulos flunked the quiz."
What we are witnessing in New Hampshire is a bold and risky
adventure not seen in recent political history: a completely
unguarded presidential candidate just being himself, whether he's
with the monkeys on the bus or the honest labor force. Such an
approach might seem like nothing more than horse sense to the
average Joe, but we're at a point in campaign politics where
anyone who is remotely comfortable in his own skin comes off like
Last week, in little towns like Exeter, North Hampton and
Pembroke, you found even Democrats applauding McCain's goofy wit,
sobering war stories and passionate homilies on money as the root
of all evil in Washington. And you found people who don't even
agree with his conservative positions on issues like abortion or
gun control festooned with McCain buttons.
"Look at the way he took the microphone and was walking around
the stage like that. He enjoyed the hell out of this audience,
and he was speaking with us, not to us," said Democrat Jack
Hayes, 69, after McCain spoke at a jam-packed Phillips Exeter
Academy on Wednesday night. "I mean, he gives you himself! And I
love the way he's taking on his own party on campaign finance.
What a gutsy call that is."
Part of McCain's jump in the polls has to do with the nature of
New Hampshire, where you're never sure they aren't busing the
same 200 people to every event. The state looks as if it was
going to be another Disney park, but they stopped building after
Main Street and Frontierland and just turned it into
Campaignworld. "With all due respect to the other 49 states,"
McCain says, "these people take it as their civic duty" to go see
what a candidate looks and feels like. After more than 60 town
meetings, he's got to know people by name. And in intimate,
Rockwellian settings, McCain's story and his complete lack of
pretense connect in a big way, especially since some of the other
candidates come off as if they've got computer chips implanted in
their brain stem.
"I have two children, and I want to be able to point to the White
House and teach a character lesson rather than have to
apologize," said McCain volunteer Karen Baetzel, 42, an East
Kingston homemaker who caught the town hall meeting in North
Hampton. "I've heard him described as a maverick, but I think
that's trite. He may be different from his colleagues on policy
issues, but he's very much like the rest of us. He's a regular
A regular person who has lived an extraordinary life, and all
the Legionnaire's caps in McCain audiences remind you that
that's part of the appeal. At a time when the leading Republican
candidate--among others--could be called classic example of a
man who was born on third base and thought he hit a triple,
McCain has lived. He's been shot out of the sky and tortured. He
has by his own account wrecked a marriage. And he conveys the
sense that he stands before you flawed but fearless, nothing to
hide. Even his skin is transparent.
"Senator McCain, can you explain how you became involved in the
savings and loan crisis?" a student asked at Phillips Exeter
"Thank you for the question," McCain said. Comfortably pacing the
stage, hand in pocket, he explained that he attended a meeting he
shouldn't have. "The fact is, it was the wrong thing to do, and
it'll be on my tombstone and deservedly so."
In North Hampton, he tussled with a prickly questioner who
insisted you can't have campaign-finance reform before tax
reform. "I have the reverse view," McCain responded, saying
there's a 44,000-page tax code because every special interest in
the land has bought a loophole. When the man kept at it, McCain
said, "I appreciate your anger, by the way. If you want, I'll
have a temper tantrum for you."
In McCain's company, you hear sooner or later that "we have so
little water in Arizona, the trees chase the dogs," and "We
shouldn't pay a good teacher less than a bad Senator." His wife
Cindy says, "He watched a lot of Johnny Carson." In Washington on
Wednesday, he told the Republican Jewish Coalition that so many
speakers came before him, "I feel like Zsa Zsa Gabor's fifth
husband. I know what to do, but I don't know how to make it
Aboard the Straight Talk Express, you keep looking out the bus
window to make sure you're not in the Catskills. "I wish I could
have thought of a few more jokes," McCain said Friday morning,
grading himself on the debate and stuffing a glazed doughnut into
his mouth. The line about how if Alan Greenspan were to die he
would prop him up like the guy in Weekend at Bernie's was his
own, he proudly claimed, saying it should tell you something
about "the cultural level of our house." They've got the sequel
too, he said. Cindy, who sometimes rides a separate bus that they
privately call the Estrogen Express, smiled and touched up her
The bus hits a bump, and it knocks another line loose.
"The scandal in Washington wasn't Monica Lewinsky. The scandal
was that the President turned the Lincoln Bedroom into Motel 6,
and he was the bellhop."
Do we have time for one more? "Thank you for coming, and please
remember the words of the late Mayor Daley of Chicago, who said,
Vote early and often."
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Cover Date: December 13, 1999