A Decade Ago, In An America Far, Far Away….
It was January, 2006, a full two years before the primary when Senator John McCain’s press secretary called and asked if we wanted to have the first television interview in South Carolina since he lost the GOP primary six years earlier.
“Of course!” I replied.
We then worked out details to have a wireless microphone on McCain (C-SPAN style) for his book signing stop and the two speeches he would be delivering in the upstate. I thought, “we can call it ‘A Day with John McCain!’ It could be a great two-part sweeps piece!” My news director liked the pitch.
As we discussed the upcoming two years of coverage, we agreed it would be best to have a designated photographer for all future campaign events. Thus, my partnership with Kevin Abadie—expert photographer and editor—was born. Our coverage in South Carolina would take us all over the state, to the lawn of the White House, and even an Emmy nomination.
But first thing first, “A Day with John McCain.”
To say the return to South Carolina was painful for McCain is an understatement. Six years earlier, he had arrived in the Palmetto State after beating Texas governor George W. Bush by nineteen points in the New Hampshire primary. Bush’s one-time fifty-point lead in South Carolina had evaporated, and a win by McCain would have likely propelled him into the Republican nomination and a general election win (the Democrats had held the White House for eight years and rarely does the same party win three presidential elections in a row).
With McCain’s fortunes rising, a conservative and evangelical coalition devised a smear campaign against him that is still discussed by political strategists everywhere.
There were first rumors floated that McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child. Then, rumors he had slept with prostitutes and given his wife V.D. A third rumor suggested McCain was ‘mentally unstable’ after returning from Vietnam.
All of them patently untrue.
Christian-fundamentalist Bob Jones University in Greenville—with a controversial long-standing ban on interracial dating—played a huge role in turning out the evangelical vote. Texas governor George W. Bush accepted the university’s invitation to address hundreds of voters before the primary telling the crowd, “it feels a lot warmer here in the state of South Carolina if you know what I mean.” McCain was told to stay away and he replied angrily, “If I had been invited I would have told them to get out of the 16th century and into the 21st century. What you’re doing is racist and cruel. Governor Bush went there and never said a word. I would never, ever do such a thing.”
McCain must have hit a nerve because the university quietly ended the ban a few months later.
Rumors about McCain “siring children without marriage” were being spread by a bible professor at Bob Jones. Flyers were being distributed with a picture of a little black girl with the McCain family—leaving it to the imagination rather than the truth that she had been adopted after his wife Cindy met her during a relief mission in Bangladesh.
Most of the gossip, reporters learned later, was being provided to the evangelical right by Karl Rove, Bush’s top strategist. While researching the ugliness of the primary fight, Dr. Eddie Dyer of Coastal Carolina University told me, “The allegations have never been proven so you can classify them as scurrilous, but that took McCain out of the race.”
On primary day, Bush beat McCain by eleven points backed by a huge voter turnout in the conservative upstate. McCain, with clinched teeth in Charleston, told supporters, “I want the presidency in the best way, not the worst way. I won’t take the low road to the highest office in the land.”
Several months later, after he had dropped out of the race, a subdued McCain told supporters his biggest regret from his 2000 campaign was not publicly calling on South Carolina to remove the confederate flag from the statehouse grounds in Columbia. “I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary. So I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth.”
(South Carolina would remove the controversial flag fifteen years later, after nine African Americans were murdered by a white man in a church in Charleston.)
So here we were six years later waiting to interview McCain in a state that had created such bitter memories, and just a stone’s throw away from Bob Jones University.
As a disclaimer, I’ve known McCain since my teenage years growing up in Arizona. As a kid I circulated brochures in neighborhoods for his first congressional campaign and volunteered when he ran for the U.S. Senate.
When I started my television career in Yuma, Arizona, McCain and I did a live weather segment together, which earned 3rd place “best TV live shot” from the Arizona Associated Press. At one point, McCain started talking about the dangers of “fluctuating barometers” and he encouraged more snowbirds to visit saying, “we take all plastic!”
We laughed so much, one viewer emailed the station asking why we had been drinking so early in the day. The craziness of doing weather on TV with John McCain still makes me smile when I think about it.
So McCain and I had history in and out of television, and it raises a legitimate question here of whether journalists and politicians can be friends. Of course the answer is yes, with a caveat that being friendly doesn’t mean at the end of the day if a scandal hits, you won’t cover it objectively. That’s a journalist’s job, and sadly it’s happened during my career more than once.
I’ve always liked McCain on a personal level for two reasons. One, he sat in a tiny dirty cell in Vietnam for five years as a Prisoner of War defending our freedoms. A lot of politicians talk about service, but McCain, following the lead of his father and grandfather, has walked the walk. His time as a POW was spelled out in detail in his 1999 book Faith of My Fathers, which was also made into a movie in 2005. Second, he’s fearless with the press. The better politicians I’ve covered have always been comfortable speaking their minds and McCain has never been so overly partisan that he won’t occasionally tell his own party to stick it. After covering hundreds of cookie-cutter politicians through the years, when a maverick comes along it’s interesting.
I had last interviewed McCain nearly three years earlier on the U.S./ Mexico border. McCain was kept under an umbrella on that sunny day until just seconds before my live shot because of concerns about his melanoma. In 2000, after dropping out of the presidential race, McCain had five hours of skin cancer surgery on the left side of his face, which left a permanent scar. He would stand out in the sun, with a cap and long sleeved shirt, for only a few minutes at a time and most of his future campaign events would be indoors.
Our interview in Greenville was inside a Barnes and Noble bookstore where several hundred people were waiting for McCain to autograph copies of his new book. Kevin, along with colleague Marshall Staton, set up three cameras and two lights, positioned in the middle of the store so that the books were faded in the background for dramatic effect. Some customers stopped dead in their tracks at the sight of John McCain sitting in the middle of the store. It had all the appearances of a network news shoot.
“After we were defeated here I slept like a baby—sleep for two hours, wake up and cry—sleep for two hours, wake up and cry,” he laughed.
McCain insisted that he held no lingering animosity with the evangelical activists and instead suggested that Rove was the main culprit.
“I was defeated here in 2000 not by religious conservatives, although that was certainly part of it, but I was defeated by the Republican establishment. Bush had the entire Republican establishment behind him and all the money that entails.”
Since losing the 2000 nomination fight, McCain had broadened his maverick—conservatives called it moderate—reputation.
In Greenville that night, he made 600 Republicans—each who paid $50 and up for a ticket to hear him speak—wait an extra hour so he could attend a Martin Luther King Jr. ceremony across town. At that event, McCain choked up and wiped away a tear while reading King’s letter from a Birmingham jail—”Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”—something I later included in our report. A few days later, McCain’s speechwriter and close adviser Mark Salter called and said he liked the piece, except for the inclusion of the tears. No time to appear weak heading into another South Carolina battle.
With support for the war in Iraq dropping, I played for McCain a clip from a debate he had with his Democratic challenger Richard Kimball in 1986 where Kimball had suggested the possibility of ground troops in Nicaragua:
“I would not support and will not support sending U.S. troops to Nicaragua,” said McCain at that time, “I don’t think a majority of the American people would support such a thing, and Richard, I think you should rethink your position on a very dangerous and reckless policy of sending young men to fight and die in the jungles of Central America.”
Twenty years later, with thousands of young people fighting and dying in Iraq, I asked whether McCain had radically changed his position on war.
“It’s vastly different in that Nicaraguans never had any remote possibility of acquiring weapons of mass destruction.”
Just days after the terrorist attack on America on September 11, 2001, I had met McCain for an interview in Yuma, Arizona, to discuss America’s planned response. Already McCain, and other neoconservatives, were attempting to link al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden with Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
“We know that bin Laden and his network are responsible, the question is whether did anyone else help him, such as the Iraqis,” said McCain. “There are allegations that they gave assistance, and I think there are questions there that need to be answered.”
McCain backed the Bush administration in supporting military action in both Afghanistan and Iraq, while no link between bin Laden and Hussein was ever established.
Still, McCain was no fan of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld strategy in Iraq.
In the fall of 2007, we covered McCain as he campaigned in Florence, South Carolina. Once again we sat down with him for an interview and he unleashed on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
“Shortly after the initial invasion I gave speeches that we had the wrong strategy. The president has a right to choose his own team, but for years I said I had no confidence in Secretary Rumsfeld.” I asked why Rumsfeld was the focus of blame when the buck generally stops with the Commander in Chief. “Of course Bush is responsible, and he has taken responsibility and he’s said serious mistakes were made. The president has acknowledged that.”
It was a strange full circle. In 2000 McCain ended his campaign with contempt for Bush but the former POW had once again forgiven and moved on.
At seventy-one, McCain was one of the oldest presidential candidates in recent memory. Besides his skin cancer, there were other questions about his health. While in Vietnam, McCain suffered from a broken leg and two broken arms. None of the injuries were treated properly at the time, and it’s common knowledge among reporters that McCain cannot lift either of his arms high enough to comb his hair—usually a staff member is nearby to help him prior to interviews. So I asked him during this interview if he was prepared for another national campaign.
“I feel great. I hiked the Grand Canyon with my oldest son at the Naval Academy last August. I work seven days a week, twelve to sixteen hours a day. And I love being back in South Carolina, I really do.”
As much as McCain loved being back, there were questions of whether his wife Cindy would ever return. After the campaign in 2000 where rumors questioned whether she was addicted to drugs (she had become dependent on prescription painkillers after back surgery in 1989, but had stopped taking them in 1992), and where her adopted daughter came from, many supporters believed she was justified in campaigning elsewhere.
Shortly before the primary I spoke with Cindy about returning to the state that had done so much to end her husband’s presidential dreams eight years earlier.
“I resisted for a number of reasons—not just because of what happened in South Carolina—but our family has changed, our kids are at different ages now, and families go on. I really had to think about it,” she told me.
Cindy McCain traveled the state in the weeks leading up to the vote. On board yet another bus trip, McCain smiled and said about his wife, “The only problem it poses for my campaign is that so many people say, why isn’t she the candidate?”
During the multiple interviews with McCain that year, Kevin and I had witnessed his campaign go from frontrunner, to also-ran, to under the radar. After spending millions of dollars too soon, McCain cut back his operation and started concentrating on personally speaking at every veteran’s hall in South Carolina. Each time we covered one of his rallies—sometimes with fifty people, other times two hundred—I would whisper to Kevin, “all of these people vote.”
Shortly before Christmas, just weeks before the first vote of 2008 was cast, the McCain campaign released—in my view—one of the most memorable political ads of the year. It aired in both New Hampshire and South Carolina and in it McCain shared the story of how Christianity allowed him and a Vietnamese prison guard to form a special bond. While viewers watched a cross being made in the dirt, McCain said,
“One night, after being mistreated as a POW, a guard loosened the ropes binding me, easing my pain. On Christmas, that same guard approached me, and without saying a word, he drew a cross in the sand. We stood wordlessly looking at the cross, remembering the true light of Christmas. I will never forget that no matter where you are, no matter how difficult the circumstances, there will always be someone who will pick you up. May you and your family have a blessed Christmas and happy holidays.”
The ad, so simple and heartfelt, helped propel McCain to a come-from behind win in New Hampshire. Anyone who doubted whether voters would consider a former POW an “American hero” needed only to look at the results: McCain beat Romney, the neighbor from the state next door, 37 to 32 percent despite being outspent by a huge margin.
After winning the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary, as he had in 2000, McCain headed back to South Carolina. This time, however, unlike the disaster of eight years earlier, there was a sense the Palmetto State could deliver the knockout blow in his favor.
“Did you ever think after you lost South Carolina in 2000 you’d be so close to the nomination again?” I asked him on board his campaign bus. “Frankly, at the time I didn’t contemplate that,” McCain laughed.
I asked whether his 2000 campaign theme of being Luke Skywalker fighting the Bush empire had changed to him now supporting Bush and his policies.
“It’s pretty much the same themes, but the world has changed since 9/11. We’re now in a struggle against radical Islamic extremism that’s going to be with us for a long time. We didn’t have that in 2000.”
As the bus continued its trip from Myrtle Beach to Charleston, I asked McCain if he would agree that South Carolina, once again, remained vital to his political future. “South Carolina remains a key and vital aspect of whoever wants to get the nomination.”
Working with state GOP Chairman Katon Dawson, Brad Dean and the local Chamber of Commerce put together a package that convinced Fox News they should broadcast live a Republican candidate’s debate in Myrtle Beach before their primary on January 19th.
“We cannot overstate how important this debate is going to be for the Republican Party,” I told viewers while breaking the news during one of our newscasts. “It will follow the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire primary, and be just nine days before South Carolina votes.”
Brad arranged for giant sand sculptures of the heads of all the presidential candidates be made outside both debate venues. The international press corps ate it up. ABC News especially loved it, White House correspondent Jake Tapper telling me the uniqueness of it was the only reason producers let him come to Myrtle Beach (after covering so many prior primary debates).
The night of the Myrtle Beach Republican debate on January 10th, a new Rasmussen poll showed McCain taking the lead with 27 percent support. Huckabee was second with 24 percent. Romney was third with 16 percent followed by Thompson with 12 percent. Giuliani was down to 6 percent, with Paul at 3.
On a mild January evening, standing in front of the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, I started our GOP debate coverage by pointing to the poll and how far Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani had slipped. About McCain and Mike Huckabee I said, “These two candidates were at the bottom of this poll a month ago, it demonstrates how quickly things can change in a presidential race.”
Inside, the clash between the six candidates started early, with Romney accusing McCain of being too pessimistic about the economy. “I know that there are some people who think, as Senator McCain did, some jobs have left Michigan that are never coming back. I disagree,” Romney said.
McCain looked at Romney during his response and told the crowd it was time for some “straight talk” and said, “There are some jobs that aren’t coming back to Michigan. There are some jobs that won’t come back here to South Carolina.”
Giuliani, who was watching his presidential dreams slip away, pointed his attack at McCain, “John gets great credit for supporting the surge in Iraq. But, John, there were other people on this stage that also supported the surge. The night of the president’s speech, I was on television. I supported the surge, I’ve supported it throughout.”
McCain calmly responded, “I condemned the Rumsfeld strategy and called for the change in strategy. That’s the difference.”
After the debate, during our 11 p.m. news, I offered this assessment: “It’s still unclear who will win in South Carolina, but you do get the sense that John McCain is back at the front-runner position and he’s the one to beat.”
Nine days later, on the anchor desk in Myrtle Beach, I broke into ABC prime time programming with this:
“Good evening—we break into the movie to bring you a major story in the race for the White House tonight. In a stunning reversal from his loss in South Carolina just eight years ago, Arizona senator John McCain is now our projected winner in the South Carolina primary. Again, he lost here in 2000 and it knocked him out of the presidential race then, but now we can call it—John McCain has won the primary Mike Huckabee comes in second. We’ll have more coming up at 11.”
In the end, McCain, with the strong support of veterans across the state, won the primary with 33 percent. Huckabee, almost out of nowhere as the new conservative alternative to McCain, placed second with 30 percent. Fred Thompson placed third with 16 percent, Mitt Romney forth with 15 percent, Ron Paul with 4 percent and way back, Rudy Giuliani with only 2 percent of the vote.
What was clear is that had conservatives united behind a single candidate, let’s call him Huckabee-Thompson-Romney, they would have beat McCain easily with around 60 percent of the vote. No matter how he did it, McCain left the Palmetto State with a sizable bounce that would help propel him to the GOP nomination.
That November, McCain would win South Carolina, but lose the election to Sen. Barack Obama.
Four years later, in Columbus, Ohio, I asked McCain in an interview to think back on when he knew he was going lose the general election in 2008 to Obama. He pinpointed a single day:
“Jim, I could tell that we were in trouble,” McCain answered. “We were up three points on September 15th, the stock market went down 700 points and at the end of that day we were six points down as white male educated voters watched their 401Ks disappear.”
With an incumbent president of his own party at 25 percent approval and an economy that was failing, McCain says he knew through the fall that he wasn’t going to win.
“I give Obama credit for running a great campaign and I will take any blame for losing that anybody wants to attribute to me.”
McCain would win another term in the U.S. Senate in 2010 and six years later, as he neared eighty, would easily win reelection again in 2016.
This chapter from Front Row Seat at the Circus.