This story originally appeared in the April 13th, 2000 issue of Rolling Stone
Prologue: Who Cares?
Since you’re reading Rolling Stone, the chances are you’re an American between say 18 and 35, which demographically makes you a Young Voter. And no generation of Young Voters has ever cared less about politics and politicians than yours. There’s hard demographic and voter-pattern data backing this up … assuming you give a shit about data. In fact, even if you’re reading other stuff in RS, it’s doubtful you’re going to read much of this article – such is the enormous shuddering yawn that the Political Process evokes in us now, in this post-Watergate-post-Iran’Contra’ post’Whitewater ‘post’ Lewinsky era, an era when politicians’ statements of principle or vision are understood as self-serving ad copy and judged not for their sincerity or ability to inspire but for their tactical shrewdness, their marketability. And no generation has been marketed and Spun and pitched to as ingeniously and relentlessly as today’s demographic Young. So when Senator John McCain says, in Michigan or South Carolina (which is where Rolling Stone sent the least professional pencil it could find to spend the standard media Week on the Bus with a candidate who’d never ride higher than he is right now), when McCain says “I run for president not to Be Somebody, but to Do Something,” it’s hard to hear it as anything more than a marketing angle, especially when he says it as he’s going around surrounded by cameras and reporters and cheering crowds … in other words, Being Somebody.
And when Senator John McCain also says – constantly, thumping it at the start and end of every speech and THM – that his goal as president will be “to inspire young Americans to devote them- selves to causes greater than their own self-interest,” it’s hard not to hear it as just one more piece of the carefully scripted bullshit that presidential candidates hand us as they go about the self-interested business of trying to become the most powerful, important and talked-about human being on earth, which is of course their real “cause,” to which they appear to be so deeply devoted that they can swallow and spew whole mountains of noble – sounding bullshit and convince even themselves that they mean it. Cynical as that may sound, polls show it’s how most of us feel. And it’s beyond not believing the bullshit; mostly we don’t even hear it, dismiss it at the same deep level where we also block out billboards and Muzak.
But there’s something underneath politics in the way you have to hear McCain, something riveting and unSpinnable and true. It has to do with McCain’s military background and Vietnam combat and the five-plus years he spent in a North Vietnamese prison, mostly in solitary, in a box, getting tortured and starved. And the unbelievable honor and balls he showed there. It’s very easy to gloss over the POW thing, partly because we’ve all heard so much about it and partly because it’s so off-the – charts dramatic, like something in a movie instead of a man’s life. But it’s worth considering for a minute, because it’s what makes McCain’s “causes greater than self-interest” line easier to hear.
You probably already know what happened. In October of ’67 McCain was himself still a Young Voter and ﬂying his 23rd Vietnam combat mission and his A-4 Skyhawk plane got shot down over Hanoi and he had to eject, which basically means setting off an explosive charge that blows your seat out of the plane, which ejection broke both McCain’s arms and one leg and gave him a concussion and he started falling out of the skies right over Hanoi. Try to imagine for a second how much this would hurt and how scared you’d be, three limbs broken and falling toward the enemy capital you just tried to bomb. His chute opened late and he landed hard in a little lake in a park right in the middle of downtown Hanoi, Imagine treading water with broken arms and trying to pull the life vest’s toggle with your teeth as a crowd of Vietnamese men swim out toward you (there’s film of this, somebody had a home – movie camera, and the N.V. government released it, though it’s grainy and McCain’s face is hard to see). The crowd pulled him out and then just about killed him. U.S. bomber pilots were especially hated, for obvious reasons. McCain got bayoneted in the groin; a soldier broke his shoulder apart with a riﬂe butt. Plus by this time his right knee was bent 90-degrees to the side with the bone sticking out. Try to imagine this. He finally got tossed on a jeep and taken five blocks to the infamous Hoa Lo prison – a.k.a. the “Hanoi Hilton,” of much movie fame – where they made him beg a week for a doctor and finally set a couple of the fractures without anesthetic and let two other fractures and the groin wound (imagine: groin wound) stay like they were. Then they threw him in a cell. Try for a moment to feel this. All the media profiles talk about how McCain still can’t lift his arms over his head to comb his hair, which is true. But try to imagine it at the time, yourself in his place, because it’s important. Think about how diametrically opposed to your own self-interest getting knifed in the balls and having fractures set without painkiller would be, and then about getting thrown in a cell to just lie there and hurt, which is what happened. He was delirious with pain for weeks, and his weight dropped to 100 pounds, and the other POWs were sure he would die; and then after a few months like that after his bones mostly knitted and he could sort of stand up they brought him in to the prison commandant’s office and offered to let him go. This is true. They said he could just leave. They had found out that McCain’s father was one of the top-ranking naval officers in the U.S. Armed Forces (which is true – both his father and grandfather were admirals), and the North Vietnamese wanted the PR coup of mercifully releasing his son, the baby-killer. McCain, 100 pounds and barely able to stand, refused, The U.S. military’s Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War apparently said that POWs had to be released in the order they were captured, and there were others who’d been in Hoa Lo a long time, and McCain refused to violate the Code. The commandant, not pleased, right there in the office had guards break his ribs, rebreak his arm, knock his teeth out. McCain still refused to leave without the other POWs. And so then he spent four more years in Hoa Lo like this, much of the time in solitary, in the dark, in a closet-sized box called a “punishment cell.” Maybe you’ve heard all this before; it’s been in umpteen different media profiles of McCain. But try to imagine that moment between getting offered early release and turning it down. Try to imagine it was you. Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interest would have cried out to you in that moment, and all the ways you could rationalize accepting the offer. Can you hear it? It so, would you have refused to go? You simply can’t know for sure. None of us can. It’s hard even to imagine the pain and fear in that moment, much less know how you’d react.
But, see, we do know how this man reacted. That he chose to spend four more years there, in a dark box, alone, tapping code on the walls to the others, rather than violate a Code. Maybe he was nuts. But the point is that with McCain it feels like we know, for a proven fact, that he’s capable of devotion to something other, more, than his own self-interest. So that when he says the line in speeches in early February you can feel like maybe it isn’t just more candidate bullshit, that with this guy it’s maybe the truth. Or maybe both the truth and bullshit: the guy does – did – want your vote, after all.
But that moment in the Hoa Lo office in ’68 – right before he refused, with all his basic normal human self-interest howling at him – that moment is hard to blow off. All week, all through MI and SC and all the tedium and cynicism and paradox of the campaign, that moment seems to underlie McCain’s “greater than self-interest” line, moor it, give it a weird sort of reverb that’s hard to ignore. The fact is that John McCain is a genuine hero of the only kind Vietnam now has to offer, a hero not because of what he did but because of what he suffered – voluntarily, for a Code. This gives him the moral authority both to utter lines about causes beyond self-interest and to expect us, even in this age of Spin and lawyerly cunning, to believe he means them. Literally: “moral authority,” that old cliche, much like so many other cliche’s – “service,” “honor,” “duty,” “patriotism” – that have become just mostly words now, slogans invoked by men in nice suits who want something from us. The John McCain we’ve seen, though – arguing for his doomed campaign-finance bill on the Senate floor in ’98, calling his colleagues crooks to their faces on C-SPAN, talking openly about a bought-and-paid-for government on Charlie Rose in July ’99, unpretentious and bright as hell in the Iowa debates and New Hampshire Town Hall Meetings – something about him made a lot of us feel the guy wanted something different from us, something more than votes or money, something old and maybe corny but with a weird achy pull to it like a whiff of a childhood smell or a name on the tip of your tongue, something that would make us think about what terms like “service” and “sacrifice” and “honor” might really refer to, like whether they actually stood for something, maybe. About whether anything past well-Spun self-interest might be real, was ever real, and if so then what happened? These, for the most part, are not lines of thinking that the culture we’ve grown up in has encouraged Young Voters to pursue. Why do you suppose that is?
Substantially Farther Behind the Scenes Than You’re Apt to Want to Be
It’s now precisely 1330h on Tuesday, 8 February 2000, on Bullshit 1, proceeding southeast on I-26 back toward Charleston SC. There’s now so much press and staff and techs and stringers and field producers and photographers and heads and pencils and political columnists and hosts of political radio shows and local media covering John McCain and the McCain2000 phenomenon that there’s more than one campaign bus. Here in South Carolina there are three, a veritable convoy of Straight Talk, plus FoxNews’s green SUV and the MTV crew’s sprightly red Corvette and two much-antenna’d local TV vans (one of which has muffler trouble). On DTs like this, McCain’s always in his personal red recliner next to pol. consultant Mike Murphy’s red recliner in the little press salon he and Murphy have in the back of the lead bus, the well-known Straight Talk Express, which is up ahead and already drawing away. The Straight Talk Express’s driver is a leadfoot and the other drivers hate him. Bullshit 1 is the caravan’s second bus, a luxury Grumman with good current and workable phone jacks, and a lot of the national pencils use it to pound out copy on their laptops and send faxes and e-mail stuff to their editors. The campaign’s logistics are dizzyingly complex, and one of the things the McCain2000 staff has to do is rent different buses and decorate the nicest one with STRAIGHT TALK EXPRESS and McCAIN2000.COM in each new state. In Michigan yesterday there was just the STE plus one bus for non-elite press, which had powder-gray faux-leather couches and gleaming brushed-steel fixtures and a mirrored ceiling from front to back; it creeped everyone out and was christened the Pimpmobile. The two press buses in South Carolina are known as Bullshit 1 and Bullshit 2, names conceived as usual by the extremely cool and laid-back NBC News cameraman Jim C. and—to their credit—immediately seized on and used with great glee at every opportunity by McCain’s younger Press Liaisons, who are themselves so cool and unpretentious it’s tempting to suspect that they are professionally cool and unpretentious.
Right now Bullshit l’s Press Liaison, Travis – 23, late of Georgetown U and a six-month backpack tour of Southeast Asia during which he says he came to like fried bugs – is again employing his single most important and impressive skill as a McCain2000 staffer, which is the ability to sleep anywhere, anytime, and in any position for 10-to-15-minute intervals, with a composed face and no unpleasant sounds or fluids, and then to come instantly and unfuzzily awake the moment he’s needed. It’s not clear whether he thinks people can’t tell he’s sleeping or what. Travis, who wears wide-wale corduroys and a sweater from Structure and seems to subsist entirely on Starburst Fruit Chews, tends to speak with the same deprecatory irony that is the whole staff’s style, introducing himself to new media today as either “Your press lackey” or “The Hervé Villechaize of Bullshit 1,” or both. His latest trick is to go up to the front of the bus and hook his arm over the little brushed-steel safety bar above the driver’s head and to lean against it so that from behind it looks as if he’s having an involved navigational conversation with the driver, and to go to sleep, and the driver – a 6-foot-7 bald black gentleman named Jay, whose way of saying goodnight to a journalist at the end of the day is “Go on and get you a woman, boy!” – knows exactly what’s going on and takes extra care not to change lanes or brake hard, and Travis, whose day starts at 0500 and ends after midnight just like all the other staffers, lives this way.
McCain just got done giving a Major Policy Address on crime and punishment at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy in Columbia, which is where the caravan is heading back to Charleston from. It was a resoundingly scary speech, delivered in a large airless cinderblock auditorium surrounded by razor wire and guard towers (the SCCJA adjoined a penal institution so closely that it wasn’t clear where one left off and the other began) and introduced by some kind of very high-ranking Highway Patrol officer whose big hanging gut and face the color of rare steak seemed right out of southern-law-enforcement central casting and who spoke approvingly and at some length about Senator McCain’s military background and his 100 percent conservative voting record on crime, punishment, firearms, and the war on drugs. This wasn’t a Town Meeting Q&A-type thing; it was a Major Policy Address, one of three this week prompted by Bush2000’s charges that McCain is fuzzy on policy, that he’s image over substance. The speech’s putative audience was 350 neckless young men and women sitting at attention (if that’s possible) in arrow-straight rows of folding chairs, with another couple hundred law enforcement pros in Highway Patrol hats and mirrored shades standing at parade-rest behind them, and then behind and around them the media—the real audience for the speech—including NBC’s Jim C. and his soundman Frank C. (no relation) and the rest of the network techs on the ever-present fiberboard riser facing the stage and filming McCain, who as is SOP first thanks a whole lot of local people nobody’s heard of and then w/o ado jumps right into what’s far and away the most frightening speech of the week, backed as always by a 30′ x 50′ American flag so that when you see B-film of these things on TV it’s McCain and the flag, the flag and McCain, a visual conjunction all the candidates try to hammer home. The seated cadets—none of whom fidget or scratch or move in any way except to blink in what looks like perfect sync—wear identical dark-brown khakis and junior models of the same round big-brimmed hats their elders wear, so that they look like ten perfect rows of brutal and extremely attentive forest rangers. McCain, who does not ever perspire, is wearing a dark suit and wide tie and has the only dry forehead in the hall. US congressmen Lindsey Graham (R-SC, of impeachment-trial fame) and Mark Sanford (R-SC, rated the single most fiscally conservative member of the ’98-’00 Congress) are up there onstage behind McCain, as is also SOP; they’re sort of his living letters of introduction down here this week. Graham, as usual, looks like he slept in his suit, whereas Sanford is tan and urbane in a V-neck sweater and Guccis whose shine you could read by. Mrs. Cindy McCain is up there too, brittly composed and smiling at the air in front of her and thinking about God knows what. Half the buses’ press don’t listen to the speech; most of them are at different spots at the very back of the auditorium, walking in little unconscious circles with their cellular phones. (You should be apprised up front that national reporters spend an enormous amount of time either on their cell phones or waiting for their cell phones to ring. It is not an exaggeration to say that when somebody’s cell phone breaks they almost have to be sedated.) The techs for CBS, NBC, CNN, ABC, and Fox will film the whole speech plus any remarks afterward, then they’ll unbolt their cameras from the tripods and go mobile and scrum McCain’s exit and the brief Press-Avail at the door to the Straight Talk Express, and then the field producers will call network HQ and summarize the highlights and HQ will decide which five- or ten-second snippet gets used for their news’s nightly bit on the GOP campaign.
It helps to conceive a campaign week’s events in terms of boxes, boxes inside other boxes, etc. The national voting audience is the great huge outer box, then the SC-electorate audience, mediated respectively by the inner layers of national and local press, just inside which lie the insulating boxes of McCain’s staff’s High Command who plan and stage events and spin stuff for the layers of press to interpret for the layers of audience, and the Press Liaisons who shepherd the pencils and heads and mediate their access to the High Command and control which media get rotated onto the ST Express (which is itself a box in motion) and then decide (the Liaisons do) which of these chosen media then get to move all the way into the extreme rear’s salon to interface with McCain himself, who is the campaign’s narrator and narrative at once, a candidate whose biggest draw of course is that he’s an anticandidate, someone who’s open and accessible and “thinks outside the box,” but who is in fact the campaign’s Chinese boxes’ central and inscrutable core box, and whose own intracranial thoughts on all these boxes and layers and lenses and on whether this new kind of enclosure is anything like Hoa Lo’s dark box are pretty much anyone in the media’s guess, since all he’ll talk about is politics.
Plus Bullshit 1 is also a box, of course, just the way anything you can’t exit till somebody else lets you out is, and right now there are 27 members of the national political media on board, halfway to Charleston. A certain percentage of them aren’t worth introducing you to because they’ll get rotated back off the Trail tonight and be gone tomorrow, replaced by others you’ll just be starting to recognize by the time they too rotate out. That’s what these pros call it, the Trail, the same way musicians talk about the Road. The schedule is fascist: wake-up call and backup alarm at 0600h, express check-out, Baggage Call at 0700 to throw bags and techs’ gear under the bus, haul ass to McCain’s first THM at 0800, then another, then another, maybe an hour off to F&F someplace if ODTs permit, then usually two big evening events, plus hours of dead highway DT between functions, finally getting into that night’s Marriott or Hampton Inn at like 2300 just when room service closes so that you’re begging rides from FoxNews to find a restaurant still open, then an hour at the hotel bar to try to shut your head off so you can hit the rack at 0130 and get up at 0600 and do it all again. Usually it’s four to six days for the average pencil and then you go off home on a gurney and your editor rotates in fresh meat. The network techs, who are old hands at the Trail, stay on for months at a time. The McCain2000 staff have all been doing this full-time since Labor Day, and even the young ones look like the walking dead. Only McCain seems to thrive. He’s 63 and practically Rockette-kicks onto the Express every morning. It’s either inspiring or frightening.
Here’s a quick behind-the-scenes tour of everything that’s happening on BS1 at 1330h. A few of the press are slumped over sleeping, open-mouthed and twitching, using their topcoats for pillows. The CBS and NBC techs are in their usual place on the couches way up front, their cameras and sticks and boom mikes and boxes of tapes and big Duracells piled around them, discussing obscure stand-up comedians of the early 70s and trading press badges from New Hampshire and Iowa and Delaware, which badges are laminated and worn around the neck on nylon cords and apparently have value for collectors. Jim C., who looks like a chronically sleep-deprived Elliott Gould, is also watching Travis’s leather bookbag swing metronomically by its over-shoulder strap as Travis leans against the safety bar and dozes. All the couches and padded chairs face in, perpendicular to BS1’s length, instead of a regular bus’s forward-facing seats. So everyone’s legs are always out in the aisle, but there’s none of the normal social anxiety about your leg maybe touching somebody else on a bus’s leg because nobody can help it and everyone’s too tired to care. Right behind each set of couches are small white plastic tables with recessed cup-receptacles and AC outlets that work if Jay can be induced to turn on the generator (which he will unless he’s low on fuel); and the left side’s table has two pencils and two field producers at it, and one of the pencils is Alison Mitchell, as in the Alison Mitchell, who is the NY Times’s daily eye on McCain and a very high-end journalist but not (refreshingly) one of the Twelve Monkeys, a slim calm kindly lady of maybe 45 who wears dark tights, pointy boots, a black sweater that looks home-crocheted, and a perpetual look of concerned puzzlement, as if life were one long request for clarification. Alison Mitchell is usually a regular up on the Straight Talk Express but today has a tight 1500h deadline and is using BS1’s superior current to whip out the story on her Apple PowerBook. (Even from outside the bus it’s easy to tell who’s banging away on a laptop right then, because their window shades are always down against daytime glare, which is every laptop-journalist’s great nemesis.) An ABC field producer across the table from A. Mitchell is trying to settle a credit card dispute on his distinctive cell phone, which is not a headset phone per se but consists of an earplug and a tiny hanging podular thing he holds to his mouth with two fingers to speak, a device that manages to make him look simultaneously deaf and schizophrenic. People in both seats behind the table are reading USA Today (and this might be worth noting—the only news daily read by every single member of the national campaign press is, believe it or not,USA Today, which always appears as if by dark magic under everybody’s hotel door with their express check-out bill every morning, and is free, and media are as susceptible to shrewd marketing as anybody else). The local TV truck’s muffler gets louder the farther back you go. About two-thirds of the way down the aisle is a little area that has the bus’s refrigerator and the liquor cabinets (the latter unbelievably well stocked on yesterday’s Pimpmobile, totally empty on BS1) and the bathroom with the hazardous door. There’s also a little counter area piled with Krispy Kreme doughnut boxes, and a sink whose water nobody ever uses (for what turn out to be good reasons). Krispy Kremes are sort of the Deep South equivalent of Dunkin’ Donuts, ubiquitous and cheap and great in a sort of what-am-I-doing-eating-dessert-for-breakfast way, and are a cornerstone of what Jim C. calls the Campaign Diet.
Behind the buses’ digestive areas is another little lounge, which up on the Express serves as McCain’s press salon but which on Bullshit 1 is just an elliptic table of beige plastic ringed with a couch it’s just a bit too high for, plus a fax machine and multiple jacks and outlets, the whole area known to the Press Liaisons as the ERPP (Extreme Rear Press Palace). Right now Mrs. McCain’s personal assistant on the Trail, Wendy—who has electric-blue contact lenses and rigid blond hair and immaculate makeup and accessories and French nails and can perhaps best be described as a very Republican-looking young lady indeed—is back here at the beige table eating a large styrofoam cup of soup and using her cell phone to try to find someplace in downtown Charleston where Mrs. McCain can get her nails done. All three walls in the ERPP are mirrored, an unsettling echo of yesterday’s reflective bus (except here the mirrors have weird little white ghostly shapes embedded in the plate, apparently as decorations), so that you can see not only everybody’s reflections but all sorts of multi-angled reflections of those reflections, and so on, which on top of all the jouncing and swaying keeps most folks up front despite the ERPP’s wealth of facilities. Just why Wendy is arranging for her mistress’s manicure here on Bullshit 1 is unclear, but Mrs. McC.’s sedulous attention to her own person’s dress and grooming is already a minor legend among the press corps, and some of the techs speculate that things like getting her nails and hair done, together with being almost Siametically attached to Ms. Lisa Graham Keegan (who is AZ’s education superintendent and supposedly traveling with the senator as his “Advisor on Issues Affecting Education” but is quite plainly really along because she’s Cindy McCain’s friend and confidante and the one person in whose presence Mrs. McC. doesn’t look like a jacklighted deer), are the only things keeping this extremely fragile person together on the Trail, where she’s required to stand under hot lights next to McCain at every speech and THM and Press-Avail and stare cheerfully into the middle distance while her husband speaks to crowds and lenses—in fact some of the cable-network techs have a sort of running debate about what Cindy McCain’s really looking at as she stands onstage being scrutinized but never getting to say anything … and anyway, everybody understands and respects the enormous pressure Wendy’s under to help Mrs. McC. keep it together, and nobody makes fun of her for things like getting more and more stressed as it becomes obvious that there’s some special Southeast idiom for manicure that Wendy doesn’t know, because nobody she talks to on the cell phone seems to have any idea what she means by “manicure.” Also back here, directly across from Wendy, is a ridiculously handsome guy in a green cotton turtleneck, a photographer for Reuters, sitting disconsolate in a complex nest of wires plugged into just about every jack in the ERPP; he’s got digital photos of the Columbia speech in his Toshiba laptop and has his cell phone plugged into both the wall and the laptop (which is itself plugged into the wall) and is trying to file the pictures via some weird inter-Reuters e-mail, except his laptop has decided it doesn’t like his cell phone anymore (“like” his term), and he can’t get it to file.
You finally get to look up-close and personal at McCain and the way he puts his legs way out on the floor and sucks absently at his right bicuspid and swirls the coffee in his McCain2000.com mug…
If this all seems really static and dull, by the way, then understand that you’re getting a bona fide look at the reality of media life on the Trail, much of which consists of wandering around killing time on Bullshit 1 while you wait for the slight meaningful look from Travis that means he’s gotten the word from his immediate superior, Todd (28 and so obviously a Harvard alum it wasn’t ever worth asking), that after the next stop you’re getting rotated up into the big leagues on the Express to sit squished and paralyzed on the crammed red press-couch in back and listen to John S. McCain and Mike Murphy answer the Twelve Monkeys’ questions, and to look up-close and personal at McCain and the way he puts his legs way out on the salon’s floor and crosses them at the ankle and sucks absently at his right bicuspid and swirls the coffee in his McCain2000.com mug, and to try to penetrate the innermost box of this man’s thoughts on the enormous hope and enthusiasm he’s generating in press and voters alike … which you should be told up front does not and cannot happen, this penetration, for two reasons. The smaller reason (1) is that when you are finally rotated up into the Straight Talk salon you discover that most of the questions the Twelve Monkeys ask back here are simply too vapid and obvious for McCain to waste time on, and he lets Mike Murphy handle them, and Murphy is so funny and dry and able to make such deliciously cruel sport of the 12M –
MONKEY: If, say, you win here in South Carolina, what do you do then?
MURPHY: Fly to Michigan that night.
MONKEY: And what if hypothetically you, say, lose here in South Carolina?
MURPHY: Fly to Michigan that night win or lose.
MONKEY: Can you perhaps explain why?
MURPHY: ‘Cause the plane’s already paid for.
MONKEY: I think he means: can you explain why specifically Michigan?
MURPHY: ‘Cause it’s the next primary.
MONKEY: I think what we’re trying to get you to elaborate on if you will, Mike, is: What will your goal be in Michigan?MURPHY: To get a whole lot of votes. That’s part of our secret strategy for winning the nomination.
– that it’s often hard even to notice McCain’s there or what his face or feet are doing, because it takes almost all your concentration not to start giggling like a maniac at Murphy and at the way the 12M all nod somberly and take down whatever he says in their identical steno notebooks. The bigger and more interesting reason (2) is that this also happens to be the week in which John S. McCain’s anticandidate status threatens to dissolve before almost everyone’s eyes and he becomes increasingly opaque and paradoxical and in certain ways indistinguishable as an entity from the Shrub and the GOP Establishment against which he’d defined himself and shone so in New Hampshire, which of course is a whole story unto itself.
What’s hazardous about Bullshit 1’s lavatory door is that it opens and closes laterally, sliding with a Star Trek-ish whoosh at the light touch of the DOOR button just inside – i.e., you go in, lightly push DOOR to close, attend to business, lightly push DOOR again to open: simple – except that the DOOR button’s placement puts it only inches away from the left shoulder of any male journalist standing over the commode attending to business, a commode without rails or handles or anything to (as it were) hold on to, and even the slightest leftward lurch or lean makes said shoulder touch said button – which keep in mind this is a moving bus – causing the door to whoosh open while you’re right there with business under way, and with the consequences of suddenly whirling to try to stab at the button to reclose the door while you’re in medias res being too obviously horrid to detail, with the result that by 9 February the great unspoken rule among the regulars on Bullshit 1 is that when a male gets up and goes two-thirds of the way back into the lavatory anybody who’s back there clears the area and makes sure they’re not in the door’s line of sight; and the way you can tell that a journalist is local or newly rotated onto the Trail and this is his first time on BS1 is the small strangled scream you always hear when he’s in the lavatory and the door unexpectedly whooshes open, and usually the grizzled old Charleston Post and Courier pencil will smile and call out “Welcome to national politics!” as the new guy stabs frantically at the button, and Jay at the wheel will toot the horn lightly with the heel of his hand in mirth, taking these long and mostly mindless DTs’ fun where he finds it.
Coming back up Bullshit 1’s starboard side, no laptops are in play and few window shades pulled, and the cleanest set of windows is just past the fridge, and outside surely the sun is someplace up there but the February vista still seems lightless. The central-SC countryside looks blasted, lynched, the skies the color of low-grade steel, the land all dead sod and brooms edge, with scrub oak and pine leaning at angles, and you can almost hear the mosquitoes breathing in their baggy eggs awaiting spring. Winter down here is both chilly and muggy, and Jay ends up alternating the heater with the AC as various different people bitch about being hot or cold. Scraggly cabbage palms start mixing with the pine as you get farther south, and the mix of conifer and palm is dissonant in a bad-dream sort of way. A certain percentage of the passing trees are dead and hung with kudzu and a particular type of Spanish moss that resembles a kind of drier-lint from hell. Eighteen-wheelers and weird tall pickups are the buses’ only company, and the pickups are rusted and all have gun racks and right-wing bumper stickers; some of them toot their horns in support. BSl’s windows are high enough that you can see right into the big rigs’ cabs. The highway itself is colorless and the sides of it look chewed on, and there’s litter, and the median strip is withered grass with a whole lot of different tire tracks and skidmarks striping the sod for dozens of miles, as if from the mother of all multivehicle pileups sometime in I-26’s past. Everything looks dead and not happy about it. Birds fly in circles with no place to go. There are also some weird smooth-barked luminous trees that might be pecan; no one seems to know. The techs keep their shades pulled even though they have no laptops. You can tell it must be spooky down here in the summer, all wet moss and bog-steam and dogs with visible ribs and everybody sweating through their hat. None of the media ever seem to look out the window. Everyone’s used to being in motion all the time. Location is mentioned only on phones: the journalists and producers are always on their cell phones trying to reach somebody else’s cell phone and saying “South Carolina! And where are you!” The other constant in most cell calls on a moving bus is “I’m losing you, can you hear me, should I call back!” A distinctive thing about the field producers is that they pull their cell phones’ antennas all the way out with their teeth; journalists use their fingers, or else they have headset phones, which they talk on while they type.
Right now, in fact, most of the starboard side is people on cell phones. There are black cell phones and matte-gray cell phones; one MSNBC lady has a pink cell phone her fiancé got her from Hammacher Schlemmer. Some of the phones are so miniaturized that the mouthpiece barely clears the caller’s earlobe and you wonder how they make themselves heard. There are headset cell phones of various makes and color schemes, some without antennas, plus the aforementioned earplug-and-hanging-podular-speaker cell phones. There are also pagers, beepers, vibrating beepers, voice-message pagers whose chips make all the voices sound distressed, and Palm Pilots that display CNN headlines and full-text messages from people’s different 1-800 answering services, which all 27 of the media on BSl have (1-800 answering services) and often kill time comparing the virtues of and relating funny anecdotes about. A lot of the cell phones have specially customized rings, which in a confined area with this many phones in play probably makes sense. There’s one “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” a “Hail Hail the Gang’s All Here,” one that plays the opening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 op. 67 in a weird 3/4 up-tempo, and so on. The only fly in the ointment here is that a US News and W. R.photographer, a Copley News Service pencil, and a leggy CNN producer who always wears red hose and a scrunchie all have the same “William Tell Overture” ring, so there’s always some confusion and three-way scrambling for phones when a “William Tell Overture” goes off in transit. The network techs’ phones all have regular rings.
Jay, the official Bullshit 1 driver and one of only two regulars aboard without a cell phone (he uses Travis’s big gray Nokia when he needs to call one of the other bus drivers, which happens a lot because as Jay will be the first to admit he’s a little weak in some of your navigational-type areas), carries a small attaché case full of CDs, and on long DTs he listens to them on a Sony Discman with big padded studio-quality headphones (which actually might be illegal), but Jay refuses to speak on-record to Rolling Stone about what music he listens to. John S. McCain himself is said to favor 60s classics and to at least be able to abide Fatboy Slim, which seems broad-minded indeed. The only other person who listens to headphones is a 12M who’s trying to learn conversational Cantonese and whenever he’s off the Express sits way back on BS1’s port side with his Cantonese-lesson tapes and repeats bursts of inscrutable screeching over and over at a volume his headphones prevent him from regulating very well, and this guy often has a whole large area to himself. Travis, now again awake and in cellular contact with Todd up ahead on the Express, is in his customary precarious position at the very edge of a seat occupied by a wild-haired and slightly mad older Brit from the Economist who likes to talk at great length about how absolutely enraptured the British reading public is with John McCain and the whole populist-Tory McCain phenomenon, and tends to bore the hell out of everyone, but is popular anyway because he’s an extraordinarily talented cabbager of hot food at mealtime events, and shares. The Miami Herald pencil in the seat next to them is reorganizing his Palm Pilot’s address-book function by hitting tiny keys with what looks like a small black swizzle stick. There’s also an anecdote under way by a marvelously caustic and funny Lebanese lady from Australia (don’t ask) who writes for the Boston Globe, and is drinking a vanilla Edensoy and telling Alison Mitchell and the ABC field producer w/ earplug-phone across the aisle about apparently checking in and going up to her assigned room at the North Augusta Radisson last night and finding it already occupied by a nude male—“Naked as a jaybob. In his altogether. Starkers”—with only a washcloth over his privates—“and not a large one either, I can tell you,” referring (as Alison M. later said she construed) to the washcloth.
The only BS1 regulars not covered so far are at the starboard work-table that’s just past the edge of the crowded couch and behind the gang of techs at the front. They are CNN correspondent Jonathan Karl and CNN field producer Jim McManus (both of whom look about eleven) and their sound tech, and they’re doing something interesting enough to warrant standing awkwardly balanced to watch and ignoring the slightly mad Economistguy’s irritated throat-clearings at having somebody’s unlaundered bottom swaying in the aisle right next to his head. The CNN sound tech (Mark A., 29, from Atlanta, and after Jay the tallest person on the Trail, vertiginous to talk to, able to get a stick’s boom mike directly over McCain’s head from the back of even the thickest scrum) has brought out from a complexly padded case a Sony SX-Series Portable Digital Editor ($32,000 retail) and connected it to some headphones and to Jonathan Karl’s Dell Latitudes laptop and cell phone, and the three of them are running the CNN videotape of this morning’s South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy address, trying to find a certain place where Jonathan Karl’s notes indicate that McCain said something like “Regardless of how Governor Bush and his surrogates have distorted my position on the death penalty …” A digital timer below the SX’s thirteen-inch screen counts seconds and parts of seconds down to four decimal places and is mesmerizing to watch as they fast-forward and Mark A. listens to what must be unimaginable FF chipmunkspeak on his headphones, waiting to tell Karl to stop the tape when he comes to what McManus says are the speech’s “fighting words,” which CNN HQ wants fed to them immediately so they can juxtapose the bite with something vicious the Shrub apparently said about McCain this morning in Michigan and do a breaking story on what-all Negative stuff is being said in the campaign today.
There’s a nice opportunity here for cynicism about the media’s idea of “fighting words” as the CNN crew FFs through the speech, Jim McManus eating his fifth Krispy Kreme of the day and awaiting Mark A.’s signal, Jonathan Karl polishing his glasses on his tie, Mark A. leaning forward with his eyes closed in aural concentration; and just behind Mark’s massive shoulder, at the rear edge of the front starboard couch, is NBC camera tech Jim C., who has a bad case of the Campaign Flu, pouring more blood-red tincture of elderberry into a bottle of water, his expression carefully stoic because the elderberry remedy’s been provided by his wife, who happens to be the NBC crew’s field producer and is right across the aisle on the port couch watching him closely to see that he drinks it, and it’ll be fun to hear Jim C. crack wise about the elderberry later when she’s not around. Cynical observation: The fact that John McCain in this morning’s speech several times invoked a “moral poverty” in America, a “loss of shame” that he blamed on “the ceaseless assault of violence-driven entertainment that has lost its moral compass to greed” (McCain’s metaphors tend to mix a bit when he gets excited), and made noises that sounded rather a lot like proposing possible federal regulation of all US entertainment, which would have dicey constitutional implications to say the least—this holds no immediate interest for CNN. Nor are they hunting for the hair-raising place in the speech where McCain declared that our next president should be considered “Commander in Chief of the war on drugs” and granted the authority to send both money and (it sounded like) troops, if necessary, into “nations that seem to need assistance controlling their exports of poisons that threaten our children.” When you consider that state control of the media is one of the big evils we point to to distinguish liberal democracies from repressive regimes, and that sending troops to “assist” in the internal affairs of sovereign nations has gotten the US into some of its worst messes of the last half century, these parts of McCain’s speech seem like the real “fighting words” that a mature democratic electorate might care to hear the news talk about. But we don’t care, evidently, and so neither do the networks. In fact, it’s possible to argue that a big reason why so many young Independents and Democrats are excited about McCain is that the campaign media focus so much attention on McCain’s piss-and-vinegar candor and so little attention on the sometimes extremely scary right-wing stuff this candor drives him to say … but no matter, because what’s really riveting here at BS1’s starboard table right now is what happens to McCain’s face on the Sony SX’s screen as they fast-forward through the speech’s dull specifics. McCain has white hair (premature, from Hoa Lo), and dark eyebrows, and a pink scalp under something that isn’t quite a comb-over, and kind of chubby cheeks, and in a regular analog fast-forward you’d expect his face to look silly, the way everybody on film looks spastic and silly when they’re FF’d. But CNN’s tape and editing equipment are digital, so what happens on FF is that the shoulders-up view of McCain against eight of the big flag’s stripes doesn’t speed up and get silly but rather just kind of explodes into myriad little digital boxes and squares, and these pieces jumble wildly around and bulge and recede and collapse and whirl and rearrange themselves at a furious FF pace, and the resultant image is like something out of the very worst drug experience of all time, a physiognomic Rubik’s Cube’s constituent squares and boxes flying around and changing shape and sometimes seeming right on the verge of becoming a human face but never quite resolving into a face, on the high-speed screen.
Who Even Cares Who Cares
It’s hard to get good answers to why Young Voters are so uninterested in politics. This is probably because it’s next to impossible to get someone to think hard about why he’s not interested in something. The boredom itself preempts inquiry; the fact of the feeling’s enough. Surely one reason, though, is that politics is not cool. Or say rather that cool, interesting, alive people do not seem to be the ones who are drawn to the political process. Think back to the sort of kids in high school who were into running for student office: dweeby, overgroomed, obsequious to authority, ambitious in a sad way. Eager to play the Game. The kind of kids other kids would want to beat up if it didn’t seem so pointless and dull. And now consider some of 2000’s adult versions of these very same kids: Al Gore, best described by CNN sound tech Mark A. as “amazingly lifelike”; Steve Forbes, with his wet forehead and loony giggle; G. W. Bush’s patrician smirk and mangled cant; even Clinton himself, with his big red fake-friendly face and “I feel your pain.” Men who aren’t enough like human beings even to hate—what one feels when they loom into view is just an overwhelming lack of interest, the sort of deep disengagement that is often a defense against pain. Against sadness. In fact, the likeliest reason why so many of us care so little about politics is that modern politicians make us sad, hurt us deep down in ways that are hard even to name, much less talk about. It’s way easier to roll your eyes and not give a shit. You probably don’t want to hear about all this, even.
One reason a lot of the media on the Trail like John McCain is simply that he’s a cool guy. Nondweeby. In school, Clinton was in student government and band, whereas McCain was a varsity jock and a hell-raiser whose talents for partying and getting laid are still spoken of with awe by former classmates, a guy who graduated near the bottom of his class at Annapolis and got in trouble for flying jets too low and cutting power lines and crashing all the time and generally being cool. At 63, he’s witty, and smart, and he’ll make fun of himself and his wife and staff and other pols and the Trail, and he’ll tease the press and give them shit in a way they don’t ever mind because it’s the sort of shit that makes you feel that here’s this very cool, important guy who’s noticing you and liking you enough to give you shit. Sometimes he’ll wink at you for no reason. If all that doesn’t sound like a big deal, you have to remember that these pro reporters have to spend a lot of time around politicians, and most politicians are painful to be around. As one national pencil told Rolling Stone and another nonpro, “If you saw more of how the other candidates conduct themselves, you’d be way more impressed with [McCain]. It’s that he acts somewhat in the ballpark of the way a real human being would act.” And the grateful press on the Trail transmit – maybe even exaggerate – McCain’s humanity to their huge audience, the electorate, which electorate in turn seems so paroxysmically thankful for a presidential candidate somewhat in the ballpark of a real human being that it has to make you stop and think about how starved voters are for just some minimal level of genuineness in the men who want to “lead” and “inspire” them.
“McCain acts somewhat in the ballpark of the way a real human being would act,” the columnist says.
There are, of course, some groups of Young Voters who are way, way into modern politics. There’s Rowdy Ralph Reed’s far-Right Christians for one, and then out at the other end of the spectrum there’s ACT UP and the sensitive men and angry womyn of the PC Left. It is interesting, though, that what gives these small fringe blocs such disproportionate power is the simple failure of most mainstream Young Voters to get off their ass and vote. It’s like we all learned in social studies back in junior high: If I vote and you don’t, my vote counts double. And it’s not just the fringes who benefit – the fact is that it is to some very powerful Establishments’ advantage that most younger people hate politics and don’t vote. This, too, deserves to be thought about, if you can stand it.
There’s another thing John McCain always says. He makes sure he concludes every speech and THM with it, so the buses’ press hear it about 100 times this week. He always pauses a second for effect and then says: “I’m going to tell you something. I may have said some things here today that maybe you don’t agree with, and I might have said some things you hopefully do agree with. But I will always. Tell you. The truth.” This is McCain’s closer, his last big reverb on the six-string as it were. And the frenzied standing-O it always gets from his audience is something to see. But you have to wonder. Why do these crowds from Detroit to Charleston cheer so wildly at a simple promise not to lie?
Well, it’s obvious why. When McCain says it, the people are cheering not for him so much as for how good it feels to believe him. They’re cheering the loosening of a weird sort of knot in the electoral tummy. McCain’s résumé and candor, in other words, promise not empathy with voters’ pain but relief from it. Because we’ve been lied to and lied to, and it hurts to be lied to. It’s ultimately just about that complicated: it hurts. We learn this at like age four – it’s grownups’ first explanation to us of why it’s bad to lie (“How would you like it if … ?”). And we keep learning for years, from hard experience, that getting lied to sucks – that it diminishes you, denies you respect for yourself, for the liar, for the world. Especially if the lies are chronic, systemic, if experience seems to teach that everything you’re supposed to believe in’s really just a game based on lies. Young Voters have been taught well and thoroughly. You may not personally remember Vietnam or Watergate, but it’s a good bet you remember “No new taxes” and “Out of the loop” and “No direct knowledge of any impropriety at this time” and “Did not inhale” and “Did not have sex with that Ms. Lewinsky” and etc. etc. It’s painful to believe that the would-be “public servants” you’re forced to choose between are all phonies whose only real concern is their own care and feeding and who will lie so outrageously and with such a straight face that you know they’ve just got to believe you’re an idiot. So who wouldn’t yawn and turn away, trade apathy and cynicism for the hurt of getting treated with contempt? And who wouldn’t fall all over themselves for a top politician who actually seemed to talk to you like you were a person, an intelligent adult worthy of respect? A politician who all of a sudden out of nowhere comes on TV as this total long-shot candidate and says that Washington is paralyzed, that everybody there’s been bought off, and that the only way to really “return government to the people” as all the other candidates claim they want to do is to outlaw huge unreported political contributions from corporations and lobbies and PACs … all of which are obvious truths that everybody knows but no recent politician anywhere’s had the stones to say. Who wouldn’t cheer, hearing stuff like this, especially from a guy we know chose to sit in a dark box for four years instead of violate a Code? Even in AD 2000, who among us is so cynical that he doesn’t have some good old corny American hope way down deep in his heart, lying dormant like a spinster’s ardor, not dead but just waiting for the right guy to give it to? That John S. McCain III opposed making Martin Luther King’s birthday a holiday in Arizona, or that he thinks clear-cut logging is good for America, or that he feels our present gun laws are not clinically insane – this stuff counts for nothing with these Town Hall crowds, all on their feet, cheering their own ability to finally really fucking cheer.
And are these crowds all stupid, or naive, or all over 40? Look again. And if you still think Young Voters as a generation have lost the ability – or transcended the desire – to believe in a politician, take a good look at Time magazine’s shots of the South Carolina rave, or at the wire photos of Young NH Voters on the night McCain won there.
But then look at the photos of McCain’s own face that night. He’s the only one not smiling. Why? Can you guess? It’s because now he might possibly win. At the start, on PBS and C-SPAN, in his shitty little campaign van with just his wife and a couple aides, he was running about 3 percent in the polls. And it’s easy (or at least comparatively easy) to tell the truth when there’s nothing to lose. New Hampshire changed everything. The 7 Feb. issues of all three big newsmagazines have good shots of McCain’s face right at the moment the NH results are being announced. It’s worth looking hard at his eyes in these photos. Now there’s something to lose, or to win. Now it gets complicated, the campaign and the chances and the strategy; and complication is dangerous, because the truth is rarely complicated. Complication usually has more to do with mixed motives, gray areas, compromise. On the news, the first ominous rumble of this new complication was McCain’s bobbing and weaving around questions about South Carolina’s Confederate flag. That was a couple days ago. Now everybody’s watching. Don’t think the Trail’s press have nothing at stake in this. There are two big questions about McCain now, today, as everyone starts the two-week slog through SC. The easy question, the one all the pencils and heads spend their time on, is whether he’ll win. The other – the one posed by those photos’ eyes – is hard to even put into words.
7 to 13 February is pitched to Rolling Stone as a real “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, fund-raising, traveling, poll-taking, strategizing, grinding out eight-event days in Michigan and Georgia and New York and SC. The Daily Press Schedule goes from twelve-point type to ten-. 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. Red-Eye to North Savannah on Chartered 707 with Faint PanAm Still Stenciled on Tail. Spartanburg SC Town Hall Meeting. Charleston Closed-Circuit TV Reception for McCain Supporters in Three States. 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 Fund-Raiser 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-Fund-Raiser 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 tired. “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 under way 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. In the primary campaign there is no more definitive behind-the-scenes locale than an 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 strange bright-red ham on Wonder Bread, Fritos, and coffee that tastes like hot 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 PM deadlines can finish 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, 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(TM) Computer Screen Light Filters and Power Strip(TM) 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 the 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 any sort of 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 the network techs, 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 bad neighborhood and making a chaise of it (the gear) 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 tank 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 recounting memorable card games they’ve been in in the past. When Rolling Stone rejoins the techs here in the back 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 percent 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 that it annoys the Twelve Monkeys), but their camaraderie is insular, sort of like a military unit that’s been through combat together, and they’re markedly 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 strong. 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 lavatoryof then-candidate Jimmy Carter’s campaign plane in Feb. [76 – “There was some real wild shit went on back then, a lot more, like, you know, relaxed than the Trail is now” – but when he’s 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 Stoneanyplace 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 – and do a lot – and which is 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 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 longtime 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 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 are theories). 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 cell phone 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 unnamed 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 house masseur. Not McCain2000, which favors Marriott, Courtyard by Marriott, Hampton Inn, 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 wake-up 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 menu channel’s eight-second loop. The sense that everything in the room’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 US 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 finally 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 till eleven and not think once of hotels or scrums or the weird way your kidneys hurt after jouncing all day on a bus.
Monday afternoon, the first and only F&F in Michigan, is also 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/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 50 feet away from any of the others, for privacy, and all walking in idle counterclockwise circles with a cell phone 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 – if there were a mezzanine, say – 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 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 sort 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 extremities and is always seen either slumped low in a chair or leaning on something. Oxymoron or no, what Mike Murphy 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 calls “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 – yellow twill trousers and brown Wallabies and an ancient and very cool-looking brown leather jacket – and surrounded in a 180-degree 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” that 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 styptic look and spells “r-e-s-p-o-n-s-e” out very slowly. What he’s leaning and bouncing against is the part of the wall between the room’s door and the little round table still piled with uneaten sandwiches (to which latter the hour has not been kind), and the Twelve Monkeys and some field producers and lesser pencils form a half scrum around him, with various press joining the back or peeling away to go out and phone 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 Governor G. W. Bush’s welching 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 press 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 20 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 kind of response.
The Twelve Monkeys, who are 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 reproduced here 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 Republican candidate to Bill Clinton is roughly equivalent to claiming that he worships Satan. 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’re able 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 Wite-Out(TM) or bird guano on it. Murphy is 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 also 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 the 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 shoulder, is “You guys want a pacifist, go support Bradley.”
For the remainder of the at least half hour more before John McCain is finally ready to get back on the Express (N.B.: McCain is later revealed to have had a sore throat today, apparently sending his staff 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 in RS’s opinion he is incredibly brave 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 cell phones 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 later emerges 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 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 political self-interest of the McCain2000 staff to muddy their perspective – turn out to be more astute 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. Polls have shown that most voters find Negativity big-time distasteful, and if a candidate is perceived as getting nasty, it usually costs him. So the techs all agree that the first big question is why Bush2000 started playing the Negativity 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, Governor Bush is a creature of his campaign advisors, and these advisors are the best that $70,000,000 and the full faith and credit of the GOP Establishment can buy, and they 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 inspired, 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 keeping to the high road. But it could also come off as wimpy, and so compromise McCain’s image as a tough, take-no-shit guy with the courage to face down the Washington kleptocracy. Not responding might 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 is). So McCain pretty much has to hit back, the techs agree. But th