Like a lot of Americans, Barack Obama says his favorite movie is "The Godfather." John McCain says his all-time favorite is "Viva Zapata!", a little-remembered, highly romanticized 1952 Marlon Brando biopic. The hero of the movie is Emiliano Zapata, the leader of a (briefly) successful peasant revolt in Mexico in the early 1900s. McCain loves the idea of a budget-class, guerrilla-style war against the corrupt establishment. He never got over being nostalgic about his 2000 insurgency against George W. Bush and the Republican Party leaders who had settled on George H.W. Bush's eldest son as heir apparent. Though himself the scion of a kind of warrior royalty—his father and grandfather had been admirals, and his mother came from a wealthy family—McCain was leery of the overprivileged (and hated being called a
"scion"). He would eventually come to embrace the younger Bush at the 2000 Republican convention, awkwardly hugging a rather startled-looking Bush around the midsection, as high as McCain's war-damaged arms could go. Privately, he told one of his closest aides that he strongly disliked Bush (the word the aide used was "detests").
At the time of the 2000 campaign, McCain had pictured himself as Luke Skywalker, going up against the Death Star. Rumbling along with his aides and a gaggle of mostly friendly reporters in a bus called the Straight Talk Express, he had relished the team spirit—the unit cohesion, in the language of his military past—and the teasing back-and-forth. Not long after the 2000 election, he had spoken of the heady time with a NEWSWEEK reporter over a standard-issue McCain breakfast (glazed doughnuts, coffee) in his Senate office. He was sitting at one end of his couch, the purplish melanoma scar down the left side of his face veiled in shadow. "Yeah, we were a band of brothers," he said, his voice low, his eyes shining.
The 2000 race had been a glorious adventure, a heroic Lost Cause. But the fact was that McCain had lost. In politics, insurgencies produce memories, not victories. Or so believed John Weaver, McCain's longtime close aide and the man who had first persuaded McCain to start thinking about a presidential run back in 1997. In numerous conversations throughout 2005 and 2006, Weaver, along with other McCain friends and advisers, gently underscored this reality. In their view, Republican nominating politics usually adhered to a rule, attributed variously to Napoleon and Frederick the Great, among others, that God favors big battalions. The key to securing the GOP nomination was to lock up the big money early, round up the best organizers, secure the shiniest endorsements and win the label "inevitable." That's how George W. Bush had beaten McCain and everyone else in 2000, and that's what John McCain needed to do for 2008.
McCain went along, grudgingly. He signed off in the fall of 2006 as his campaign rented sleek, corporate-looking offices in the Crystal City section of Arlington, Va., just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The crystal palace quickly filled with veterans of the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign, many of whom had never before met McCain. For campaign boss, McCain shoved aside Rick Davis, his campaign manager from 2000, and appointed Terry Nelson, the political director for Bush-Cheney 2004. Boyish and soft-spoken, Nelson was an organization man. His approach was essentially Shock and Awe. By his own admission, he was not the sort of man you would hire for an insurgent-model candidacy of the kind McCain had run in 2000; his relevant experience was more appropriate to crushing that kind of campaign.
McCain was never comfortable playing the front runner. His comment when he first walked through headquarters was "It's awfully big." McCain was ill suited to be the establishment's man. He was suspect to the true believers on the right, the Rush Limbaugh "dittoheads" who regarded him as a RINO (Republican in Name Only). While the Republican right wanted to build a wall and keep out all the immigrants, McCain was trying to forge a compromise—with Ted Kennedy, no less. The party stalwarts had reason to be doubtful about McCain, who could be salty in his private denunciations. To a couple of his closest advisers he grumbled, "What the f––– would I want to lead this party for?"
The McCain campaign was supposed to be a lavish money machine; the draft budget was for more than $110 million. But the money did not come in. Most campaigns can expect 80 to 85 percent of donors to honor their pledges. In the McCain campaign, fewer than half did. "They come, they eat our food, they drink our liquor, they get their pictures taken," said McCain's aide Mark Salter. "But they don't send a check." Most candidates don't like doing the "ask," begging strangers for dollars. McCain virtually stopped making calls, and his chief money raiser, Carla Eudy, stopped asking him to do it. The campaign had boasted that it could raise $50 million in the all-important first quarter of 2007, an amount that might have intimidated the opposition. Instead McCain raised $13 million, less than either Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani.
Rick Davis, manager of the 2000 campaign, had not been exiled altogether; he had just been pushed aside, told to talk up the donors and handle what was called "the Mrs. McCain stuff"—seeing to it that Cindy McCain got whatever she needed. In the winter and spring of 2007, what Mrs. McCain got from Davis was an earful about how badly the campaign was going.
Cindy McCain had never loved politics. She understood that she had to be a "Navy wife" and put up with her husband's frequent long absences, but that didn't mean she liked to play the stoic. The daughter of a wealthy Arizona beer distributor, Cindy had been pampered by her father, and sent to school at the University of Southern California (USC, which, John liked to tease, really stands for University of Spoiled Children). On the campaign trail, her platinum blond hair pulled back in a sleek but severe style, she was a notably unsmiling presence. During the 2000 campaign, she had been reduced to tears when Republican dirty tricksters started putting out the word that she had been addicted to painkillers (true, but successfully kicked) and that McCain had fathered a love child with a black hooker (the smear artists used photos of the McCains' daughter Bridget, adopted from a Bangladeshi orphanage by Cindy). Cindy had blamed the Bush operation, and she bridled against "those Bush people" now surrounding her husband. Davis did not discourage her complaints.
The crystal palace, in the winter of 2007, turned into a snake pit. The Weaver-Nelson camp blamed Davis's people in fundraising for not drumming up enough money; the Davis camp blamed the Nelson-Weaver management for spending money they didn't have. Davis whispered to Cindy that headquarters was filled with résumé padders and mercenaries who weren't really there out of loyalty to John McCain. The candidate seemed irritated and slightly bewildered. Hearing that the communications shop had just attacked Mitt Romney again, he would ask in genuine bafflement, "Well, why did we do that?"
McCain was an inveterate cell-phoner. He was constantly on the phone pressing his staff and his advisers—present and former—for information. "What's going on?" he would begin the conversation. "What's happening?" As the discussion seemed to finally wind down, he would push, "What else?" McCain had no use for chains of command, and he used his cell phone to set up back channels into the campaign hierarchy. His calls to dissidents against the campaign leadership stirred up so much confusion and anxiety that his friend the former senator Phil Gramm finally advised him to stop.
The candidate looked unhappy and his performances were lackluster; the money was not rolling in; no one was talking about the "inevitability" of John McCain. By the late spring of 2007, McCain's campaign was at best adrift, if not sinking. The problem was not Nelson and Weaver or Davis, the new Bushians or the old McCainiacs. The problem was McCain.
To the many reporters who had ridden McCain's bus in 2000, the Straight Talk Express, the candidate was a charming, winning man. He liked to tease and joke, and he could talk for hours—on the record—about almost any subject. Reporters who spent time with him sensed that beneath the bluffness there was a sense of grace—that McCain, tortured in prison, possessed an unusual depth of character, that he was capable of profound forgiveness of sin, his own and others'. He occasionally held grudges, but usually he dropped them. He could admit to his faults and often did. He was disarming: "He wore his flaws like a badge of honor and jealously guards his demons," recalled Carl Cameron, a Fox News reporter who had traveled many miles with him. To say that McCain was not like most politicians was an almost laughable understatement. Who else was so open and accessible? McCain, for his part, loved reporters: at the 2004 Republican convention, he had invited 50 A-list journos to a fancy French restaurant in New York and toasted them, only half kidding, as "my base."
But McCain's closest friends knew a more complicated man, more human, not necessarily less heroic, but whose virtues were also his flaws. They observed his restlessness and noted that he seemed incapable of serenity, that he could never really relax (except, perhaps, to watch a football game). One Arizona friend observed that he always seemed to be in a rush, as if he were making up for the years he'd lost in prison. McCain seemed to have an almost pathological desire not to be left alone, a hangover, some aides surmised, from his many months in solitary confinement as a POW. He seemed to need to be on the bus sparring with reporters; he was bored by staff briefings on the minutiae of polling and tactics. At one point, when the campaign was talking to charter companies about airplanes, someone suggested a plane for the candidate and staff and a separate plane for the press. The response from several other staffers was, are you kidding? McCain would dump the staff and take the reporters on his plane.
Even his top aides, who tended to be close personal friends as well, sometimes had uneasy feelings about the candidate. Because McCain seemed to live in the moment, because he had no regrets and could move on without looking back, one of his most intimate advisers confessed that he feared he might be dropped at any second, cast off, without warning or much second thought. McCain was loyal, he loved to talk about the band of brothers … and yet he could be secretive and evasive. He could be blunt, sometimes scorchingly so … but did anyone know what he was really thinking?
For all his gregariousness, McCain was at heart a loner. He was a pilot, a solo fighter jock, not an admiral of the fleet; in the Navy he had relatively little command experience, aside from running an air wing of replacement pilots after he returned from Vietnam. A military brat who moved around with his family, McCain had never been in any one place for long. Called a carpetbagger when he first ran for Congress from Arizona in 1982, he snapped back sarcastically that he would have appreciated the luxury of "growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the First District of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived the longest in my life was in Hanoi." But with his aides, he rarely talked about those five and a half years in prison in the Hanoi Hilton.
In the U.S. Senate, McCain had a well-deserved reputation as a straight talker (also as "Senator Hothead"). He did not seem hesitant to get in the face of some lawmaker who, in his view, was feeding at the public trough. He would turn cold and angry, spout profanities and later apologize (it was said that half the Senate had received a note of apology from McCain, an exaggeration, but not by much). At the same time, however, McCain disliked confronting his own friends. He hated to fire anyone from his staff. Not unlike Hillary Clinton, he resisted stepping in to make personnel changes, even when they were overdue.
The closer they got, McCain's friends and advisers found, the more they realized how difficult it was to know or understand this man who could blow hot and cold, who could be comradely yet elusive. One of the psychiatrists who had interviewed McCain after he was freed from North Vietnam in 1973 noted a "slight passive-aggressive trait." That wasn't a character trait he had picked up in prison. As a high-school student (nicknames: "Punk" and "McNasty") and as a young midshipman at the Naval Academy, McCain had been a subversive. He at once revered the Navy—had accepted that he was destined to follow his father and grandfather into the Sea Service—and yet rebelled against it. He seemed to know where the line was, avoiding trouble that would get him kicked out of Annapolis, but racking up enough demerits to graduate fifth from the bottom of his class. McCain showed some of the same passive-aggressiveness toward his own staffers. He would not want to fire them outright, but he would make life uncomfortable for them until they quit. But then, missing them, he never really let go. After Carla Eudy, his chief fundraiser, was pushed out in the spring of 2007, she estimated that she talked more often to the candidate than she had when she was working for him. She thought of the Eagles song "Hotel California," about a hotel where you could check out but never leave. Others compared service to McCain to the CIA: once you were in, you were in forever.
Presidential candidates are not supposed to micromanage their campaigns, but as the amount of money going out of the campaign continued to exceed the amount coming in, McCain could not resist. In May, he sternly ordered his top aides to "slash, slash the budget, right now. Start laying off people." But he could not bring himself to make any changes in the campaign command. McCain was extremely close to John Weaver, who had first pushed him to run and for the next decade traveled all over the country with him testing the waters and building support. (Among Weaver's jobs was combing McCain's hair; McCain's arms cannot reach that high.) A dour-looking man, Weaver was called "Sunny" by the wisecracking candidate. Love is not too strong a word to describe what Weaver felt for McCain. But by the spring of 2007, the two men were quarreling incessantly. "Every day was a struggle with John," Weaver later recalled. "Every phone call was an argument, an awful argument, and I talked to him 18, 19, 20 times a day. He was mad about every little thing, because he had been ginned up to be mad about every little thing—a lot of things that weren't true." The chief "ginner," Weaver suspected, was Davis, stirring up Cindy McCain and the candidate himself.
By summer, McCain had less cash on hand than Ron Paul, the libertarian cult candidate. At a broiling-hot campaign retreat at McCain's family compound in Sedona, Ariz., the candidate stood glumly at his grill, handing out smoky chunks of meat, not saying much. For the weekend after July 4, McCain and his best Senate pal, Lindsey Graham, went to Iraq together. McCain had been under pressure from various party elders and some of his own aides to back off his steadfast support of the war in Iraq. But he was moved by the stoicism of the troops he met there, and also stirred by a pep talk he got from Graham, a smooth talker and true believer in the McCain mystique. Somewhere on the 14-hour plane ride back, McCain said to Graham, "You know we got to keep going; we can't let those guys down." Graham replied, "That's right, John. If they can do it, we can do it."
When McCain returned, he summoned Terry Nelson and Weaver and engaged in a prolonged shouting match over the sorry state of the campaign. Weaver blamed McCain: "Terry didn't set up the system, you set up that system, and we believed our own bulls–––, and that's how we got in this situation." Weaver stormed out; Nelson quit before he could be fired.
Waiting in the wings was Rick Davis to reprise his 2000 role as campaign manager. Davis put an end to profligacy. The offices and cubicles in the crystal palace began to empty as the staff shrank by more than half. Davis assembled the remnants to work at long tables in a large open space. To one staffer, the place looked a little like a bingo parlor.
The national press had largely stopped paying attention to McCain as his campaign spluttered in the spring and early summer. But on a trip to New Hampshire in mid-July, Mark Salter, McCain's closest adviser and all-purpose amanuensis (he co- authored McCain's bestselling books and wrote his speeches), noticed that the press corps had suddenly swollen, and not just with beat reporters. A number of Washington "Big Feet"—bureau chiefs and pundits and chief political correspondents—had made the trip. They were there to write McCain's political obituary, Salter realized. He confronted The Washington Post's senior political correspondent, Dan Balz: "You're vultures on a wire here to see when he is gonna clutch his chest and drop dead."
McCain kept stoically slogging along, but the grim set of his jaw and his dogged left-foot, right-foot determination were plain to see. He dropped his resistance to making fundraising calls, but the donors were still holding back, and the crowds on the trail were small and listless. It was a blue period for McCain; he was sustained mostly by grit.
But then, grit is not something McCain has in short supply. In late summer, an occasional consultant named Steve Schmidt gave him some valuable advice. Schmidt was another veteran of Bush-Cheney '04—he had run the war room, the rapid-response unit. He was a strong believer in developing a simple message and hammering it home.
In a phone call in August, Schmidt asked McCain, "What do you really think is happening in Iraq?" McCain answered, "I think things are getting better. I think the surge is working." Bending to the political winds, McCain had lately become a little equivocal about Iraq in his public comments, but privately he continued to believe that surrendering in Iraq would send a signal of weakness to Al Qaeda and the rest of the world, and that defeat would break the spirit of the U.S. military.
Schmidt understood that this was the character the public needed to see—defiant, passionate, willing to sacrifice his political career for his convictions. This was the candidate who could win in New Hampshire, a state that liked mavericks and did not want to be told whom to vote for by The Washington Post.
"Sir," said Schmidt, who treated McCain with military respect (though he had not served himself), "we need to stop hedging on Iraq. You believe in this. You don't think things are getting better; you believe we are winning the war, sir. We need to tell the voters that." He told McCain he needed to get a bunch of his old POW buddies together and travel across the country in the campaign bus McCain had loved so much. Start in San Diego (a Navy town) and end in New Hampshire. Stay in crappy hotels, Schmidt said. Get out some lawn chairs and sit outside and drink a couple of beers with the buddies at night. After all, there was nothing left to lose. "You're a fan of literature. You're a fan of the movies. Plays have three acts. Movies have narrative arcs. Your campaign is dead," said Schmidt. "There is only one narrative left—the comeback. You have no choice, sir."
Schmidt touched McCain's mad-as-hell, romantic streak at just the right moment. In September, McCain embarked on the "No Surrender Tour." (Most of his advisers—the same ones who had wanted him to back off on Iraq—were unenthusiastic; his New Hampshire staff warned, as one of them put it, "Don't bring that bus up here.") McCain's sometime traveling buddy was Senator Graham, who shared his streak of black humor. An avid newspaper reader, McCain took a kind of grim pleasure reading his political obituaries. "We've got 'em right where we want 'em!" he would chortle to seatmate Graham. At some stops, the crowd was composed mostly of aging veterans. "Here's the good news," Graham told McCain after one such event. "The 90-plus crowd is with us. The World War II vets are ready to go back in!"
The campaign continued its rickety path through the fall. At one point, Mark McKinnon, a media adviser who had worked for Bush-Cheney '04, described the difference between the Bush campaigns he had worked on and the McCain campaign as the difference between the Royal British Navy and Capt. Jack Sparrow's ship in "Pirates of the Caribbean." McCain loved the comparison. He began making guttural pirate noises, punctuating his jokes and one-liners with "Aaarrgh" and occasionally greeting reporters with this oddly cheerful growl. PIRATES FOR MCCAIN T shirts (complete with skull and crossbones) eventually sprouted on the backs of campaign volunteers and even a few reporters. The Straight Talk Express revived; network producers began napping on the bus and watching TV in McCain's seating area when the candidate was busy.
Along about Thanksgiving, reporters began to notice a change. The size of the crowds was increasing, and McCain began to creep up in the polls, especially in New Hampshire. He was blessed by the quality of his opponents. In the grim days of summer, when a NEWSWEEK reporter had asked why he shouldn't join the rest of the press corps in reading the last rites for McCain's presidential aspirations, Rick Davis had responded with an incongruously cheerful smile. Nothing personal, he said; our opponents are all good men, some of them are my friends—but politically speaking? "Look, at the end of the day," he said, "the rest of these guys suck." However crude, his judgment was not off base. Ex-businessman Mitt Romney seemed to treat the campaign as a management-consulting project, as if he were selling a product and trying to increase market share. He had no fingertips as a politician and came off as a phony, even when he was perfectly sincere. Rudy Giuliani seemed to be building a cult of Rudy, constantly talking about his performance on 9/11 to a nation that wanted to forget about the terrorist attacks, and he badly miscalculated by believing that he could wait until the Florida primary in late January to make his move. Former senator Fred Thompson seemed old and half asleep. Former governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas was emerging as an engaging showman and a lively dark horse—but as an evangelical minister with no foreign-policy experience, he almost certainly could not win.
Like a lot of fighter pilots and old sea dogs, McCain was notoriously superstitious. For some mysterious reason, he insisted on sitting in the fourth row of his JetBlue charter plane, as a hapless advance staffer found out when the candidate told her to change seats. In New Hampshire, McCain told his staff to book the same room in the same hotel he'd stayed in during his stunning upset victory over George W. Bush in 2000. He also wore the same lucky green sweater from that night and carried a lucky penny and an Indian feather. On Jan. 8, the day of the New Hampshire primary, McCain was uptight and testy. There was no more joking around. He sharply hushed a couple of well-meaning friends who told him, "Hey, you're going to win."
He won easily. "Mac is back!" went up the raucous chant. Later that night, after his speech, McCain adviser Steve Duprey filled his pockets with the confetti that had showered over the victory crowd. Knowing McCain's superstitious nature, Duprey wanted to make sure he had some lucky confetti on hand at every remaining primary day.
McCain lost Michigan to Romney on Jan. 15, largely because Romney pandered to his boyhood home state by promising to bring back jobs long gone. In South Carolina on Jan. 19, McCain was on edge and his wife, Cindy, even more so. This was the place where the dirty tricksters had slimed the McCains in 2000, and Cindy could not shake off a sense of dread. The weather in Charleston was awful—sleeting rain—and McCain seemed caged, cooped up with his friend Lindsey Graham, who was annoying him by trying to "visualize" victory. By 7 p.m., Cindy and Graham were ready to "jump out the window," Graham later recalled. McCain's 95-year-old mother, Roberta, tried to lighten the mood by cracking jokes about how she wanted to marry Lindsey. The phone rang. It was Liz Sidoti of the Associated Press, telling Schmidt that the AP was about to call the race for McCain. Excited relief spread through the room; some aides began to cry and hug each other. All eyes turned to the TV set, waiting for the cable networks to bring the news. Two minutes passed, then five, then 10 minutes. The phone rang again. It was Sidoti saying the AP had decided to hold back. The projections from its computer model weren't satisfying the analysts—it looked as if Huckabee was closing the gap. "See, Lindsey? This is because of you," McCain said, only half joking.
The excruciating vigil resumed. "We're up, boy, we're up," Graham murmured softly when the numbers turned. "Boy, we're down," McCain replied moments later. (McCain and Graham often call each other "boy," another obscure McCain bonding ritual.) The agony finally ended at 9:20 p.m., when Sidoti called back to say the AP was about to officially declare McCain the winner.
Mark Salter would recall that he had never seen McCain so happy as that night. The 71-year-old torture victim bounded onstage, a little creakily, and Cindy was glowing and regal in a purple suit and pearls. Grinning mischievously, McCain couldn't resist a reference to the 2000 debacle in South Carolina. "What's eight years among friends?" he chortled to the crowd. When his mother drew a roar, McCain walked over and kissed her on the cheek. "Thank you, Momma," he said. He exited the stage as Abba's "Take a Chance on Me" played. He stayed up late into the night, talking with his buddy Graham about how far they had come and what lay ahead. Only bad luck could deny him now.
By late February, Salter had finally stopped waking up each morning with thoughts of a potentially ruinous story racing in his mind. In December, he had felt sure it was coming. The New York Times was calling around, asking about McCain's relationship to an attractive lobbyist named Vicki Iseman. In 1999, she had often been seen around McCain's office at the Senate commerce committee, where he was chairman. Friends were calling Salter and asking about the rumors. Was the Times about to run an exposé of an extramarital affair between McCain and a lobbyist, for whom he was alleged to have performed legislative favors? Salter had spent hours (including Christmas Day) locating records in an effort to prove that the story was not true. But the rumor mill was grinding on the campaign trail. When a New York Times reporter, talking to Romney's press secretary, knocked down gossip that the story would be on page one the next day, Romney joined the conversation and asked, "It's not running?" It was pretty clear that Romney hoped the story would run sometime before the New Hampshire primary.
But weeks passed, and the article did not materialize. Salter heard that the Times's editor, Bill Keller, had spiked the story twice. Salter began to believe the article would not run. Salter could be standoffish, and he was often ironic and sometimes angry. But he was also a romantic, one reason why he was such an effective alter ego for McCain. Salter wanted to believe that the Times editors were "grown-ups," as he put it to Schmidt. The accusations were too flimsy and the Times was too reputable. "I know them," he told Schmidt. "They're adults. They're not going to hurt a Christian family with no reason."
Schmidt was not so sure. He regarded himself as a realist about the media: he was willing to use reporters and even be used by them. He regarded the media as a problem needing vigilant attention. Even the friendliest reporters, the ones whose company he enjoyed at hotel bars, could be expected to turn on the campaign. The New York Times, he believed, harbored a clear liberal bias. "Look," he told Salter, "if McCain is the nominee, he's going to have two opponents: whomever the Democrats nominate and The New York Times. And The New York Times is gonna spend every day trying to help your Democratic opponent beat you, and you've just got to accept that."
On Feb. 21, the Times posted a story on its Web site implying that McCain had been romantically involved with Iseman around the time of his bid for the 2000 nomination. The campaign was given two hours' warning. McCain was campaigning in Ohio, and Salter and Schmidt were in Washington. They raced to the airport, where it was snowing and flights were being canceled. Finally boarding a flight to Detroit, where they could rent a car and drive to Toledo, they scrolled their BlackBerrys as the Times story popped up online. Schmidt began to gently pound his fist on the seat in front of him.
"This was a mistake for The New York Times. This is not only not gonna hurt us, it's gonna help us," Schmidt said, with just a hint of excitement in his voice. "We're gonna go brief McCain. We're gonna tell him to stand up there stoically. Do a press conference. Take every question. Just don't get pissed off." Salter began to feel a little better. The two men discussed damage control. When they got to Detroit, they were going to start calling reporters, telling them that the story wasn't fit to print, that it had been spiked a couple of times before the Times finally ran a very thin version—a clumsy attempt to slip hints of illicit romance into a story that purported to be largely about McCain's ties to lobbyists. This was just another sad chapter in the paper's once proud history, they would say—a tawdry sequel to Jayson Blair, the Times reporter who got caught fictionalizing his stories.
It was 11:30 p.m. by the time Salter and Schmidt reached the McCains' hotel suite. Cindy was visibly upset. McCain was stone-faced and seething, but silent. Salter started right in: "Y'know what? The story was a mistake. It's a bulls––– story, and it's gonna be easy to fight." The two aides spelled out their strategy for a press conference. "Don't get mad," Salter urged. "Just be calm." McCain said very little, except "See you at the press conference."
The next day McCain flatly denied any romantic involvement with Iseman and excoriated the Times. Schmidt's instincts were right: the story proved to be an embarrassment to the newspaper. The pundits turned on the Times for running a story with so little apparent evidence; the Times's ombudsman was also critical of the paper. There were a few awkward loose ends. The story claimed that McCain's advisers had warned him to stop seeing Iseman. McCain flatly denied this to reporters. But John Weaver—McCain's old best buddy, now in semi-exile though still talking occasionally to Salter—told the Times (and NEWSWEEK's Michael Isikoff) that he had met with Iseman at a restaurant at Union Station and told her to stay away from the senator. Speaking not for attribution, two advisers told NEWSWEEK that McCain had indeed been warned to stop seeing Iseman back in December 1999, when he was gearing up for a presidential run. But these details were largely overlooked by the mainstream press, which quickly lost interest in the story.
Schmidt's handling of the Iseman story was a telling moment in the campaign. McCain might like to pal around with reporters, but the lesson was clear: in the end, the liberal press would always turn on you. Salter did not give up on reporters right away, but he came to believe that "gotcha" journalism was pushing aside honest give-and-take. The Straight Talk Express had been fun, but it was not the way to win.