Now I'm not one to kick a man when he's down, nor even to hit him when he's wobbly. But
watching John McCain's poll numbers stay strangely resilient despite the virtual disintegration of his campaign, I feel compelled to share a cautionary tale of my own firsthand experience with the Straight-Talk Express. That hell-bent freight train rolled over me a couple years ago and I haven't felt the same since. Back then, I was something of a McCain admirer. Today, I have a different story to tell - one that helps explain the tortuous path the McCain camp has taken in recent weeks through the scorched earth of a deteriorating candidacy. This path, one could say, is prelude; what I've learned watching McCain seek the White House should give anyone pause about the prospect of him occupying it.
So here's what happened. John McCain was featured prominently in my documentary film Why We Fight, which premiered at Sundance in 2005. In pre-screenings of the film across the country before its theatrical release, John McCain wowed audiences with his outspoken words onscreen. On the subject of U.S. foreign policy, he said "Where the debate and controversy begins is how far does the United States go and when does it go from a force for good to a force of imperialism?" About defense industry corruption, he declared, "President Eisenhower's concern about the military-industrial complex -- his words have unfortunately come true." In specific, McCain criticized not only the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war but even the contracting and billing practices of Halliburton.
In November '05, as the theatrical release of Why We Fight approached, I visited Washington for a follow-up with the Senator, both as a courtesy and hoping he might appear at the film's premiere. I arrived early for my appointment, and his receptionist pointed me to a seat on the couch. She was busy fielding a torrent of calls. "Senator McCain's office, please hold," she said repeatedly. "The office of Senator McCain, please hold...."
On a TV flickering silently, the Senate was in a frenzied session on the administration's handling of pre-war intel on Iraq. Watching the charade of partisan posturing onscreen, I wondered if Americans outside the Beltway even cared at all. The calls coming in to the receptionist suggested they did. From her responses, the callers seemed concerned with a wide array of subjects facing the Senator. "The Senator is unavailable at the moment," she would say. "May I pass on a message? Yes he is familiar with that issue. You say you support it? Yes? I will pass that on to the Senator. Thank you for calling." Some version of this conversation recurred ten times in the first 15 minutes I was there.
During a lull, I approached the receptionist and asked her how many such calls she fields each
day. "Oh hundreds," she smiled. "Is there a system for passing all this on to the Senator?" I asked. "Oh yes," she replied, brandishing a steno pad with an immaculate handwritten tally of the views expressed. "I share this with him at the end of the day." Impressed and inspired, I returned to the visitor's couch. For a moment, Washington seemed to be working for America.
As I waited, though, I noted a conversation taking place on the opposite side of the waiting room. There at a conference table was a group of businessmen meeting with two of the Senator's staffers. I hid myself in a magazine and pretended not to listen. From what I could gather, the businessmen represented a defense interest seeking the Senator's support for some system produced by their firm. It was pretty ironic. There I was, having made a film that investigates military-industrial-congressional corruption, and after less than an hour in Washington I was already witnessing in microcosm the tension of forces acting on public policy. On my right, the voices of Eisenhower's "alert and knowledgeable citizenry" seeking their Senator's ear through his receptionist's headset. On my left, representatives of the military-industrial sector, seeking with quiet confidence to influence the Senator on a matter of mutual interest.
A balanced picture? How could it be, really? Given the grotesque costs of elections and the
need for members of Congress to bring home jobs, the most important people for any politician, Republican or Democrat, are those whose companies create jobs and generate contributions. And for the most part, that's not you and me. Most Americans don't meet their politicians. Half the country doesn't vote. Ninety-six percent don't write campaign checks.
I didn't see the Senator that day but met instead with his Chief of Staff Mark Salter. I explained to Mr. Salter that Senator McCain's outspoken onscreen remarks were proving popular with audiences weary of the status quo. I told him I wanted to arrange events to inspire public discourse and hoped the Senator might appear. Salter had bigger fish to fry, thanked me perfunctorily for my visit, and that was that.
But I could never have anticipated what happened next. The film was released nationally in
January 2006. A few days later, I got a call from an agitated Mark Salter. He didn't recall my
visit, hadn't seen the film, and after a panicked battery of questions, demanded I send him a
copy. As promised during our November meeting, I had already sent him an advance copy,
which I pointed out was already in his office. He asked me to hold, presumably confirmed this,
then came back on the line to say he'd get back to me.
When next I heard from Salter, panic had grown to fury. He said the Senator's critical comments
about the dangers of preemption and of American imperialism could give the mistaken impression McCain was opposed to the Iraq war and the Bush Administration broadly. But the moment in the film that was his greatest concern was when, responding to a question about the controversial awarding of no-bid contracts to Halliburton, McCain concedes, "It looks bad. It looks bad. And apparently, Halliburton more than once has overcharged the federal government. That's wrong." When pressed on how he would tackle this problem, McCain boldly declares, "I would have a public investigation of what they've done."
At that moment in the film, a phone rings off-screen and Senator McCain is advised by a staffer
that Vice-President Cheney is calling. With a nervous laugh, the Senator excuses himself. "The
vice-president's on the phone," he stammers, rising and scrambling off-screen, leaving the
camera rolling on his empty chair. Different people see this scene differently. Some see McCain's sudden departure as perfectly normal. He's a high-ranking Senator, and the Vice-President is calling. Others see McCain's departure as evidence of a too-close relationship with Cheney. They note a certain embarrassment in McCain's body language. To yet a smaller, third group, McCain's reaction underscores Dick Cheney's omnipotence in Washington. Given the Administration's penchant for wiretapping, one viewer laughingly told me he thought perhaps "Cheney had decided the interview had gone on long enough."
Jokes aside, when McCain's office voiced their concern about this moment, I expected, if
anything, they might fear the suggestion of uncomfortably close ties between McCain and Cheney. When Salter instead declared to me that I was "making it look like John McCain was critical of the Vice-President," and that "Vice-President Cheney has nothing to do with Halliburton," I realized that what he was objecting to was not that McCain might have appeared too close to Cheney but rather not close enough. Mr. Salter demanded that I send him a transcript of the Senator's interview, not just the parts that appear in the film. Since none of the film's more than twenty other interviewees had been provided such a thing, and since I valued the film's independence from political pressure, I told Mr. Salter I would seek advice from other journalists and get back to him.
Salter next resorted to threats, saying that, unless I complied, he would smear my name in the
media and exert pressure on the film's principal funder never to work with me again. I said I
thought the BBC would be unlikely to welcome such pressure from an irate chief of staff to a
senator. Salter then changed gears, appealing to my sense of fairness. "When Senator McCain
sat down to talk to you," he explained, "he thought he was talking to a television crew from the
BBC." I said that that was true, but that the film had then gone on to win Sundance and secure a
theatrical release. But then something troubling about his remark dawned on me.
"If you don't mind my asking," I said, "are you suggesting there are things Senator McCain will
say to a British audience that he isn't comfortable saying to the American people?"Needless to say, this didn't help matters. But I wasn't trying to be snide. My question was just the logical extension of what Salter had intimated. But it clearly touched a nerve. He became enraged and, after hanging up, sought to make good on his threat to tarnish my name and career.
On February 8, 2006, in an article in Roll Call entitled "An Angry Star is Born," Mary Ann Akers wrote, "Attention, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.): You're not the only punching bag for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). The 2008 presidential hopeful is also really mad at the producer of the
Sundance Film Festival award-winning film 'Why We Fight''...McCain -- and especially his chief of staff -- think the movie producer intentionally twisted McCain's few lines in the film so that he comes off as critical of Vice-President Cheney."
The article goes on to quote Mr. Salter as calling me a "slippery son of a gun" and accusing me of "'doing manipulative editing' to make it look like McCain is questioning Cheney's involvement in the awarding of contracts to Halliburton..." Salter then offered Roll Call the same peculiar argument he gave me about British television. "McCain thought he was doing an interview on Iraq with the BBC," Salter told Roll Call, "'turns out to be a theatrically released film in the United States.'" Salter then underscored McCain's fondness for Cheney, lest the film leave anyone with the impression that he was in any way critical of the Vice-President. The Senator, the article quoted Salter to say, has "complete respect for Mr. Cheney's integrity."
Salter also kept his promise to inform the BBC about my alleged misconduct. He contacted them, after which they called me, nonplussed and a bit bemused at the strange culture of Washington. Ultimately, the episode came and went, and the McCain camp's efforts against me subsided. Looking back, of course, it was all about damage control to ensure that the Senator's
presidential ambitions not be imperiled by a film in which he could be seen as critical of the Bush Administration. They hoped to distance McCain from his own words, which was pointedly disheartening for me, as I had seen so many audiences be so moved by them.
But the larger moral of my story became clear in recent weeks as the McCain camp entered a pattern of spiraling electoral thuggery that bears all the markings of the behavior I experienced. First came McCain's petulant withdrawal from Larry King, compounded by the vitriol Sarah Palin directed at the mainstream press at the Convention. But as the McCain candidacy unraveled over the weeks that followed, with his own staffers coming to call Palin a "Diva" and a "whack job"and both sides sowing the seeds for a post-election blame game, the strategy of shooting the messenger has proven to be just another bizarre flare-up in the fog of a turbulent campaign. Arguably, when your opponent can outspend you 4 to 1 on advertising, offending the free-of-charge mainstream press, which John McCain once called "my base," might not be the best idea. So why did they do it? Why all the fuss and desperation? Where does the palpable insecurity within the McCain camp come from? And what does it tell us?
The superficial answer to these questions lies in my own experience as a precursor to what I
have seen play out in the campaign. In her strident debut, Palin played the straight-talk card in
describing McCain. "Wherever he goes and whoever is listening, John McCain is the same man!" she declared. Like so many of the talking points she was given, one can assume these words were carefully crafted to unmake a prevailing impression the McCain team perceives as a liability. This time, it was the fact that McCain is widely perceived as politically slippery - a politician who says different things to different people. For me, witnessing the John McCain who courageously appeared in my film and the later McCain whose staff went after me for sharing his thoughts with the American public, I've seen firsthand how the Straight-Talk Express really works.
Basically, the train tends to veer off its rails whenever its "maverick" conductor goes off-script,
pandering to one desired constituency in a way that alienates another. His handlers in the
caboose are then left scrambling to undo impressions they fear will come back to haunt them.
When the train gets out of control, taking their campaign someplace they didn't mean to go, they try to backtrack at all cost. So whether this means dissing David Letterman or bullying a lowly filmmaker like me, no contortion is so great that they won't indulge it if it helps the train reach Pennsylvania Avenue. Now, I don't really expect straight talk from politicians, but when a
politician makes "straight talk" his claim to fame, he actually gets my hopes up. In McCain's case, I learned the hard way that the Straight Talk Express is actually just political stagecraft of the most cynical and cutthroat kind.
But on a deeper level, I sense that all the problems of managing McCain's public image are
ultimately a reflection of a profound division in McCain's own soul as he runs for the presidency. His awkward manner, his sidekick's rogue behavior, his campaign's erratic relations with the press and public - all this radio static speaks volumes about the deeper insecurity and unresolved persona of the man himself - qualities so glaring no amount of lipstick or campaign theatrics can hide them.
The problem for McCain is that his career - and in particular his strained relations with the Bush camp -- does not offer a coherent, consistent message for a candidacy. Here is a man whose prevailing legacy is that he was a tortured American POW. And yet, in fear of losing the party base, he was forced to engage from day one in a slippery political dance on the most sensitive issue of his life, going some distance to apply the principles of his experience, yet not so far that he might be perceived as critical of the President. Thus, instead of becoming a vital reminder of how America can cannibalize her young people in a misbegotten war, McCain let his ambition for the White house ally him with an Administration on the wrong side of history, condoning the morally shameful enterprise they engineered in Iraq. By doing this, instead of helping America avoid repeating history, he became one willing to block out even his own memories and pretend, as he did in his speech about 2013, that there can ever be "victory with honor" in a war like that in Iraq. Deep down, McCain must know that after giving themselves to a war of lies, cynicism, and corruption, young people return home with less than they started out with. But instead of representing this wisdom and sparing another generation of young Americans the anguish he experienced, McCain sold them out in order that he might win the chance to occupy that same office from which he was once misguidedly commanded into harm's way.
With all due respect to the inner challenges McCain faces as he tries to reconcile the politician
with the human being, what America most needs today -- alongside an unrelentingly engaged
public - is deep, inspired, and coherent leadership, not a continuation of the personal insecurity, confused morality, and political opportunism that got us where we are.
Eugene Jarecki's 2006 film "Why We Fight" won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival as well as a Peabody Award. This posting is an excerpt from his new book, The American Way of War: Guided Missiles, Misguided Men, and a Republic in Peril. It has just been released by Simon & Schuster/Free Press.