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McCain Loses His Cool

In Disappointing Activists' Convention, One-Time Maverick Seems To Close Chapter

Dan Bernard, Staff Writer, The Pittsburgh Channel
August 1, 2000, 12:49 p.m. EDT

PHILADELPHIA -- A few hundred people in this city just witnessed the death of a legend. He's  at the convention! E-mail your questions to

Sen. John McCain, who for months was a figure viewed by legions of disaffected Americans as the rebel-savior of politics, walked in front of a convention of political rebels on Sunday and told them that he was throwing in with the establishment.

McCain even asked them to vote for George W. Bush.

"And so, it is not out of party obligation, but out of personal conviction that I ask you to support my party's nominee for president, Gov. George W. Bush," McCain told the Shadow Convention, a gathering of reform-minded political agitators who presented themselves as a meaningful alternative to this year's Republican National Convention.

A palpable sense of shock rippled across the university lecture hall where the event was held. "I think it's quite clear that he is the candidate of change, and the vice president is the candidate of the status quo," McCain added. McCain at Shadow Convention (Photo: Dan Bernard/@thepittsburghchannel)

Amid murmurs of unease, McCain sweetened the announcement by referring to the persona that the crowd had been expecting: "As most of us know, I don't care much for the status quo."

But the senator from Arizona had just shed his identity as Everybody's Rebel. If it was ever credible, during his run as a viable Republican presidential candidate, that liberal anti-establishment types could support a guy who was, after all, ideologically hard-right conservative -- well, on Sunday, the spell was broken.

Sure, McCain had endorsed Bush weeks earlier, and even made a show of how emphatic he was about it. But his fans could write that off as the maverick playing the good boy for a day, holding his temper for one press conference, presumably to return to his cabin and curse Bush's name to the rafters in private.

This time, he was signing on the dotted line.



While the attendees of the Shadow Convention audience were gasping, McCain trod through his prepared remarks. Despite their blood-hot primary competition, he could acknowledge that he and Bush have large areas of agreement. The schools aren't good enough, for instance.

"And we agree completely that the public business has been conducted ... consumed by an almost mindless partisanship" that was "shameful," he said. If that line was designed to draw a round of applause, it came up short.

A woman in the middle rows gave voice to the crowd's astonishment: "This isn't why we're here," she called out in a high, irate voice.

McCain blinked and pushed on. He saluted Bush for challenging something or other.

"Wrong. Wrong," a man in the audience said, as if shaking himself from a bad dream.

Outbursts interrupted McCain repeatedly, and he halted. Looking stage left, he offered politely, "If you'd like -- I do not need to continue."

The hecklers hesitated, and he continued. But the next heckler carried a shade of menace: A man in the back of the hall called out, "Hey, cowboy," as if inviting him into a dark alley. A leaflet taped onto the outside of the hall had called McCain that and listed various injustices that he had supported as senator.

Suddenly it didn't seem like such a good idea that McCain had brought his wife and mother to the event.

A couple of people came to McCain's aid and shouted "Shh!"

"My friends, I am a conservative," McCain said forcefully -- by way of explanation? At any rate, it drew solid applause. (A reader sent in information about that cause: Click here to read it.)

Then some audience members started up a chant: "Save Black Mesa!"

"Let him speak!" a number of audience members shouted back.

But McCain had lost control of the situation. The emcee of the Shadow Convention, Arianna Huffington, strode onstage to McCain's rescue. Huffington found the appropriate spin to brake the rebellious factions in the crowd.

"You know, this is a convention where we can hear anything that has to be said," Huffington said, leaning into the microphone as McCain leaned back. Meaning, if you guys have the right to shout out stuff, McCain should be able to speak uninterrupted. Applause.

Biting The Hand That Bit Him

McCain was presumably in trying-to-get-the-hell-out-of-here mode when he slipped out an incisive critique on the same wide-ranging distrust of government that fueled his primary run.

"I believe it's a healthy thing for Americans to be skeptical of politicians' motives ("You!" a heckler called out), but widespread skepticism (has become) cynicism bordering on alienation, and that worries me greatly.

"Many young people ... can't see themselves as part of their own self-interest," he finished. Some audience members gasped at what they perceived as a slam on them.

When McCain mentioned that America had endured a great civil war, angry audience members picked up the riff: "Indian war!" one grumbled. "Drug war!" another offered. "Genocide," someone else said, and someone else repeated that. There was a sudden cracking sound -- a balloon popping? Or someone smacking pieces of wood together? McCain wrapped up and exited.

Huffington came back to the stage and thanked McCain for his "courage -- in the Hanoi Hilton, in facing his own party, and for going to face an audience that nobody can control." That got plenty of applause.

The Future

Control had been on Huffington's mind: Before McCain took the stage, she introduced him by saying, "They say Senator McCain is uncontrollable. And we say, thank God."

So: Is the incredible, amazing maverick of the Republican Party now domesticated? He is on the schedule to address the Republican convention Tuesday, where his praise of Bush will surely earn a more supportive reception. He is scheduled to travel with Bush on campaign appearances after the convention ends Thursday.

Images of the two arm-in-arm may seem inconceivable to anyone who remembers that McCain was supposed to be the antithesis of Bush. But, as McCain said, he is a conservative. He is remaining a Republican. When his primary candidacy collapsed, he snorted at suggestions that he should continue running for president outside the party, as an independent or as a member of the crazy-quilt Reform Party.

McCain's true believers believe that he is lying low and waiting for his chance to run inside the party in 2004. That would mean playing ball for a while.

Maybe the people across the political spectrum who were inspired by McCain's trial revolution will forgive him this appeasement and the contradictions that it requires of him. For the time being, it only shows him as a pragmatist acknowledging that the two major parties' lock on the American political system is, as a practical matter, insurmountable.

Send your questions about the convention to Dan at

Reaction To This Column

From Landon Miller of Lake Forest, Calif.:
"Good day;
"If I may, how can you be so shocked by John McCain's pragmatism? Do you think that he wants to see Gore elected, rather than Bush?
From Chad Perkins:
"Let me summarize your article for everyone:
"'I wish McCain believed everything I believe. How come he isn't just like me? I'll show him. I'll write an article that makes him look bad.'
"I don't know who transcribes your articles from the crayon after you first write them, but please stop cluttering the Web with your feeble attempts at news."

From John Beland of Gifford, N.H.

"What would some of these people want Senator McCain to do? We know he is not going to run outside his party. For him not endorse Bush would in essence benefit Gore. Do we want that? I think not.
"These people need to wake up and let go of their self-serving interest and look at what's best for the nation and the party. To cause further dissent towards himself within the party over this issue would serve no purpose for the Senator.
"He is playing his cards as he should, and I am sure we have not seen the last of Senator McCain."
What, you got a problem with dis column, too? Go ahead, send an e-mail:

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