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Confessions from the campaign trail

McCain was frank, garrulous and accessible. And then he wasn't.

October 28, 2008|Maeve Reston | Reston is a Times staff writer.

It wasn't my intention, but I played a role in shutting down John McCain's Straight Talk Express.

It happened on a warm July afternoon as McCain traveled from a West Virginia airport to a rally in Ohio.

I had headed to the back of his bus with a small group of reporters, where as always McCain warmly motioned for us to squeeze in beside him on the couch.

The questions meandered across more than a dozen topics, but I asked if he agreed with his advisor Carly Fiorina's recent statement that it was unfair for some health insurance companies to cover Viagra but not birth control -- because McCain generally opposed those kinds of mandates.

Liberals and late-night comedians would later revel in McCain's on-camera discomfort -- the widening of his eyes, the awkward silence while he clutched his jaw and formulated an answer. But I had come to respect McCain's frankness and his willingness to admit he didn't always have an answer. Watching the question morph into an embarrassing "gotcha moment" for cable television, my stomach churned and my cheeks grew hot.

By July, I had covered McCain for almost seven months. I could recite many lines of his stump speech by heart, dreamed about his events at night and spent so much time scrolling through campaign e-mails on my BlackBerry that my fiance joked to our friends about the other man in my life.

Over those months, McCain had artfully created a sense of intimacy with the reporters who traveled with him. He barbecued for us at his Arizona cabin, and opened up about matters as personal as his faith and his son's girlfriends. On one of my first days covering McCain, another reporter protectively warned me that it was important to be judicious with the material I used from McCain's bus rides to keep the conversations in context.

Although the relationship was mutually beneficial, McCain offered accessibility and openness that was rare, if not unprecedented, in modern presidential politics. Now, as the presidential campaign plunges into its final days, that intimacy -- real or imagined -- has evaporated.


I joined McCain during the icy December days in New Hampshire when his confidence about a comeback seemed almost delusional. Inside the steamy windows of his campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express, McCain held court on a gray horseshoe-shaped couch at the rear, where we listened with rapt attention.

Back then, his staff often didn't bother to listen to his rap sessions, which became an education for reporters on his world view. Early on, we learned to detect his disdain for some of his opponents -- Mitt Romney and Barack Obama -- by the way he lavished praise on others -- Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee or Hillary Rodham Clinton -- in the same sentence.

He leavened policy discussions with funny stories from his school days when some knew him as "McNasty" or reliving his daredevil exploits as a young naval aviator. He was unguarded and charming, occasionally solicitous about our lives.

One winter afternoon when Cindy McCain joined him and he was stuck with three newly engaged reporters, he gave us a 10-minute treatise on honeymoon spots.

At the top of his list was Costa Rica, where he had done a zip-line canopy tour. Second was Montenegro and Dubrovnik, which he called "one of the really stunningly beautiful places in the world." Third was Fiji: "The people are extremely friendly; they used to be cannibals, but the British cured them of that bad habit," he joked. "We've gone to Fiji with our kids lots of times."

In an aside about the Galapagos Islands, he veered into his last encounter there with sea lions: "I'm not making this up -- I was swimming, and there was this group of female sea lions, and this one male sea lion, and the next thing I know this guy's face is right where my hand is. . . . So I swam away and he bit my flipper. I swear to God. . . . He thought I was some kind of competition."

"Where did you guys go on your honeymoon," I asked.

"Uhh," McCain said. "Hawaii," Cindy interjected.

"Canada?" McCain joked, pretending to fumble. "I get my marriages mixed up."

Cindy good-naturedly rolled her eyes. "We had a great time," he said, grinning, before telling us about their honeymoon spot.

For several months, he would often lean in and ask the same question: "Did you set a date yet?"


McCain's energy and sense of fun were most on display when he was surrounded by the regular characters in his entourage.

Before the primaries, there was Tim Pawlenty, the Republican governor of Minnesota, who was so unassuming that McCain's bus driver once asked me what he did. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) loosened McCain up before debates or big events by subjecting himself to McCain's unmerciful teasing. McCain loved to tell the story of Graham's Ambien overdose on an international flight and how he had to be elbowed awake during a subsequent meeting with a head of state.

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