The Pampered Politician

Arizona Senator John McCain is ready for a presidential run — if the national press corps has anything to say about it

Journalist Michael Lewis may be the supreme cynic in an age of press cynicism. His aloofness for political hoopla set the tone of his coverage of the 1996 presidential race in the New Republic. He waxed diffident about candidate Lamar Alexander's nervous tics, Bob Dole's vanity and his fellow journalists' eagerness to catch Pat Buchanan on tape. When an unfortunate aide for Phil Gramm roused him one morning at 7 for a chance to press flesh with the candidate, Lewis rolled over and went back to sleep, delighted to illustrate his casual disdain for and imperviousness to the charms of politicians.

Then he met John McCain; he fell hard.

Upon first encountering McCain, Lewis stopped to register his awe. "I am amazed that any reporter in this situation can bring himself to ask a difficult question," Lewis gushed in print. "Certainly I cannot."

That was the start of something big, and Lewis' ramblings seem now to have sparked similar reverence for Arizona's senior senator among others in the national press corps. But absent from their coverage has been the McCain familiar to his Arizona constituents as something of a crank and a scalawag, to be kind. Magically, all of McCain's political liabilities have evaporated, replaced in print by a brand-spanking-new treasury of virtues.

Is it outlandish to believe that sophisticated--gasp, liberal--Washington, D.C., reporters would ignore Republican Senator McCain's well-documented ignoble record in and out of office? The Arizona media have been cataloguing his meanderings for years, building a case that John McCain--despite his status as a war hero--is a meanspirited, hot-tempered, opportunistic, philandering, hypocritical political climber who married a comely beer heiress and used her daddy's money to get elected to Congress in a state he can hardly call home.

Still, the eastern media elite doesn't seem to care.

Sure, the occasional reporter will in conversation refer to McCain as the Manchurian candidate, but only one guy, Ted Sampley with the US Veteran Dispatch in North Carolina, still hammers away at him. His voice seems virtually drowned out by the chorus of cheers.

McCain has pulled off the impossible. He wooed and won the Grinchlike heart of Michael Lewis, and a legion of Lewis' cohorts. The implication is that McCain is seeking a national office--Cabinet secretary, vice president, or even president. He hasn't denied it. Indeed, now he's the national press corps' favorite for president in 2000. Few in Washington seem surprised, but questions abound in Arizona: How did he do it? Why has the East Coast media elite succumbed? And can he maintain the media love fest through his rumored run for the presidency?

It's March 1996, and Michael Lewis spots Arizona's senior senator from across the tarmac of a South Carolina airport. Having recently stepped over the cooling corpse of a presidential campaign by his friend Phil Gramm, McCain has slipped easily into the Dole cabal. Lewis, as usual, is bored. But somehow McCain stirs him from his patented torpor.

John McCain is unlike any pol Michael Lewis has ever met. Over the next few months, McCain makes frequent cameo appearances in Lewis' column--always the hero, the maverick.

Lewis gushes. He fawns. No doubt, his own starstruck musings coming from anybody else would make him throw up. But in this new interest, he finds the topic for a cover story in the May 13 edition of the New Republic. He strays from the campaign trail to write "Surrogates," a feature devoted to Bob Dole's campaign surrogate, Senator John McCain. It is the tale of McCain's relationship with David Ifshin, a former Vietnam War protester who should have been ex-prisoner of war McCain's enemy, but instead had become the senator's friend.

McCain had been an incorrigible media flirt for years, but this was the first time he'd succeeded in going all the way. "Surrogates" seems to have tripped an epiphany in the consciousness of the Beltway media.

By August, writers in the New York Times and Washington Post were raving about McCain. In October, it was The New Yorker--in December, the Baltimore Sun.

The National Journal and the Boston Globe checked in last month, but the real media coup was delivered in the April 21 issue of Time, which named McCain one of the 25 most influential people in America.

In the past year, the national media, which already had dismissed his Keating association, have raised John McCain's status from that of war hero to superhero.

The discrepancy is not lost on Arizonans who have followed McCain's emergence nationally and puzzled over the concurrent adulation by national journalists. Why do they love him? Because he planned it that way.

Political consultants, party officials, pollsters and journalists in Arizona and Washington interviewed for this story say John McCain knows exactly what he's doing. He's virtually turned his back on the testy media here in Arizona. Meanwhile, with charm, candor and accessibility, McCain has focused on seducing reporters and curing world-weary writers like Michael Lewis of their ennui.

In exchange, they've given him an entree into presidential politics.

John McCain's nominating speech for candidate Bob Dole was the best of the 1996 Republican convention, according to the pundits.

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