Authors: Meghan McCain
Tags: #Autobiography, #Political Science, #Political, #General, #Biography & Autobiography, #United States, #Biography, #Essays, #Biography And Autobiography, #Language Arts & Disciplines, #Journalism, #Presidents, #Editors; Journalists; Publishers, #Political Ideologies, #Politics and government, #Current Events, #Politics, #Conservatism & Liberalism, #Election, #Political Ideologies - Conservatism & Liberalism, #Republican Party (U.S. : 1854- ), #2001-2009, #2008, #U.S. - Contemporary Politics
’m not going to lie and say that I wasn’t incredibly hurt when the campaign fired me. I kept coming up with words for what had happened, and trying to find a way to accept it. Was it a promotion or a demotion? Was I fired—or just
? What should I say on the blog?
Heather came up with a brilliant idea right away. It was time for niceness, good cheer, bubbly behavior. A Little Miss Sunshine strategy.
“Don’t let anybody see that you’re upset,” Heather said. “We’re all going to act like we’re having the time of our lives.”
“Fake it ’til you make it.”
Usually I don’t go in for strategies, but in this case, I decided to follow Heather’s advice. On the blog, I was upbeat and cheery about venturing out on my own. In photographs, I am smiling and laughing—happily meeting and greeting people.
All the effort that had gone into the blog, and reaching out to young voters and moderates like me, seemed to have added up to nothing. I had tried so hard, and cared so much about every tiny detail. But now, faced with Obama, a pop culture icon who had Jay-Z on his iPod, our campaign pretty much gave up on the youth vote. There was no point chasing it. Moderates had fallen for him too. So we were sticking to the old Bush strategy from 2000 and 2004 and honing in on the dependable Republican base—old people and the right-wing.
It was like a game of poker. You had to play your hand. But looking ahead, at 2012 and 2016, I wondered what would happen to the party when the old people died off and the base consisted entirely of the Christian Right. Evangelicals are a well-organized group, and I have to admire their passion and resilience. But this country was founded on religious freedom, not religious constraints.
My mom was amazing during this time. She called, and kept in touch, and was supportive in every possible way. “You are going to be great on the road,” she kept saying. “You’re a natural.” I would have felt impossibly bad, I think, without her love and encouragement. Sometimes you still need your mom to tell you everything’s going to be okay. The ground under my feet was solid. I had to keep remembering that.
“Just be grateful for everything you have,” she said. “And don’t dwell on the things you don’t.”
So I kept it together and tried to be super-appreciative when Claire Merkel at campaign headquarters began designing a bus tour of the heartland for me. The basic concept was that I would meet supporters and voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado, and Florida—key swing states in the general election. Claire was lining up biker rallies, receptions with state party chairmen, and visits to college campuses. I would have to give speeches, autograph books, address crowds, and give pep talks—the sort of campaigning that I had never done.
Shannon, Heather, and I would continue the blog, chronicling our days on the road with posts and pictures—as though nothing had happened. Would any of our readers really notice that I wasn’t on the main campaign, following my dad around, or care?
I felt better when I heard Melissa Shuffield would be coming along to do press and scheduling, and Frank LaRose—a former Green Beret and fantastic guy—would be doing advance. Best of all, we’d have the most incredible driver, Jay Frye, whenever my dad didn’t need him. With the campaign’s permission, I convinced Josh Rupley, an amazing hairstylist in LA, to leave his salon and keep me looking good until election day. Josh is always upbeat and has the most sincere self-deprecating humor, which made me belly-laugh. He was just what I needed in the trenches.
I fantasized about that day in the future, after November, when I would never brush my hair again. But until then, there was no doubt that I was supposed to look a certain way or pay the consequences when the blogosphere went wild with cruel remarks—which just caused more headaches for the campaign. I was determined to be a help now, not a distraction.
Being your own person was honorable. But being a member of a team—and being willing to tone yourself down, play nice, and fit in—was part of politics and public life. Looking back on my year-plus on the campaign, this had been my biggest struggle. I didn’t fit in easily, and part of me didn’t want to. I may be passionately pro-life, and in favor of a strong defense and the war in Iraq, but there were all kinds of things about me that rattled the stereotype. But somehow, the party wanted everything black or white. And I was gray.
Even my education, which I was so proud of, had been ridiculed on the campaign for being “Ivy League,” words that the campaign now used to brand Obama as an “elitist.” My dad had started making cracks about my alma mater, Columbia, in his stump speech. It was a running joke that I’d gone to a “socialist” school and had had a “ridiculous major” like art history.
I knew my dad was only kidding. He was proud of me—and had my graduation picture on the main wallpaper of his cellphone. I think if I ever told him that the jokes about Columbia bothered me, he would have stopped. But I thought, hey, go ahead and make a joke out of me if it helps. I will take one for the team—no big deal. But when it ended up being a joke
I started getting self-conscious. I heard it on the bus and the plane and even among the press corps.
Here comes the art history major. Ha, ha.
“She went to Columbia, where the President of Iran just spoke. Can you believe that?”
“How did you do it, Meghan?”
Why did I have to fit into a tidy little box of a person, just to become acceptable to the Republican Party? Why did anybody? Why couldn’t an individual—with her own unique tastes and proclivities, philosophy and leanings—be accepted? And how come if you went to one of the most demanding schools in the country, it meant that you were a socialist? I knew how much my generation delighted in its freedoms and disliked being boxed in. My college friends were proud of how hard they’d worked to get into Columbia and of the education they’d gotten there. Why would a political party want to turn off all these smart people with demands that didn’t matter? More importantly, how could it win elections?
And why were the young doomed to become Democrats just because they weren’t accepted elsewhere?
ONE OF OUR FIRST EVENTS IN OHIO WAS A BIKER RALLY
. Have you ever spent a day around hundreds of spirited bikers? The feeling in the air was so free, and fun, and vibrant, the main campaign seemed like a distant memory.
Ohio was a beautiful state for cruising around in our bus. We sped through rolling green hills and spectacular farmland. Along the way, the people we met were friendly and down-to-earth and the small towns were vibrant and innocent.
I fell in love with Columbus, a gorgeous city. I heard it called “the San Francisco of the Midwest,” because of its large gay population—and it was there that I met for the first time with a group of Log Cabin Republicans. If there was ever a talented, committed slice of America that was eager to play an active role in politics, and the Republican Party, but didn’t feel accepted or wanted, they were it. My gripes about not fitting in felt pretty pathetic by comparison.
We discussed gay marriage—it was my first serious conversation about this issue—and why the party of limitless freedom, self-reliance, and the individual couldn’t wrap its mind around supporting it. This one meeting sparked a passion in me that continues today. I regard marriage equality as this generation’s civil rights call to arms. How can we claim this country is truly free when there are still citizens who are separate and not equal?
With each event and new day, campaigning on my own became a little easier. I enjoyed seeing new faces and having direct contact with supporters. They were so much happier than the campaign staff!! And maybe it helped that I had watched my father do “meet and greets” my entire life. He loved them so much—and made it look like such fun. When I gave my first speech, I was so nervous, though—on the verge of meltdown. But I did okay, thanks to lots of coaching from Shannon, Heather, and Melissa.
More than anything, I started to look forward to visiting the offices of McCain volunteers. They believed to their very core in what we were doing and were so happy to meet me. I think it made them feel more connected to my dad. Taking them on a tour of the inside of our bus was the most fun of all. It seemed like such a small thing, letting somebody see part of the Straight Talk Express, where my dad had spent so much time in the last year. People would freak out and go crazy because it was a little piece of the election, a little piece of history.
It was a piece of my dad, too, and I saw how much he meant to people by the way they treated me—and the things they said. It’s not such a bad thing to be reminded, like that, of how loved your dad is.
Giving a pep talk to an office of volunteers—or even just one person—came naturally to me. My mom was right about that. I always told volunteers that I was so appreciative of them, and of the chance to meet them.
And the more I said it, the more I was.
The following week, in Pennsylvania, I signed books, shook hands, kissed babies. The whole bit. If anybody had told me just a month before that I would enjoy this—or find it easy and natural—I wouldn’t have believed them. But it was true.
“You have so much of your dad in you,” my mom had said. I was now seeing that—so clearly. It was almost as if his personality had been literally injected into my veins.
he first presidential debate in Oxford, Mississippi, had been declared a draw by many pundits. So the second debate in Nashville, just eleven days later, had a lot riding on it. Polls were also showing a widening gap between my dad and Obama, with my dad trailing by as much as nine points.
I had never believed in polls. We had proved them wrong so many times in the last year. If the polls were right, we wouldn’t have won in New Hampshire. But now, with the general election just a month away, it was hard to not be distracted by them. We were really in the final throes of the campaign.
Walking into the auditorium at Belmont University, where the debate was held, I knew instantly that things had changed—and the stakes had gone up. Unlike the hometown and almost intimate feeling of the debates during the primaries, all of which I had attended, the Curb Event Center was crawling with Secret Service agents, campaign staff and advisers, famous members of the press, and everything else that you imagine. It felt like the Olympics or a prizefight.
It was Dad versus Obama. I was excited to see Dad in a town hall–style debate format and I knew he’d do well. But the way the media was spinning it, there wasn’t anything my dad could do that was exciting anymore. He was just an old white guy going up against a young handsome superstar, the smartest and coolest man ever to walk the earth.
MY MOM AND I WALKED WITH LINDSEY GRAHAM, ONE
of my favorite senators and a close family friend, into the Curb Event Center—where the debate was being held—and made our way through a traffic jam of bodies. I had chosen to wear a pair of way-too-high heels and remember thinking that all I needed to do was make it to my seat without stumbling or falling flat on my face. If I could do that, I’d be happy.
But it was really hard to walk—much less keep up with the flow of bodies. My mom and Lindsey and I passed through an incredibly long hallway and finally pushed our way inside the Curb Center. A few photographers were waiting to take pictures of my mom and me. After a few snaps, they quickly moved on.
Sitting down in my assigned seat, I relaxed, but not for long. The room was freezing—truly, uncomfortably and horribly freezing. Earlier, the campaign advance team had come to inspect the site and returned to report that the venue was especially cold—air-conditioned to the point of refrigerated. A small space heater was put where my mom was sitting, but it didn’t quite reach to me.
From my arctic zone, my teeth chattering, I watched the entrance of Michelle Obama into the center. She was swarmed by dozens of photographers—literally swarmed—flashbulbs flashing, paparazzi style.
Nothing like that had happened for Mom, I have to say. It was just a couple polite snaps and the photographers were gone. But the swarm around Michelle Obama became so intense that, eventually, her staff had to shoo the media away.
I know that a polite lie is appropriate here and I should be mature and say that I wasn’t bothered by this. But of course I was. The Obamas are mega-stars and had won the beauty contest, clearly, but wasn’t the media supposed to appear to be neutral? Isn’t some restraint in order? I’m not even sure Michelle Obama was enjoying the fuss.
Seeing Michelle Obama in person for the first time, I couldn’t help but notice how striking she is. I had seen her on TV and in photographs. But now, it was painfully obvious that along with being more popular with the media than my mom, she is as tall as a supermodel and her clothes looked incredible.
That’s when my mood started to sink.
Great, I remember thinking. Let’s get this damn night over with.
Pundits later said that my dad lost. Others said he won. To others, it was a draw. Depending on which network you watched, the outcome was reported differently. It didn’t matter how hard these outlets tried, but it seemed impossible for reporters and pundits and TV show producers to keep their personal hopes and dreams inside, and not cloud their impressions.
Did my dad win or lose? I don’t really remember what my own judgment was. I just felt exhausted and restless and down. After my idyllic days in the heartland, enjoying the small pleasures of town-to-town campaigning, it was hard to suddenly find myself surrounded by main campaign staffers and honchos, not to mention the Three Groomsmen. Their anxiety seemed infectious.
I was so proud of my dad, and wondered, once again, how he handled the tense atmosphere and stress so amazingly well. He was always assured and strong. Was there anything that fazed him? If only I had inherited that personality trait too.
EARLIER IN THE YEAR, WHEN COUNTRY MUSIC LEGEND
John Rich and his band came on the road for my dad, Shannon, Heather, and I had made friends with them instantly. They were a lively bunch—unforgettable, really—and their friendship and company became a wonderful break and relief after so many weeks around the stressed-out campaign types. In particular, I had bonded with John’s sidekick, Fred Gill, aka “Two Foot Fred,” a little person and incredible dynamo who opened John’s show. Some people really come into your life at just the right moment. And Fred sure had.
At a time when it felt like no rock star would ever come out in support, John and Fred and the rest of the band not only came on the road for my father, but performed with great enthusiasm and energy. He had even written a song called “Raising McCain,” which we used to play at rallies to get people fired up.
I also knew from previous trips to Nashville that it was a fun, warm, welcoming Southern town that was full of Republicans and loaded with fun bars. I’m not the only one who feels this way: There is definitely something unique in the air of Nashville that makes you want to stay out all night, and soak up every second of life.
And after that debate, I needed to soak up something.
That’s how my friends and I wound up at The Spot. It was John Rich’s private bar overlooking Broadway, the Nashville strip—and exactly as exclusive, crazy, fun, and kitschy as you would imagine a country legend’s private bar to be.
“So what did you think of the debate?” I asked John as soon as we sat down with a drink.
“In all honesty,” he said, “I thought your father went too easy on Obama.”
I appreciated John giving it to me straight. You can always count on him to tell it like it is. This was a common complaint among Republicans, that my father and the campaign were not hitting Obama hard enough, particularly on his ties to Reverend Wright and ACORN. Say what you want, my father chose the classy route. He rises above the fray.
I changed the subject, realizing that I wasn’t up to talking shop, particularly if I was going to have to defend my dad. I had another idea, anyway. Hoping that Frank, Shannon, Heather, and I could see more of Nashville—I’d been talking about what a fantastic city it is for the last week—I asked John if he’d take us honky-tonking, Nashville-speak for bar hopping. The tradition was to go from country bar to country bar along the strip, drinking and listening to the most talented group of singers you could ever find in a one-mile radius.
And honky-tonking we did. Wherever we went, John created quite a stir—and the more I drank, the more I loved the stir that we were making. We went to the famous Tootsies, then another bar, and another, finally hitting the last establishment at the end of the strip.
There were a few beers in me. And I had no idea how late it was—or how early in the morning—when I asked John if he’d sing “Raising McCain” to everybody in the bar.
“Only if you introduce me,” he said.
I was still scared about speaking in public in those days—to the point of being totally neurotic about it. That bit of “media training” hadn’t helped. Instead, it made me worry about every single word (
) that came out of my mouth. But I wanted to hear John sing.
Josh and Shannon patted me on the back and somebody—who was it?—poured me a big shot of whiskey. I polished it off in a gulp and ran to the microphone, trying hard not to stumble in my way-too-high heels.
I jumped onstage and then, to everybody’s astonishment, I hollered at the top of my lungs, “
WHAT’S UP, NASHVILLE?!?!
The bar roared back.
And when I identified myself by saying that my father was running for president, the room went crazy—an explosion of sound and applause, yelling and cheering. I had never heard such beautiful noise. And in that moment, it didn’t matter how glamorous Barack and Michelle Obama were, or what all the pundits in the universe were saying, or how uptight and condescending the Groomsmen were being to me.
Nashville loved my dad.
And I loved Nashville.
John Rich came onstage and sang “Raising McCain,” and then his hit “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy,” and then a few other songs, all of which I danced to, with great joy and abandon and happiness, I’m told, but which I am sad to say I was too drunk to remember.
We were all crazy hungover the next day. But no hangover has ever been so sweet.