Read Dirty Sexy Politics Online
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
y brothers and sister and I were too young at the time of the 2000 presidential race to be allowed on the road. We were flown in for big moments, like town halls in New Hampshire and a few primary election nights. But my parents felt that the day-to-day work of a national political campaign was not a place for kids. It was a stressful environment, the air is charged with complicated emotions—ones that aren’t easy for kids to process.
But back at our house in Phoenix, my parents had stacks of photo albums from the race. In high school, I would sometimes sit for hours and look at them. I saw the happy faces in the crowd, the streamers of the rallies and parties, the sea of people at the convention. I wondered, what was it
like? What else went on?
These photo albums became the inspiration for my blog, McCainBlogette. Along with writing, I wanted a photo-driven record of day-to-day events too—something that felt spontaneous, a bit gritty, and maybe too real.
FOR THE FIRST FOUR MONTHS THAT I WAS ON THE CAMPAIGN
, I worked on the design of the blog and lined up a team to help me. Of course, there were flubs and mini-dramas of all kinds. Before I was given final approval, Rick Davis and others told me that I had to hire somebody with experience and political credentials to oversee content. I didn’t like the “oversee” part of that. And I was pretty skeptical when campaign staff said they’d found such a person, a guy named Rob Kubasko. But Rob turned out to be a tall, adorable computer-geek type and we got along immediately, and in the end, became very close friends. Without him, the blog would never have worked.
Rob is a total font of political know-how, both lore and statistics, exactly the kind of internal database that I was lacking. In school, and generally in life, I had stayed pretty far away from politics and political history, a massive hole in my education that so many people in my dad’s professional life seemed to find surprising. I had enrolled in precisely one political science course in college and on the first day, the McCain-Feingold bill was discussed at length. It made me so uncomfortable to be discussing the campaign reform legislation that my dad cared so passionately about, I quickly dropped the class.
Children of doctors and lawyers aren’t expected to know the intricate details of surgery or habeas corpus. But people are often shocked to discover that I didn’t spend my youth following bills in Congress or falling asleep at night counting all the White House chiefs of staff in chronological order in my head. When you grow up in political Washington, DC—which I didn’t—maybe all this is second nature to you, kind of like growing up in LA and knowing the names of all the hot new rock bands because they are playing at the clubs down the street.
In Arizona, I grew up riding horses, fishing with my dad, wrestling with my brothers, and going to Dunkin’ Donuts every Friday before school with my mom and siblings. I’m happy that’s how it was. My parents did not want us to be Washington kids with Washington know-how.
But being plunged into the bizarre world of political junkies and campaign diehards was jarring at the beginning. People talked nonstop about issues, strategy, and ideas, which was stimulating and exciting. But physically, the campaign trail was hard duty—and the schedule was hysterically busy. It was like transient prison life, where the only things I was in control of, for the most part, were my clothes, my hair, and the blog. Even in the early, supposedly sleepy days before the primaries, the pace was go-go-go and we were flying and busing around nonstop.
Shannon Bae and Heather Brand were with me every step of the way. We were inseparable, and I refused to get on a bus or plane, or go to an event, if they couldn’t be included too. They weren’t just my cohorts, fellow Blogettes, or roommates. They were like my big sisters, my bodyguards—and a safety net. God knows I needed them.
The three of us were always trudging from one campaign event to the next, while, from a distance, either in Phoenix or at headquarters in DC, Rob guided the overall program and formatted pictures. I joked that he was Charlie to our angels because we were always getting into jams or being denied access—the Secret Service agents never seemed to know who I was—but Rob’s voice on the phone would ground us and focus us.
Shannon, who made the video segments for the blog, is a curvy Korean-American with a love of plunging necklines, tattoos, and piercings. Heather was our beautiful blog photographer and a kind woman with a sweet temperament. She and I had met during my freshman year at Columbia University when she came to take a photograph of me when I needed one, and we’ve been friends ever since. Later, she introduced me to Shannon, whom she had met while working on the TV show
I idolize Shannon and Heather for many reasons. One of Heather’s most admirable qualities is how, unlike me, she keeps her life impressively drama-free. If only I could pull that off—to be the sort of person who goes through life with effortless calm and grace and even temper, never making waves or having to apologize. But that’s just not me. As my mom used to say, “If only I’d known I was giving birth to John McCain in a dress.”
Heather is one person whom nobody ever had a problem with on the campaign, or anywhere else. She is also the only person I would trust to take pictures of my family in some emotionally raw and vulnerable situations, which were produced nonstop in the roller-coaster days of that year. We all trust Heather, and love her. And her talent with the camera is amazing and the way she expresses herself best.
If Heather is an earthy goddess, I guess that Shannon is a temptress—a sultry provocateur with a video camera. She is honest, open-minded, and fair. Without seeming to try, Shannon is admired and desired too, particularly by men. Although women are drawn to her infectious personality, Shannon draws guys to her like nobody I’ve ever seen. On the campaign, the dorkiest Republican volunteers would be stumbling behind her, swooning and going gaga.
“Everyone falls in love with Shannon,” I’d say, and I had to say it a lot. I should have made a sign and hung it around my neck.
Her secret is easy to understand but hard to duplicate. Shannon knows who she is, and is so secure in herself, and who she is as a person—inside and out—that it is infectious. More than almost anyone else in my life, she has helped me grow as a person and remain true to myself. I am so grateful for my friendship with both Shannon and Heather. I am not sure I could have survived the election without them.
FOR OUR VERY FIRST LIVE POSTING, IN OCTOBER 2007
, we went to an event at the Hotel Valley Ho, one of my all-time favorite hotels in Phoenix, where my dad had spoken to a group of young professionals. Trying to keep things light and funny, I hammed it up in a few photos, one with my dad and another with my mom, who had hurt her knee and was on crutches, but was smiling nonetheless and wearing a beautiful black cocktail dress.
Within a few hours, the annihilating criticism started. It was brutal, kind of like baptism by acid. A Washington, DC–based gossip blog called Wonkette was the first to have a go. The screaming headline said it all: “
JOHN MCCAIN’S OTHER DAUGHTER HAS A LAME BLOG!!!
Here’s the rest:
Hey everybody, John McCain’s daughter “Meghan” has a blog all about, uh, “young professionals” and their alleged main activity, which is going to a John McCain campaign event in Phoenix, called the “Valley Ho.” The blog is only a few days old, but it can already make people cringe like a blog that’s been around for years! Oh and Cindy McCain is on crutches. She probably hurt herself breaking into a pharmacy.
Horrified, I scrolled down to look at the readers’ comments, hoping people would have written in to defend my mom or me. But their remarks were even worse, a dark pit of meanness, mostly about me. Readers had said things like: “She makes the girls from the Bada Bing club look fresh,” referring to the strippers on
Yeah, real nice stuff.
I was a total mess—who wouldn’t be?—and cried for hours. My mother was so comforting, and told me everything a mother tells you in situations like that, so soothing and never focusing on the stuff said about her. But I was crushed. Who were these people and how could they hate me so quickly? I felt confused, and angry. We’d been live for less than twenty-four hours and I was already a bada bing girl and my blog was lame.
As much of an Internet junkie as I was, I had never read anything like it—and until then, hadn’t realized what an ugly and raw place the blogosphere can be. Every day, we posted new things and every day, there were new comments from readers. People wrote to rant and criticize and also to send thanks and encouragement. Some were sweet, some were sad, and some were scary and had to be reported to the FBI.
Sometimes I think people write things on blogs, websites, and comment boards just to vent and let it out—not expecting anyone to actually read it. But I did. Eventually Rob told me to stop, and produced an edited version of the comments for me to see. I peeked anyway.
Criticism, I learned, had a way of motivating me. I kept plugging on—and had a strong vision for the blog—determined to do something new, and go behind the scenes, to show things that weren’t going to be seen otherwise. Some of it was playful and meant to be a little naughty. I wanted it to have an unscripted quality, and be taken from our daily life—food platters, homemade signs, the bus bathroom, people sleeping in strange places, adviser Mark McKinnon’s “lucky” hat, a spontaneous visit to Walmart.
But internal complaints poured in. There were many, many problems with campaign staffers not wanting their picture taken, or just unhappy with things we posted on the blog. It was too silly, too sarcastic, too everything. More than anyone, the blog seemed to irritate Steve Schmidt, who took over as campaign manager during primary season. As a political consultant, Steve had organized the confirmation hearings of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court and run Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reelection campaign for governor of California. But he seemed like a latecomer to me, and I resented him for simply not being Rick Davis, whom I adored. My dad certainly had faith in Steve on the big things, and big decisions. Months later, Steve made a strong case for anointing Sarah Palin as the running mate and my father listened to him. But my own interactions with Steve were complicated.
He was always turning me down, denying me access, or just plain ignoring me. I was an irritating insect to him, and one that he wished would fly away—or drop dead. Whatever I thought I was bringing to the campaign, in terms of attitude, energy, creativity, and young followers, seemed beside the point to him. As the campaign progressed and the stakes got higher, and the environment became tense, Shannon and Heather and I were increasingly not allowed to go places, or to take pictures.
I am one of the most stubborn individuals I know, but eventually I had to concede that Steve Schmidt was even more stubborn.
He’s also about three times my size. A tall man with a wide chest and big paunch, a shiny cue-ball head, and a Bluetooth glued to his ear, Steve exudes a completely different vibe from the calm, gentlemanly Rick Davis, who had green-lighted my blog in the beginning. Steve is the polar opposite of Rick, in fact—and seems to enjoy being tough, terse, and intimidating to almost everyone. He’s a drill sergeant. I’m five foot one and sometimes when I stood next to him, I felt like Dorothy facing down the giant bald head of the Wizard of Oz—at least, before she realizes he’s just the threatened old man behind the curtain.
I’ll confess, I had some seriously juvenile moments with Blogette, and aggravating Steve Schmidt was exhilarating at times. We weren’t above easy little revenges. Bucking against his tyrannical control was fun—and Shannon and Heather and I reveled in our misdeeds.
We put up crappy pictures of people and journalists we didn’t like on the site, knowing how pissed off they’d be. One time Mark Salter, who is my dad’s alter ego and speechwriter, and coauthor of his books, fell asleep on the campaign plane and we put plastic cockroaches and plastic bugs all over his arms and shoulders and took pictures of him. If you have ever met Mark you know how seriously he can take himself—and you would know how
he’d be with being photographed covered in plastic bugs, which is probably why it became such a popular picture that generated lots of feedback and comments. And it’s probably why his sister found it so funny.
Looking back on our antics, and our little power plays with the blog, they were pretty innocuous. And our successes were small ones too. At the time, I was thrilled those first months as my audience rose to one thousand hits per day, and later stunned when it rose to ten thousand—and the next year, as high as eighty thousand in a day. I had never really generated much attention in my life, except for the love and support and applause my parents always gave me. So to me, this was the big time. Compared to a healthy website or blog today, our following was meager. And compared to the creative stuff that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s web teams were up to, my efforts seem amateurish and small-time.
I had bigger dreams for the blog—and began to see ways, almost immediately, that we could draw more hits—but I didn’t have the money to do much PR or to update throughout the day, which I had learned is how you keep people following you. In the end, I’m not sure Blogette lived up to my dreams for it, but I tried, and kept trying. I cared so much.
Hindsight is 20/20, the old expression goes, but I do wonder how much more we could have done, and how many more young voters we could have reached, if our Internet operations had been more effective across the board. The conventional wisdom at the time, especially within the Republican establishment, was that chasing young voters too diligently was a waste of time and money. Young voters were supposed to be a lousy bet, fickle and almost impossible to get into the voting booth. They might be passionate during rallies, but come election day, they would have moved on to a new interest, another candidate—or have bought a new iPod and forgotten about the election completely.