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
The Democrats hadn’t given up on the young—or given up trying creative new ways to excite them, or use the Internet. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were waging a crazy battle for attention on the web with e-mail campaigns and hilarious video send-ups, using humor and irreverence. Their campaigns both found a tone and style online that worked with the young, and kept them engaged.
The rewards of this aren’t even worth debating. By the time primary season was over, and Hillary had conceded, the Obama campaign had employed innovative young techno-geeks to develop a state-of-the-art web operation and strategy that helped them win two-thirds of the youth vote in the general election while selling millions and millions of T-shirts and posters at the same time. My generation proved that it can be relied upon to contribute, to volunteer, and to vote.
My hope is that in 2012, the young are given more of a choice—and fought over even harder—and that the Republican Party will be up to the challenge.
y dad is incredibly superstitious. My whole family is, probably because of him. His superstitiousness is infectious, and if you spend time around him, you wind up collecting good luck charms and participating in lots of good luck rituals. That’s why, right after Iowa, where my dad trailed behind Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, somebody sent in a little statue of Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, to campaign headquarters. He was supposed to bring us the juice.
I’d been on the road for half a year by then, posting on the blog every day for the last four months. It was brutal, a hamster wheel. The blog was like a wild animal that is always hungry, never satisfied. Every day it needs more. After two weeks straight of feeding it and scrambling around like a crazy person to make sure the blog was as good as it could be, I’d take four days off, usually a long weekend vegetating at home in Phoenix to unwind. Actually, it wasn’t really enough time to relax, but you could do laundry, repack, and sleep in. Mostly I lived in my pajamas and UGG boots, ate takeout, and went to movies with my normal Arizona friends who weren’t obsessed with the election.
Before long I was itching for the madness of the campaign again—for the laughs, the boring bus trips, the roller-coaster rides of emotion. Instead of becoming drained by the campaign process, or dispirited by our loss in Iowa, or that the campaign was running out of money again, I became more and more charged. I was so excited to be on the campaign, and so sure we’d win, at night I could barely sleep.
To me, we were never a lost cause. Even after Iowa. But to most everybody else, particularly the media, Mitt Romney was the man to watch.
Saint Jude was a little guy, about eight inches tall, the size of those little plastic Jesus figures that people put in the back windows of their cars. And wouldn’t you know—he did have the juice. Once he arrived, we won and kept winning. He was given a place on Rick Davis’s desk at headquarters and nobody was allowed to move him.
I LOVE THE IDEA OF THE HEARTLAND, AND LIKE TO
think of myself as a heartland girl, but being in Iowa, before the primaries began, made me think twice about that. The state is so flat, so endlessly flat, and the air smells like farms and fertilizer. I’m sure rotting manure is a really good smell for some people, all that natural waste and decay. But to me, it just smells like manure.
Events were miles apart and the bus rides went on and on.
I’ll tell you what did delight me in the flatlands of Iowa—the crazy hotels. They appear in the middle of nowhere, outrageous and imaginative, like mini Vegas attractions. I remember specifically a fabulous hotel in Des Moines that had a waterslide as a centerpiece. The floors leading to the hotel rooms are covered in Astroturf and each room has a fantastically tacky tropical theme—along the lines of
National Lampoon’s Vacation
. I loved every single room I saw, and Heather took tons of pictures. We still joke that my next project should be a coffee table book of the most creative hotels throughout the country.
You get to be a connoisseur of weird hotels on a campaign—and accustomed to things that would otherwise bug you or even repulse you in other phases of your life. For instance, after six months on the road, whenever Shannon and Heather and I checked into a cheap hotel where the campaign was staying, we just assumed that there would be pubic hair on the toilet seat, or on the side of the bathtub. We had a technique for dealing with it. We used a blow-dryer to blow the hairs off, if the electrical cord was long enough.
It became second nature to us. We almost stopped making a big deal out of it, and stopped hopping up and down and screaming because we were so grossed out. We just went into the bathroom, plugged in the blow-dryer, and went to work.
The worst hotel that I remember was in Iowa as well—a hotel so bleak, and so do-it-yourself, that my dad had to help us haul our big suitcases up two flights of stairs to our room. Out in the hallway, there was an ancient vending machine with cans of Coke that looked twenty years old. Our room was so terrible, there wasn’t even a closet, just a bar on the wall where you could hang your clothes, but the hangers were soldered onto that bar, so nobody could steal them. The lightbulb in the bathroom was just that—a bare lightbulb and a chain. Who says politics is glamorous?
A couple hours after checking in, we found a box with a half-eaten pizza on the floor of the hallway outside our room—and this disgusted us completely. What jerk would leave old pizza on the floor? And why was it in front of our door? We invented a scenario in our heads, and then convinced ourselves it was true: The journalist in the room next to ours had dumped the old pizza there. What a slob! We couldn’t believe it! In retribution, we put a plate of hard-boiled eggs outside his door, hoping he’d step on them as he took off on his daily run at dawn. And we were stumbling in hysteria the next morning when we saw that he had. Victory!
But upon climbing aboard the bus, my dad perked up when he saw us. “Hey, how’d you like the pizza I left you last night?”
I SHOULD PROBABLY EXPLAIN, FOR THOSE WHO DON’T
know, that Iowa doesn’t have a primary. There’s a tradition of a “caucus” instead, something that dates back to the dark ages of 1972. It’s a controversial and a completely different animal from a primary. Rather than going to the voting booth, as you would in a general election, and quietly voting by yourself, each county of Iowa elects delegates to cast a vote for all the eligible voters living in their district. It is much more time-consuming than a regular primary, to the point of being ridiculously inefficient.
The Iowa caucus for Republicans is historically very conservative, almost radically so. We all suspected that Romney would win. He and his sons had traveled to every county of Iowa in their damn camper—something they bragged about every chance they got. They hit Iowa hard, just as they should have. That was a smart strategy. But then Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, swooped in with all his folksy mojo and beat him.
I have a lot of complaints about Mike Huckabee—he could be an entire chapter—but I’ll give you the two main reasons why he is a Republican I could never vote for. Number one, he thinks being gay is immoral and perverted and equivalent to bestiality. Number two, he came up with a plan in 1992 to have all people who were HIV-positive sent to one area of the country by themselves, isolated from the general population like lepers in medieval times.
That kind of thinking is not just backward, it is dangerous. And I never, ever have been able to wrap my head around Mike Huckabee’s appeal.
And the fact that Mike Huckabee eventually won in Iowa is, to me, just more evidence that our country’s electoral college and primary system is outmoded. Particularly for Republicans, the process no longer is an adequate lens into the party as a whole. The states of Iowa and South Carolina, where primary trends begin, are specifically very conservative. And I have to worry that, down the road, in 2012 or 2016, with a split widening between moderates and hyperconservatives, that the party will be forced to go even more conservative than in the last election, because the system now favors a very conservative Republican nominee.
The drawbacks to this are enormous. The country does not seem to be riding a particularly conservative wave right now, and young people, especially, are not enamored of a hyperconservative agenda. After all, the country just elected the most liberal presidential candidate possible in the last election. The conservative pundits may scream that my dad isn’t “conservative enough,” but what other Republicans are electable? If you don’t believe me, just give Mike Huckabee a try in the next election cycle and see a bloodbath ensue. A hyperconservative candidate has no chance of winning against President Obama. That is why the Republican party has to start being open to new people, new blood, and new ideas.
DON’T GET ME WRONG. WE SPENT LOTS OF TIME IN
Iowa, even though it was a slog. But New Hampshire mattered in a different way. My dad was beloved there—partly due to his big win in 2000, and the stories about the South Carolina primary that followed. If Romney won in New Hampshire, we were cooked. It wasn’t just my dad’s strategy. It mattered to all the candidates, since historically a good number of individuals who win the presidency win in New Hampshire first.
So while Romney and the Five Brothers were appearing in every inch of Iowa, my dad spent more time in New Hampshire, and had more events there, which seemed to piss off the people of Iowa. I guess you couldn’t blame them.
We persevered, although it is hard not to have a bad impression of a state when its residents don’t like your message, or your dad.
What carried us through was an awareness of our strategy and that New Hampshire mattered in a way that Iowa didn’t. There are lots of strategies for winning the presidency, of course. The all-time dumbest was Rudy Giuliani’s in the last election. His tactic was to completely bypass Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina and to concentrate on one thing: winning Florida. Because Florida has more electoral college votes than the first three states combined. But staying away from those early states means you don’t have momentum and a domino effect going for you.
Some people thought Giuliani was crazy like a fox—and a bold experimenter with the basic game plan. But mostly what we talked about on our campaign was how tan Giuliani was. All the other presidential candidates were sallow and pasty from spending the fall and winter in New Hampshire and Iowa, but Giuliani had a tan to beat all tans. In the end, that’s all he had.
ll the old dudes in politics, the diehards and political lifers who had worked on seven and eight presidential campaigns already, had advised me not to get too emotionally invested in anything—campaign friendships, campaign staff, the places where we traveled, or even the outcome of each election. If you get invested, they said, it meant you were vulnerable to discouragement, upsets, and meltdowns—things that can mess with your sense of direction and focus. But I found all of this impossible as soon as I got to New Hampshire.
To me, the state is surrounded in a golden haze, and my memories from there are like a beautiful dream. I’m sorry, Iowa, but I get wistful when I think of New Hampshire, and teary-eyed, and maudlin. There’s no emotional distance for me, or restraint. Every day there felt unblemished, pure, organic, and wholesome—and every second made a mark on me in a powerful way. New Hampshire is where I fell in love with politics, head over heels.
The beauty of the state is incomparable, to begin with. I had seen it in autumn, for some early campaigning before primary season, when the landscape glowed with color—red and orange and yellow—and the sharp sunlight was golden. And later, just before the New Hampshire primary in January, it was bitter-ass freezing, so cold that my body was screaming, but, at the same time, it was so magical, so clean, an amazing winter wonderland.
Growing up in Arizona, we weren’t a skiing family and never went to snowy places. When Christmas vacation came every year, my parents took all of us to an island in the South Pacific for a week, a sunny resort where my mom and dad had been going for years, since before we were born. And although I had gone to college in the Northeast and had certainly experienced snow, I had never really seen it fall like that outside of New York City. I had never seen the way it settles on a small town, or covers a forest in white. For me, there is nothing like it.
And the people of New Hampshire are just as amazing. Unlike the Iowans, who didn’t care much for my dad, the people of New Hampshire couldn’t get enough of him. Maybe they just couldn’t get enough of politics. They are more active and involved in the political process than quite possibly any other population in the United States. Because New Hampshire is “first in the nation”—meaning that it is the first state in the nation to hold a primary—it can really dictate how the season of primaries and possibly the election will go.
In other words, their votes truly count, and they feel it. In a day and age when it is so easy to become jaded or apathetic, and stay away from the democratic process of electing a president, the people of New Hampshire relish electing them. At times their enthusiasm was so intense, it was palpable and infectious. To this day, whenever I start to give up hope about America, I think of New Hampshire and the people there.
The town halls in New Hampshire start early, and in December 2007—a month before the primary—there were four of them, crammed with life and excitement, and a poignant small-town charm. One of them was attended by a white goat named Binx that everybody knew. (There are zillions of photos of Binx online, and Beanie Babies of him.) It isn’t unusual for a voter in New Hampshire to attend several town halls before deciding how to vote. People take their time and really ponder the issues—and hear firsthand how each candidate responds to a good grilling. My dad used to tell a joke on the stump about a barber in New Hampshire who asked another barber what he thought of Morris Udall—a one-time candidate for president also from Arizona—and the second barber said, “I don’t know, I only met him twice.”
The venues of the town halls change—from VFW halls to school auditoriums—but they all follow a similar format. A politician arrives, gets on a small stage with a microphone, and gives a speech about why he is the best candidate and should earn the people of New Hampshire’s vote. After that, it’s an open field. People stand up and ask whatever question they want. And ask they do. A town hall in New Hampshire can last several hours—something that used to drive my father’s staff crazy. The questions vary wildly, from issue to issue, but share an underlying motivation: People need to be heard. They have problems and concerns and worries, and at the end of the day, they just want somebody to hear them.
It’s no secret that President Obama is better than my father at delivering a speech. But nobody is better than my father at conducting a town hall. He loves the unplanned quality of it—the raw, uninhibited, unrestrained atmosphere. In the insanely controlled environment of politics today, my father loves the rare moment when almost anything can happen.
WHEN WE WERE IN NEW HAMPSHIRE, MOST OF THE
time, we stayed at the Concord Marriott. There’s nothing special about its appearance; it looks like every other Marriott in the world. People always complained that the bar closed at eleven, which seemed way too early for call time. But I loved it and, for me, it was really a second home. The bus would pick us up there in the morning and drop us off late at night. I ate every single snack offered—Snickers, Starburst, and soda—and tried almost everything on the menu in the small restaurant in the front. By the end of it, I am sure I memorized the options.
The owner of the Concord Marriott is Steve Duprey, a really decent guy, and one of my favorite people on the campaign. He was one of “the Originals,” as we called them, people who believed in my dad since the very beginning.
had a nickname of its own for Duprey, “the court jester,” because he was always handing out candy and joke gifts, my favorite of them all being shot glasses with the slogan “A straight shot on the Straight Talk Express.”
On top of everything else, Duprey was a calming influence on my dad. He came along on campaign events, and often spent the day flying from event to event with my dad, and kept the vibe on the plane upbeat and light. He has a wild array of socks, too, which we documented on the blog regularly—socks with hearts and pigs with wings, and even socks with the Greek symbol for man, like Austin Powers uses. Every morning, a different pair. When I ran into him in the lobby, I’d ask Steve Duprey for a sock update. Heather would take pictures and we’d post them on the blog.
Shannon and Heather and I shared one room in those early days. At the Concord Marriott, we were in the back of the hotel, and we had a big window looking out on a small forest. Our room was crowded with our stuff—a total mess, totally trashed with blog equipment, photo stuff, cameras, and all our makeup, clothes, our huge suitcases. We were like animals, like bears who have to litter and mess up their cave to feel it is theirs. We used to joke that when we opened our suitcases, they would explode all over the room like those joke cans with spring-loaded snakes that come flying out of the top.
From the beginning, Shannon noticed that there were no other Asians in New Hampshire. It is kind of a homogeneous state. We always laughed about this together, but, at the same time, I did wonder if it bothered Shannon more than she said.
One day we were sitting in our hotel room, and feeling tired, and kind of worn down by the slog of the blog, by the meals that were starting to be predictable and not that healthy, by our lack of sleep—and maybe the bitter cold outside. Shannon made another joke about being the only Asian in New Hampshire, and this time, I kind of felt it, and worried.
Just then, as we were looking out the big window of our room—literally five minutes after Shannon admitted that she felt out of place—an Asian family appeared and ran out into the snow and started making a snowman.
We jumped up and down, screaming and laughing. That’s what I mean when I tell people that New Hampshire is a magic place. As if the Granite State hears your wishes and makes them come true.
ONE OF THE WEIRDEST THINGS ABOUT OUR POLITICAL
process is that some candidates really come out of nowhere. Now, I give it up to anyone who wants to make a go at becoming president—just trying, just going through the ordeal. It is an intense process and very stressful no matter what level you get to. And there was a time when my dad was an out-of-left-fielder. When he first ran for president in 2000, he had 5 percent name recognition with a 5 percent margin of error, meaning that it was possible that nobody in the state of New Hampshire knew who he was.
Mike Huckabee had come from left field in 2007—and the former governor of Arkansas had gone on to win in Iowa and become a force to be reckoned with in the primaries. But there were other candidates who came from left field and remained there. Their ability to persevere was remarkable. I suppose it is the essence of the American dream to be a total unknown and eventually become president. But I just couldn’t help but wonder why some of them ran in the first place—other than trying to increase their name recognition, or perhaps they were bored and needed a thrill.
And then there was Fred Thompson, the well-known former senator and TV star of
Law & Order
. His bizarre presidential campaign in 2008 provided the opposite scenario. He was famous and well known, and was talked about as a player. But he didn’t seem interested in trying at all, let alone persevering. Why was he running? His primary schedule was so lackluster, it was laughable. Reporters and campaign staff used to follow it online for comic relief.
Two other Republicans mystified me. They seemed to have absolutely no hope of making it to the convention. Duncan Hunter was a congressman from California; Tom Tancredo was a former congressman from Colorado. Neither of these men seemed to have a following that was growing, as far as anybody could tell. Yet there they were, week after week, appearing at debates, waiting around afterward for somebody to show up and shake their hands or want their picture.
Duncan Hunter always seemed like a nice man. What kind of wild confidence kept him going? On primary day in New Hampshire, when I was riding in a cavalcade of buses from rally to rally with my dad, we stopped at a red light and I saw Duncan Hunter across the street, on a corner of the intersection. He was standing with his wife and maybe two other people. He was holding a sign that said “Duncan Hunter for President.”
It was admirable he was still out there, campaigning until the bitter end. And I remember thinking how nice it was that he was keeping it old-fashioned, old-school, with his handheld sign.
But I also remember thinking, no matter what happens in this election, nothing could be worse than being Duncan Hunter today. And at the same time, what hope! What optimism! It was easy to be cruel and make Duncan Hunter jokes. I will spare you those. My heart goes out to a guy who can do that.
ELECTION DAYS CAN BE BORING. YOU’VE WORKED HARD
, gone full bore—have shed lots of campaign blood, sweat, and tears—and then election day comes and you sit around and wait. The voting booths don’t close until very late. So you wait for exit polls that come around four in the afternoon.
The day before, we’d done a long, multi-stop bus tour around the state—my mom, Bridget, Heather, Shannon, and I, and a full bus of campaign staff. We started at seven in the morning and ended at ten that night. We went from rally to rally, the momentum building as the day wore on. The energy was electric; people screaming, holding signs, hugging, yelling, crying. It was unbelievable, as if people at the rallies were watching their hopes and dreams for the future manifest themselves in their candidate. By the end of that day, I could barely move and fell asleep at the hotel in my clothes and makeup, something I hadn’t done since I was a freshman at Columbia.
The next morning I slept in late, and woke up to the TV news going with reports from the precincts that were open. I finally showered and got in my jammies and UGG boots, still trying to recover from the mad campaigning of the day before. Pajamas are particularly good for the limbo of an election day, because deep inside, what you really want to do is go back to bed and wake up when it’s all over.
To kill time that afternoon, a bunch of us went to Tortilla Flat, the Mexican restaurant outside of Nashua where I’d eaten eight years before, when my father won the primary. It seemed like a great idea, and would maybe bring us good luck. I remember it was really snowy and beautiful and that I went out with a coat thrown over a pair of leggings and a sweater, and didn’t bother putting any makeup on. I was so happy not to have to get up at the crack of dawn and be a daughter-of prop who waved in a cute outfit.
After lunch, on the way back to the hotel, we noticed a street corner with a bunch of Mitt Romney signs. His signs were everywhere, wherever you looked in New Hampshire. I’d gotten pretty sick of them. Somebody from the Romney campaign had even put a ton of their signs right outside our campaign hotel too, knowing that we were all inside and forced to look at them. So when we saw a bunch of Romney signs on that corner on election day, and nobody else was around, we asked our driver to pull over. We got out of the car and walked over to the signs—planning to put them all in our trunk.
Stealing campaign signs is technically illegal, but I never thought anyone would enforce this. Nor did I expect we’d get caught. But just as we had pulled over and I had shoved a ton of Romney signs into our trunk, another car pulled up and blocked us. A super-dorky guy in a suit leaped out of his car. He was pissed as hell.
“What campaign are you with?” he yelled.
“Giuliani,” we said.
He pulled out a notepad and proceeded to take down our license plate number. This is when I started freaking out. “
MCCAIN DAUGHTER ARRESTED
” was the headline that I saw in my head.
Getting arrested on the day of the New Hampshire primary?
Oh, man. I imagined the look on my mom’s face.
If only we could get away.
“Please move your car,” I said to the guy, hoping to bully him a little.
He was such a jerk. And when he wouldn’t move his car, my heart started to race and I was afraid for a minute that I might do something even worse than stealing a bunch of Romney signs. But anybody who was lame enough to pull over and harass people on election day for stealing signs was probably lame enough to follow up and bring some New Hampshire state troopers to arrest me.