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

Dirty Sexy Politics (8 page)

BOOK: Dirty Sexy Politics
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I’d pictured. Like I said, my image was of a “mess hall” or an army cafeteria. But the one in the White House, although in the basement, is a gorgeous dining room with waiters and beautiful flowers, where, it turned out, the senior staff of the White House eat lunch and are treated like members of a small private club. The interior of the mess is designed to look like the captain’s quarters on a ship, with wood tables and chairs, and various nautical touches. The walls are covered with black-and-white photos.

How could Jenna Bush have not heard of this place—or been here?
If my dad were president of the United States, I would be here all the time, I thought, and it would really make up for the little bedroom. It was like a secret clubhouse!

Plates of food being carried from the kitchen looked incredible, and smelled even better. The White House kitchen has an amazing reputation and I could tell that lunch was going to be spectacular, I just knew it, and couldn’t wait.

We sat down at a table, and were joined by another aide or staffer. The conversation about Smart Cars continued, to the point of mind-numbing tediousness, and I do remember having a brief out-of-body experience, and laughing to myself. It was so typical that I would be here, at the White House, bullshitting with people, and blabbing about Smart Cars, when hypothetically I could be the First Daughter ten months from now.

Why did this seem like the story of my life? Or maybe it is just the story of a daughter-of’s life. Maybe it wasn’t about the Bushes and how they felt about me, or my dad. Maybe it didn’t really matter who my dad was. At that moment, I was just along for the ride, a “family member” to chat up and an extra mouth to feed.

Except . . . I didn’t get fed. Yep, the sad ending to this story about my visit to the White House is that our food didn’t come in time. My mother and Mrs. Bush must have inhaled their meal in record time, because almost as soon as we ordered lunch in the mess, we were called away. My mom was ready to leave.

I was given a doggie bag of enchiladas instead.


Wanna talk about feeling stupid and unwanted? Try carrying a take-out bag as you leave the White House in sparkly glitter heels and your hair braided in three huge cornrows.

My mother met us outside, standing beside the big Secret Service SUV. She saw my doggie bag and looked confused.

“You haven’t eaten yet?”

I shook my head. “Why couldn’t you have taken longer with Mrs. Bush?”

My mom just stared at me. It wasn’t the moment for rehashing. Once we were inside the car, I asked, “What did you and Mrs. Bush talk about?”

“Being First Lady,” she said, and went into a bit more detail, but Mom being Mom was much more interested in what had happened to us. We couldn’t have been off the grounds of the White House too long before we were all belly-laughing—Shannon and Heather and I fighting for a chance to describe how we’d
eaten. Over the next few days, we managed to turn it into sketch comedy, acting out our parts and having great fun laughing about it. A sense of humor will get you through almost anything, even what was one of the most bizarre experiences of the campaign for me.

It felt so fitting, a perfect metaphor for how I felt about my place within the Republican political establishment too. It seemed like a place of almost cultish exclusivity. I was excited to be there, but they weren’t excited to have me. For all intents and purposes, I should be allowed in and asked to join the team, but I am not invited, not asked to join, and in fact, even if I am allowed inside, I am relegated to the basement where I won’t actually be given food.

I hope Laura and Jenna Bush won’t be angry with me for dishing like this. But I use Taylor Swift as a model: if you don’t want her to write a song about you, don’t give her a reason.

There is a nice ending to the story, though. I’d like to make a promise to all future daughters-of—no matter how many years go by or whatever your political views—if you want to gab, share stories, bond, and have lunch, please give me a call. I promise to answer your questions, share my waving technique and other tricks I have picked up, give you a decent meal, and maybe gossip a little. Like Alice Roosevelt Longworth used to say: “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.”

piece about me landed on the newsstands ten days after the White House visit. News of it swept through the campaign staff like wildfire and my phone never stopped ringing. Everybody wanted to tell me—in case I didn’t already know—what I’d done wrong. Emotions weren’t just running high. They were bouncing and pinging, ricocheting like atoms splitting inside a nuclear reactor.

If you track down the piece on the Internet now, it won’t seem shocking or make me appear to be as maniacally stupid as it did at the time. That alone is a lesson in context. The backdrop of a presidential campaign has a way of magnifying and distorting all flaws, all bumps, anything out of the ordinary.

But I didn’t feel out of the ordinary. I felt like an ass.

Normally, I am not big on the concept of regret. Or I should say that I don’t believe in sitting around wallowing and wishing things were different. It’s a cliché, but true, that we learn some of the most important things in life by our failures and mistakes. If we never had things that we were sorry we’d done, or sorry we’d said, we would never be forced to take a hard look at ourselves—and make changes for the better.

Even so, I regret just about everything that I was quoted as saying to the
reporter, regret spending hours alone with him, regret going bowling with him, regret hugging him good-bye (
), and, most of all, regret allowing the magazine to photograph me working on my laptop while sitting on top of a bed with an open bottle of Bud Light in my hand.

Mistakes were made, is what I want to say. And I learned from every single one.

mini boiling point that spring. A number of newspapers had written about it, and political sites had started linking to it regularly. Our regular audience was growing. Obviously, the fact that my dad was winning put me and the blog in the spotlight. After the New Hampshire primary, we had a great stretch of victories. Suddenly the media world was noticing everything we did and said.

Steve Schmidt acted surprised each time we won—which irritated me, I have to admit. He was so hard-bitten and lacking in joy. But I suppose his pessimism was a leveler, and kept people focused. For my family and me, the win in South Carolina was particularly sweet. The voters were gracious and warm and softened the bitter memories of what had happened eight years before. I was able to see that it wasn’t the state or the people of South Carolina that had caused so much pain and disappointment for my dad and all of us. In a way, the smear of 2000 had tarnished the South Carolinians even more than it had my dad—and made them look like mudslinging racists, ignorant and pliable, when the spirit of the state is infectiously warm and generous and kind.

The night of our victory in South Carolina, I jumped around so much during the mass celebrating that the heel of my boot came off. An incredible party ensued at the hotel where the campaign was staying—the most fun primary party of all. Nobody wanted to break it up and head to dinner, so Piper placed a four-hundred-dollar pizza order to be delivered to the lobby of our hotel.

After Super Tuesday in March, when my father won in Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island, and Vermont and gathered enough electoral votes and delegates to be the Republican nominee, the campaign regrouped—shifting its focus from worrying about Romney and Huckabee to worrying about the Democrats, and trying to calculate who would be our likely rival in the fall.

It was going to be a tough race. Not much disagreement about that.

The race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was still heated and close. Hillary was winning important states, and to me, she seemed like the one to beat. She was becoming more formidable and a better campaigner with each primary. As a woman, I have to admit that I admired her dogged energy and amazing encyclopedic brain. She won all the debates, as far as I was concerned, while Obama always seemed out of his depth and foggy. Every time Hillary opened her mouth, even if she wasn’t actually saying something serious, she seemed impressive, so articulate and razor sharp.

Being in public life for decades can cripple your spirit—and spoil your spontaneity and openness. I had learned that much from my short life in politics. That’s why so many politicians seem shut down and barely present. Something inside is gone, or no longer accessible. I liked Hillary Clinton but also felt bad for her. I couldn’t help but wonder about all the parts of herself that she had deep-sixed just to keep herself attractive to voters. Maybe my instincts are off about her, but I doubt Hillary really cares about clothes and fashion. It seems almost tragic when I think about all of the hours of her life that she’s had to devote to these things, when she has other matters she’s much more passionate about.

Political life is rough on women, whether you are a wife or daughter or candidate yourself. After eight months on the road, I understood that in ways that I never had before. It made me much more sympathetic to my mom and other political wives—as well as the women who join campaigns to work as high-ranking staffers. You have to be pretty tough to hack it. If you could do guy-talk, and shoot the shit about sports—
men’s teams,
of course—that was even better.

Looking around my dad’s campaign, it was painfully obvious that politics was dominated and organized by guys. Some of them were nicer than others. Some were more cultured and better educated than others. But whether they were hanging out together, or doing business, they bonded over guy stuff, football and college basketball—stuff that has never interested me for a second.

If you were a woman and wanted to be heard, and taken seriously, you were better off acting like a guy. And no matter what, you couldn’t show any emotion unless it was anger. But not when TV cameras were around.

On camera, and onstage, women in politics weren’t supposed to seem angry, ever. You had to seem soft, sweeter than a guy, compassionate, and at least believably maternal. My mom was all of those things—super-maternal and feminine—but when she got on a stage or gave an interview, she shut down. It was hard for her to open up. I guess you can’t blame her. But it made me sad to see that she didn’t trust or connect with the media. Reporters who couldn’t feel her warmth and big heart assumed these things weren’t there.

When Hillary Clinton shed a tear in New Hampshire, and again on the eve of Super Tuesday, I was impressed that she had let down her guard—and shown what was really going on inside. She was suddenly human, and a woman. The male journalists described it as though she had been sobbing and out of control, when in fact her eyes had just welled up. And when she took a shot of Crown Royal whiskey at Bronko’s Restaurant in Indiana—putting it back just like a guy—I was stunned by the media fascination with it. Every pundit had a comment. The blogs went nuts and the video went viral.
A woman having a shot of whiskey?
Was this kind of thing allowed?

I was sure that being a man had made things easier on my dad. Not that running for president is a laugh riot. But at least he never had to worry about the shape of his legs, how big his ass was, or whether he was having a bad hair day—the sorts of things that women in public life are routinely pummeled for, if they aren’t paying enough attention to their appearance.

How much time had Hillary Clinton spent considering her outfits and accessories for debates—or sitting in a salon chair getting her hair done? My dad didn’t have things like that to worry about.

Not that he was on easy street. After forty-seven years of serving his country—twenty-four years in the House and Senate, twenty-three years in the U.S. Navy—he had a promising chance of becoming the president of the United States. The stakes were daunting, dizzying. When I thought about it, what he was facing, and taking on, I was amazed by him. He was so strong, and ready for all of it. But the stress was intense. He once told me that he thought the pressures of a national campaign were on par with the pressures of war.

Dad seemed unfazed by the hot glare of media. From what I could see, he had barely switched gears. He was up to the challenge, and the job.

But how ready was I?

, I didn’t flatter myself that it was really about me—or I tried not to. The campaign was winning, after all, which made my whole family more media-worthy. My younger brothers, Jack and Jimmy, were both in the military, which forbade them, for the most part, from giving interviews. My sister, Bridget, was too young, from my parents’ point of view, to be in the spotlight. My dad’s sons and daughter from his first marriage, Doug, Andy, and Sidney, were busy professionals with their own lives and families. I was the lone McCain kid on the road, and visible. I didn’t know a thing about giving an interview, but I was eager to help my dad in any way I could.

Political kids are supposed to be an asset, which is why campaigns usually find ways to expose them, even exploit them, in order to humanize the candidate. Kids remind the world, and the voters, that—no matter how canned and phony a politician may seem—he or she is a real person with real stuff going on.

My dad’s campaign seemed a little slow to jump on board with the family stuff. Even at the beginning of the summer going into the convention, I remember reading a poll showing that a majority of voters didn’t realize my dad had children—and although they must have assumed he was married, they didn’t know much, if anything, about his wife.

My mom is private by nature and holds her cards close in a new situation. Once she warms up, she is almost as much of a free spirit as I am. Would voters ever get a chance to see that? Would a member of the media be able to see and describe her clearly, rather than just writing about her faraway stare?

As for me, I am not guarded by nature, and the prospect of being interviewed didn’t make me too nervous. I assumed that all I had to do was “be myself” and the media would get me, and maybe even like me. That was basically my public relations strategy, anyway. Did I need media training? I didn’t think so. Just the word
made me imagine being led around on a choke chain and leash by one of those weird dog handlers in the movie
Best in Show
. I didn’t want to be a scripted daughter-of, or flatten myself into a boring cartoon.

If I kept it real and didn’t bullshit people, I assumed that somehow I would be understood and appreciated.

Like I’ve said, I don’t believe in secrets—or all the work that goes into trying to keep them. With me, what you see is what you get. Why should I act like somebody I wasn’t? Being open and unguarded is how I have always made friends and bonded with people, even in work environments and paid internships. I believe that, at the end of the day, my personal connection with somebody is most important. It didn’t occur to me that a relationship with a member of the media would be any different.

My mom and I didn’t have a press person assigned to us, in any case. The campaign found us one after I screwed up, embarrassed everybody, and generated enough heat to set off all the campaign PR fire alarms.

roundups on the grown children of candidates who were working full-time on a campaign. These were ensemble pieces, each daughter or son getting a line or two of description, and maybe a quote. The Five Brothers would be grouped together, or the daughters like me, Cate Edwards, and Sarah Huckabee. We were all college-age or older, still single, and for the most part, on the road. Compared to Chelsea Clinton, a major celebrity who declined to participate in all interviews, or even talk to a ten-year-old reporter for
we were all relative unknowns. In a group setting, the exposure for us was kind of gentle. The format didn’t allow for media gotcha.

I’d already managed to embarrass myself, though. My first big on-camera interview was one of these group portrait pieces, by CBS News, about daughters-of. We were a campaign’s “secret weapons,” as the piece called us, and the story featured Sarah Huckabee, Cate Edwards, and me.

Cate Edwards looked gorgeous on camera, in her very East Coast way, with perfect straight brown hair, jeans, and suit jacket. She sounded even better—talking about how people relate to her, and in that way, relate to her father. Her ability to weave in the talking points of the Edwards campaign was stunning. To make the whole thing even more impressive, the backdrop of the interview was Harvard, where Cate was attending law school.

Then Sarah Huckabee came on-screen—and, like Cate, sounded and looked amazing. As I watched the piece, when it aired, I remember thinking how very classy she was in her suit and perfectly understated makeup. She talked about campaign strategy; she had been on the ground in Iowa, literally putting up signs and helping strategize.

Then . . . cut to me. I was wearing a knee-length black sequined skirt that looked way too glitzy, like it belonged on a Broadway stage. I was wearing
tons and tons
of makeup too—heavy eyeliner, layers of mascara, loads of blush. It took me a while to learn the art of applying makeup for TV and what I produced for that first interview was a recipe that would scare animals and small children.

Worst of all, every other word I said was

“Just because you, like, watch
The Hills
, doesn’t mean, like, you can’t, like, be involved in politics.”

I giggled really fast, as if I were auditioning for a part in
Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Like the nasty stream of online comments that my blog generated, the online reaction to the CBS interview was vicious—mostly about my
comment, and how bad my makeup was, and that I needed to stop bleaching my hair like a Vegas stripper. The other daughters were lauded—Cate for her brains, Sarah for her noble deeds, literally “out in the field” working for her dad.

I couldn’t help but remember all the other things I had said to the reporter of the CBS interview, things that (in my memory, anyway) were smarter and less peppered with
s. The producers of the segment could have shown me in a better light—if they’d had a reason to. Maybe it was better television, better entertainment, to make me look like an idiot.

BOOK: Dirty Sexy Politics
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