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McCain’s legacy: Principles tempered by political necessity

McCain’s legacy: Principles tempered by political necessity

At first, John McCain couldn’t hear what his some of his supporters were yelling. The roar of the crowd often made it too loud to hear anything, and he was already hard of hearing in his left ear, a condition that dated to his days as a Navy pilot and no doubt worsened because of the beatings he suffered during his 5½ years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

But in the fall of 2008, during his second bid for the presidency, the Arizona senator could tell that the crowds at his town halls were getting more rowdy — something he normally didn’t mind. The town hall was McCain’s preferred way to campaign; it was the format he felt allowed him to truly connect with voters, where people could see who he was, for better or worse. For months, McCain’s aides had been trying to talk him into holding more traditional events, such as scripted speeches, where he could avoid gaffes that could be seized upon by his opponents. But the candidate stubbornly refused.

Speaking to a reporter in the back of his legendary Straight Talk Express a few months earlier, his suit jacket off and Ray-Bans on, McCain had scowled at the very mention of his aides’ advice. “I honestly don’t like giving speeches,” he said. He hated being behind a podium. He hated the teleprompter. He didn’t like adhering to a script. It was boring.

But about town halls, McCain said with a glint in his eye, “I love them. I love the back and forth. I love the unpredictability.” His staff worried about protesters, but McCain had already handled more than a few, including a man in New Hampshire who had assailed McCain for his support of the Iraq war. But McCain wasn’t worried. To be honest, the senator admitted with a chuckle, he kind of liked it when the crowds were “a little rowdy.” He enjoyed it when people yelled at him because he could argue back. “That’s democracy,” he explained.

What McCain did not sense, at least at that time, was how angry the electorate was and how toxic the 2008 race would eventually become — a shifting dynamic that would ultimately shape his own political trajectory for years to come. Bubbling beneath the surface that year was the kind of rage and anxiety that, in hindsight, provided some of the earliest hints of the voter turmoil and tribal politics that would later help propel Donald Trump into the White House. Ugly whispers about Barack Obama’s race, birthplace and religion that began during the Democratic primary erupted into full-scale conspiracy theories among some Republicans, including McCain’s supporters.

At a town hall in Ohio that September, just days after he had officially claimed the GOP nomination, McCain was on stage speaking about Obama when someone in the crowd yelled, referring to the Democratic nominee, “Terrorist!” A few weeks later, while McCain was campaigning with his running mate, then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, in Pennsylvania, rally-goers greeted mentions of Obama with calls of “Treason!” and “Off with his head!”

After a particularly raucous rally in New Mexico, McCain aides told the candidate about some of the slurs shouted by the audience, and the senator, who hadn’t heard them, was shocked. “Where is this crap coming from?” he asked an aide.

It all came to a head in October 2008, just weeks before Election Day, when McCain held a town hall in Lakeville, Minn., just outside the Twin Cities. By then, the senator was no longer the same press-friendly candidate he had been in the primary. His freewheeling press conferences on the bus had come to an abrupt halt that summer after a Los Angeles Times reporter had asked him whether he agreed with a campaign adviser’s statement that it was unfair that health insurance companies covered Viagra but not birth control. McCain’s long silence and struggle to answer the question were captured on camera and widely mocked by opponents.

Afterwards, the senator finally heeded his staff’s advice and barely spoke to reporters anymore, including his traveling press corps. The couch he had specifically requested to be installed near the front cabin of his campaign plane for his rolling news conferences sat behind privacy curtains that had been installed to hide the candidate from reporters. Though he agreed with aides who argued for a more controlled message, McCain looked miserable avoiding the media, whom he had once in jest referred to as “my base.” And he refused to give up the spontaneity of his town halls.

Down in the polls, McCain was in Minnesota looking for a lifeline among working-class voters in the upper Midwest, but what he found were anxious voters who turned their rage on him when he pushed back against attacks on Obama and defended his rival from what would now be described as “fake news.”</p>
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