Riding on the Straight Talk Express

I concur fully with Scott’s post about Sen. John McCain. McCain was an American original and, I would add, an American hero.

Like Scott, I disagreed with McCain’s positions on some very important issues. Yet I found the occasions when I spent time in McCain’s company to be personal highlights. That’s particularly true of the time I spent riding with him on the Straight Talk Express in New Hampshire in November 2007.

I wrote a series of posts about that experience. Unfortunately, nearly all of them are inaccessible now except for the opening sentence or two — this even though our other posts from that period seem to remain intact.

Fortunately, the experience was so memorable that I remember the highlights, of which there are many. Here are some.

Before boarding, David Brooks, who rode with us that day, asked a New York Times reporter whether he had a thousand questions for McCain. When the reporter said he didn’t, Brooks told him “then you’re going to run out.”

Brooks was spot on. The moment we boarded the bus, McCain gestured for us, about six reporters and two bloggers as I recall, to join him in the back of the bus where he had installed a long couch. Before we could sit down — huddle is perhaps the right word — he was soliciting questions.

McCain could be prickly or worse. That’s well known. But he was gracious to me, even though I wasn’t from the Times or the other important outlets represented in the back of the bus.

McCain, though, was gracious in his own way. Early on, I mentioned that many political bloggers were in Las Vegas for a convention but that here I was riding with him. McCain responded, “that tells me you’re f**ked up.” This, I thought was his way of initiating me. After we all had a good laugh at my expense, I was one of the gang and he couldn’t have been more engaging with me.

I argued with McCain a few times. The argument I remember best was about the enhanced interrogation (or torture, to use his word) being employed by the Bush administration. McCain was civil and did not “pull rank.” I admit, however, that I was a little relieved when, in mid-argument, the bus pulled up at our stop in Durham, New Hampshire.

Our first stop was at a large general store traditionally visited by all presidential candidates. When we got off the bus, the New York Times reporter informed me that, in the past 45 minutes, McCain had answered more questions than Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney combined had answered during the entire New Hampshire campaign.

McCain probably gave more candid answers than these rivals in the first five minutes of our ride. One question was about what he was looking for in a running mate. McCain said the vice president needs to be a person of substance who can fill any weaknesses the president has.

His weakness, McCain acknowledged, was in economics. Thus, someone like Phil Gramm, though not Gramm himself, would be a good choice.

These words came back to haunt McCain when, in 2008, the economy nose-dived and his running mate was Sarah Palin. A reporter who had been with us recalled McCain’s answer in a story for the Boston Globe.

McCain could have no complaint. Every time I was with McCain, he said at the outset that his remarks are “on the record” because “nothing is off the record in Washington” (or New Hampshire).

McCain also spoke candidly, I thought, about his rivals for the presidency. A post reporting some of what he said survives.

McCain seemed to have a soft spot for Hillary Clinton. They had traveled together, and I got the impression they had raised a glass or two on these occasions.

At a town hall meeting in Rochester, New Hampshire, McCain talked mainly about Pakistan. I wondered where the political advantage was in that. McCain explained that he didn’t like to rely on a stump speech. Instead, he liked to talk about topics that were in the news but that the audience probably hadn’t thought much about.

I remained unconvinced that this educational approach was the way to go, but you can’t argue with success. McCain was loved in New Hampshire. At the time of our bus ride, he was behind Mitt Romney in the New Hampshire polls, but you could sense him surging. He went on to win the New Hampshire primary and then the Republican nomination.

After a few hours on the bus, we ran out of questions, just as Brooks had predicted. So McCain started talking about sports. Apparently, this was his first love. His mother, who was with us but not in the back of the bus, told me that “if he could, Johnny would do nothing but watch sports.” Roberta McCain, now age 106, survives her son the Senator.

McCain was a big Ted Williams fan (Joe DiMaggio, not so much). Both, of course, were war pilots. Some of what McCain told us about Williams the pilot is here.

I mentioned to McCain that Williams had managed the Washington Senators, and quite successfully at least in first season (1969). McCain didn’t seem to know this and I’m not sure he believed me. Only later did I realize what should have been obvious — McCain missed Williams’ tenure as the Senators’ skipper. He was otherwise occupied in Hanoi.

Some conservatives viewed McCain as craving approval of mainstream media organs like the New York Times. I had suspected this myself.

But my time with him in New Hampshire convinced me that what McCain craved was robust discussion with, and the companionship of, intelligent, well-informed people. Maybe this was due to his years of confinement in North Vietnam.

McCain didn’t suck up the media on the Straight Talk Express. Instead, he provided straight talk. The media, hearing so little of it from political candidates, couldn’t help but appreciate him.

So did I.