There is no easier TV "get" in Washington than Sen. John McCain. When Sunday talk-show bookers call, he always says yes—52 times to "Meet the Press" alone, a record for current officeholders. Last week, though, he was suddenly, categorically, unavailable. I asked his communications director, Jill Hazelbaker, whether her boss would be on. "Nope," she e-mailed, "Black doing Face." Translation: McCain's campaign would dispatch Charlie Black—lawyer, lobbyist, personal friend, top adviser—to appear on "Face the Nation." There, Good Soldier Black would presumably field permutations of the question raised by a blandly accusatory story in The New York Times: was McCain too close—way too close—to the capital culture of cash and clout he says he wants to reform? (That the unflappable Black was a well-tailored emblem of that culture evidently did not occur to the folks at McCain campaign headquarters.)
Those of us on the Straight Talk Express eight years ago got a breathtaking journalistic opportunity: to be inside the lively mind and heart of a leading contender for president. McCain was as joyously combative as Popeye and as earnestly confessional as Oprah. Now, in the wake of the Times story, the old bus has, in effect, been put up on cinder blocks, the traveling press now carefully kept at a distance. More important, and perhaps lost in the story of his political turnaround after New Hampshire, the Straight Talker himself seems to have changed—a change evident long before the Times launched its front-page fusillade. The story will, no doubt, serve only to reinforce how he comes across now: as a wary, somber and even grave figure, standing at attention, surrounded by aides, his wife at his side like a loyal adjutant. "He's not the Lone Ranger anymore," says Black. What's happened to the old John McCain?
His aides and associates point to 9/11. That explanation is self-serving: he is running primarily on his commander in-chief credentials. But that doesn't make it less valid. He is trained in the idea of the noble military mission and in the secular faith of service to the nation. He believes that history—destiny, if you will—is calling him to the presidency at a time when we are fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and against terrorism around the globe. "It's about 9/11," says Hazelbaker. "It changed him, and it changed his view of how and why to run."
Dogged for years by tales of a temper—and a reputation for taking names —McCain is determined to project an image of calm, strength, mature judgment and live-and-let-live magnanimity. "There are a lot of people around town who don't like him because he can be tough to deal with," says a friend who served with him in Congress who didn't want to be quoted on the record raising doubts about his buddy. "He's trying to show he'll be a new man if he gets to the White House."
That may be easier said than done. McCain has a long history of dealing with lobbyists, and he faces the sad reality that most members of Congress face: they must rely on lobbyists and their clients for the money they need to run their campaigns. McCain, speaking softly, almost grimly, said in answer to the Times story that he had never betrayed the public trust. There are stories of how McCain dissed his friends' clients, threw them out of his office and even banned them from speaking to his Senate aides. "I tell those stories and nobody prints them," Black says. It's not that we doubt Black, but the whole point of John McCain's appeal is—or was—that he can and would speak for himself.