If the need arises and the range is close, Mark Salter will edit John McCain in midsentence. After 19 years at each other's side, neither man gives it a second thought. When a writer for The New Yorker was interviewing them last year about their latest best-selling book, the talk turned to hockey and the Arizona senator's admiration for Wayne Gretzky, who coaches the Phoenix Coyotes. "Wayne Gretzky is one of the all-time best American athletes!" McCain proclaimed. But even before his boss finished speaking, Salter had spotted a slip-up: the hockey legend is from Ontario. "Yes," Salter interjected, "Gretzky is one of the best American athletes … from Canada!"
But Salter does more than just edit his boss. He channels him—and the results can be amusingly pugnacious, befitting McCain's poke-'em-in-the-snoot style. Or not. In early 2006, McCain was in Europe when Barack Obama rescinded a private promise to join McCain's bipartisan crusade for campaign-finance reform. McCain got the disturbing word from Salter during one of their 10 daily phone calls. They quickly concluded the Democrat needed a sharp response. "Brush him back," McCain ordered. The resulting letter—written above McCain's signature, but not presented to him for a signoff—was so soaked in sarcasm and venom that it drew winces on Capitol Hill. "I guess I beaned him instead," Salter tells NEWSWEEK. McCain wasn't upset, Salter adds, smiling.
Mark Salter calls himself a "friend" to the presumptive GOP nominee, but that doesn't do their relationship justice. He's McCain's speechwriter, former Senate chief of staff, coauthor, biographer and closest adviser; amid the campaign's recent internal tensions, Salter's place at McCain's side has never been questioned. ("The only person closer to McCain is his wife," says former senator Warren Rudman, a longtime friend to both men.) McCain and Salter are stylistically similar and share a world view: they like to operate in intimate settings, with a loyal band of brothers, a clear enemy in sight and an almost joyful fatalism in the face of long odds. Which is a good thing, since they're up against an opponent, Barack Obama, who so far seems more deft, organized, popular and blessed by destiny.
Salter, 53, comes by his love of grit and combat honestly. He grew up in modest circumstances in Davenport, Iowa, the son of a traveling salesman and a teacher. His father had been an Army hero in Korea. Educated in Roman Catholic parochial schools, Salter became rebellious (a streak shared as a youth by the man who would become his boss). He skipped college to work on Iowa railroads and sing in a rock band. After four years, his love of literature and history drew him to local night-school classes and then to Georgetown University. He gravitated to politics and got a job writing speeches for the iciest of cold-war warriors, U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. At the 1988 GOP convention in New Orleans, a chance meeting with Torie Clarke, McCain's press secretary at the time, turned into a late-night drinking trip to a Cajun juke joint in a dicey part of town. She invited him to write speeches for McCain.
Salter had a life story guaranteed to appeal to McCain—and it did. For his part, Salter was drawn to the hectic informality of McCain's Senate office. "I walked in on that first day and there were interns hanging around, people moving in and out," he recalled. "I thought: great!" McCain, he discovered, was a serious, voracious reader, and soon enough the two men were swapping recommendations. The reading lists tended to run, as they do still, to military history (Edward Gibbon's "The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire" is a mutual favorite), Great Personage biographies, Irish fiction and Hemingway. (Currently, Salter says, McCain is reading the short stories of Somerset Maugham.)
McCain had long had his eyes on the ultimate political prize. But he doubted he could get there until he saw the process up close. He rode shotgun during Bob Dole's 1996 race. Although Dole lost, McCain liked the drama of the conflict. The next year McCain agreed to consider writing an autobiography. The man who made the suggestion, at the instigation of New York agent Flip Brophy: Salter. Until then, McCain had been reluctant to retail his captivity story and had not found a partner to help him. But now he had the perfect Boswell: a sympathetic spirit and excellent writer who had logged thousands of hours with him.
Starting with "Faith of My Fathers" in 1999, Salter set about unpacking the life of a man who was the son of admirals and a Vietnam POW. From that success, they moved on to books about courage, leadership and decision-making. "Salter took the raw talent that was John McCain and deepened and molded it," says Clarke. "He allowed McCain to find his own voice." That skill is central to Salter's influence, but not the sum of it. His precise role now isn't easily definable, but no major move is made without his input. "I guess I'm 'of counsel'," Salter says with a shrug.
Salter's entire life itself is McCaincentric. He is married to a former McCain secretary (they have two children) and their vacation home on the coast of Maine was purchased with book royalties (he and McCain split proceeds 50-50, a rarity in the world of political biography). "Mark is the one guy on the inside who has no agenda other than McCain," says Rudman. "Mark is totally devoted." That life-defining zeal can get a little out of hand when Salter perceives that his friend has been slighted somehow. Editors and reporters, including some at NEWSWEEK, have been on the receiving end of Salter's Ciceronian derision, e-mails sometimes referred to as "Saltergrams."
Salter's task now is to sell his action-figure hero. Voters have grown wary of warrior presidents in the wake of George W. Bush's handling of the Iraq War. And they are more and more focused on domestic issues, such as the economy, which they say Obama would handle better. Salter's writing style can seem orotund and antique to younger ears. For all the elegance of the books, McCain's speeches are delivered stiffly at best. When Salter is not at his elbow, and sometimes even if he is, McCain is apt to mention, say, a country (Czechoslovakia) that ceased to exist 15 years ago. The campaign's seeming inability to stage a riveting visual event led "The Colbert Report" to invite viewers to submit mash-up videos that make McCain look "lively."
There was a time, in 2000, when John McCain was the cutting-edge, character-based "narrative" candidate. But now that may well be Obama, who has gone McCain one better in the autobiography department by writing his memoir himself. Obama has the looks, the physical grace and charisma that communicate a sense of change at a time when voters seem to be yearning for it. And Obama has a feel for new media that remains an excruciating mystery to the 71-year-old McCain.
Such obstacles seem to inspire McCain and Salter. "They both have some Black Irish in them," says Jonathan Karp, their editor. Salter seems ready for the battle ahead. "All I can do is put my guy out there," he says. "Look, Obama is on this grand arc, but there is an air of hubris about it. If he falls, he will fall hard. Yes, he's good onstage. Well, my guy can't even lift his arms because of his war injuries! McCain has a core of authenticity the other guy lacks. McCain always has chosen to devote his life to his country, not himself. My job is to help voters see that." Whatever happens, expect McCain and Salter to write about it in their next book. There's no title yet.