McCain was not a natural orator on the stump. He had trouble reading from a teleprompter, and he had an odd way of smiling at inappropriate times, flashing an expression that looked more like a frozen rictus than a friendly grin. During one early debate, he smiled broadly as he discussed crushing the enemy in Iraq. McCain could be moody, and he did not try very hard to disguise his moods. One of his advisers used the word "heady" to describe the candidate. He meant that his speaking style was easily swayed by his emotions. McCain could look hot or riled up (his traveling buddy Lindsey Graham particularly affected his moods, for better and for worse), or he could appear wooden, even sullen. McCain was bored by dreary presentations of his own polling data, but he could get agitated reading about other people's polls in the press. His staff tried to keep away overstimulating distractions, but it was hopeless. During the campaign's low-budget period, when the candidate was traveling on the cut-rate airline JetBlue, he would get wound up watching political talk shows on the small video screen facing his seat.
Throughout the spring of 2008, McCain's uneven speaking style was a source of frustration to his aides. They knew how open and disarmingly honest he could be when he felt like it. But his stubborn integrity (or childish willfulness, depending on your point of view) was as much a liability as a virtue. When McCain didn't like the words he had been given to read, his inner Dennis the Menace would emerge, and he would sabotage his own speech.
McCain's subversive instincts had long shown up in his speaking style. Before the 2000 primary in South Carolina, when he spoke in favor of flying the Confederate flag over the state capitol, he would pull a piece of paper out of his pocket and read from it. It was obvious that he didn't really believe what he was saying and was ashamed of his pandering. His aides had trouble coaching him because the very act of telling him what to do could incite a rebellion. When distracted or restless, a not infrequent occasion, McCain could be tempted to play the high-school prankster. Once at a press availability in Kentucky he spotted a large woman, who was wearing a black T shirt embroidered with two bedazzling martini glasses, standing behind the photographers. He asked her to stand by him at the podium, where she might have a better view. "Is this OK?" he asked. "This is fi-ine!" the lady replied, but as she saw a sea of cameras and smirking reporters, she looked stunned and slightly embarrassed. She started to sidle away, and McCain asked, with mock forlornness, "You leaving me?"
In April, McCain gave a major "Service to America" speech at his alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy. A select audience had been invited, and American flags provided a proud backdrop. But the crowd seemed tiny, dwarfed by the vast football stadium, and the flags flapped wildly and noisily. The morning sun shone on the teleprompter, so McCain couldn't read it and had to rely on a written speech. He trudged through his speech, but at one point when he looked up while turning a page, the wind caught a second page and turned it as well. McCain kept reading, but by the time he realized he had skipped a page it was too late. In the end it didn't really matter. His performance was so disjointed that the only people who really noticed were the reporters following the text on their laptops and BlackBerrys.
McCain should have enjoyed an advantage by securing the GOP nomination in March while Obama and Clinton ground on for three more months. But the press by and large ignored the GOP candidate, who was further hobbled by poor advance work as well as by his own listless or crabby performance. At times, McCain seemed to be amused by the haphazardness of his own organization. He would crack jokes about the "well-oiled machine we have here on this campaign." When the microphones kept dropping out during a Florida press conference, he declared, with mock outrage, "It's a plot!"
Perversely, part of McCain's problem behind the podium lay with his talented speechwriter and closest adviser, Mark Salter. The coauthor of his bestselling books, including "Faith of My Fathers" and "Why Courage Matters," Salter idealized McCain and wanted him to be the heroic figure he was in his books. Salter wrote noble, eloquent speeches for McCain, high-flown words that evoked a spirit of selflessness and patriotism. Yet these sentiments—which McCain, more than any other candidate, personally embodied—sometimes sounded stilted and cringeworthy when they came from his mouth on the campaign trail. McCain may have actually believed the campaign myth that "Salter writes the way McCain thinks"; in any case, he wanted to be the hero that Salter had helped him become, and tried to sound like one. But if he became bored or his mind wandered, he read Salter's lofty words with all the conviction and gusto of a dutiful schoolboy reciting his Latin.
Salter and McCain had a close but complicated relationship. Salter was indebted to McCain; he had bought a second home in Maine with the money he earned from their books, and he had even met his wife, Diane, in the senator's office, where she had been a scheduler. At some level Salter worshiped McCain, but he knew not to fawn; indeed, he understood that the best way to get McCain's attention was to appear indifferent. Salter had the confidence to stand up to McCain—the relationship was more brotherly than father-son. Salter could imagine McCain's thoughts and supply his words, and he fancied that he knew him better than anyone. But he never really got inside McCain's head; no one did.
Traveling on a national presidential campaign can be exhilarating, but it is also exhausting, and it can be disorienting. Campaign aides can spend months far from home and family, living out of suitcases, eating junk food and drinking too much. The seats on the back half of the campaign plane are usually filled with Secret Service agents whose job it is to protect the candidate from being assassinated, and reporters whose job it is (or appears to be) to catch the candidate slipping up. No wonder that from time to time, campaign aides like to hit the hotel bar at night.
Salter's drinking buddy was Steve Schmidt. Early in the campaign, they would drink deep into the night, working themselves up about the awfulness of the press and the shallowness of Obama, whom they giddily mocked as "the One." (They were riffing off a Maureen Dowd column; with her sharp reporter's eye, the New York Timeswoman had poked fun at Oprah Winfrey's adulation of Obama as "the One.") Egged on by Schmidt, Salter railed against the press for ignoring McCain and deifying Obama. "McCain goes to Iraq—they only make fun of him. Obama goes to Europe—three anchors and 200 other reporters go to chronicle the history-making Save America's Reputation Tour," Salter acidly remarked to a NEWSWEEK reporter after getting stoked up night after night with Schmidt.
Salter and Schmidt were a bit of an odd couple. Though gruff and sarcastic, Salter was a humanist who was able to see reporters as human beings, even if he regarded them as tragically flawed, caught in a losing battle between idealism and cynicism. Schmidt preferred to see the world in black and white; individual reporters might be tolerable, even likable, but the press was simply the enemy. Salter had a temper, and it showed in angry e-mails telling off reporters (one such missive to a NEWSWEEK editor concluded, "You're making this s––– up"). Schmidt, when mad, became intense, prosecuting offenders carefully and deliberately.
Schmidt was a product of the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign. A midlevel staffer charged with running the rapid-response unit, Schmidt had been eager to be included in the exclusive "breakfast club" meetings run by Karl Rove, Bush's political mastermind. Schmidt's entree was his mastery of "oppo," shorthand in campaigns for their "opposition research" files on a rival's weakness. Nicknamed "the Bullet" by Rove for his shaved head and blunt manner, Schmidt had become a walking oppo-research book on John Kerry and the other Democratic candidates. Schmidt's working credo was what he called the Seven P's: Proper Prior Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance.
Running negative campaigns is as old as the republic (Jefferson slimed Adams), but in modern national campaigns, Republicans have been better at the game than Democrats. There is by now a well-thumbed playbook for defeating Democratic candidates. The original author was Richard Nixon, who, back in 1950, ran against Helen Gahagan Douglas for the U.S. Senate and succeeded in branding his opponent as a communist sympathizer by talking about her "pink underwear." Nixon had promised to avoid personal attacks (and thus earned the nickname "Tricky Dick"); he was adept at mixing high rhetoric with low blows. These tactics became a strategy in his appeal to the Silent Majority fearful of black crime and rioting students in 1968. The politics of fear were perfected by the legendary Republican operative Lee Atwater in the 1980s. The Atwater machine's pièce de résistance had been the Willie Horton ads, which suggested, not too subtly, that Democrat Michael Dukakis would be soft on crime because, as governor of Massachusetts, he had approved of a prison-furlough program that allowed a convicted rapist to rape again. Though Schmidt was hardly as devilish as Atwater, he understood the power of isolating some small, seemingly trivial weakness of the opponent—and bludgeoning it.
Schmidt resented being called a disciple of Rove by the press. He did not regard himself as a fearmonger or a practitioner of the dark arts, and indeed he had a sweet, playful side. He told funny stories about being scared of snakes at his California home, and he desperately missed his wife, son and daughter, with whom he had memorized the songs from the Disney fairy-tale movie "Enchanted." After he had been portrayed as a calculating political-machine man in the 2004 NEWSWEEK special election issue, a crestfallen Schmidt asked his friend Nicolle Wallace, Bush's communications director, "Is that really how people see me? The big, bald, mean guy?" Schmidt could be mock-tough. "I'm OK with a reign of terror starting now," he sternly told Salter when the campaign's logistical incompetence was becoming all too apparent to the press late in the spring of 2008. Then he turned to a NEWSWEEK reporter and choked up with laughter. But he could also be severe and grimly focused. Whenever McCain had a rough day in the press, or Schmidt was running on a few hours' sleep after a late night at the bar with Salter, he would declare, throughout the day, "Fun Steve is dead."
At first Schmidt was not an easy fit with campaign manager Rick Davis. In the estimation of Davis, Schmidt suffered from attention-deficit disorder. Schmidt, to be sure, was not very good with columns of numbers (as a student, he had been unable to pass required math at the University of Delaware and had dropped out). But he was relentlessly disciplined and on message—two attributes the campaign sorely lacked. He spoke in declarative sentences, with a flat certainty, which appealed to McCain's fondness for stand-up guys and impulsive, let's-do-it instincts.
In early June, Schmidt took over control of day-to-day operations in the campaign. The press played the move as another major campaign shake-up. The last straw, the press reported, was a sour, poorly staged speech by McCain on June 3, the day Obama formally secured the Democratic nomination. McCain had looked like a grumpy old man. Actually, it was Schmidt who had ordered the sickly green backdrop that made the candidate look old and greenish-gray, and it was Schmidt who had told Salter and McCain to come out hard against Obama. Schmidt wasn't directly replacing Davis—McCain advisers were not so much shoved out as pushed to the side, and Davis retained the title of campaign manager, along with many of the responsibilities. But Schmidt's ascension would profoundly alter the style, feel and fundamental direction of the campaign.
By his own account, Davis had wanted Schmidt to come back to headquarters to help run things. To Davis, it seemed that Schmidt and Salter and others like Charlie Black, a veteran Washington lobbyist who advised McCain, were off having fun on the campaign plane, a merry band of brothers, while he was stuck back at headquarters, overwhelmed by trying to ramp up McCain's cheapskate insurgency into a fully staffed presidential campaign. He needed Schmidt to take charge of the daily message and media operation. If that meant reining in the candidate as he wandered about cracking jokes and saying pretty much whatever came into his mind, so be it.
Still, Davis did not want to lose the spirit of the pirate ship. On March 1, as McCain was securing the nomination, a NEWSWEEK reporter had asked Davis if the time had come to "trim down the pirate ship and become more of a cruise ship." No, Davis responded, "it'll always be a pirate ship. Not because of the size of it, but certainly because of the attitude of it. As long as John McCain's got the patch over the right eye, that ain't going away."
But it did. The last voyage of the pirate ship was called off before it ever left the dock. McCain genuinely loved informal give-and-take. He was fearless (maybe a little too much so) in a town-hall setting, fielding questions from ordinary citizens, or sitting around with reporters on the Straight Talk Express. In early June, he sent a letter to Obama inviting the Illinois senator to participate in a series of joint town-hall meetings. McCain had a romantic idea of traveling the country with a worthy opponent, engaged in a meaningful dialogue that would educate and challenge voters. The idea had been broached by Mark McKinnon, an old Bush adviser, who, in turn, had been inspired by an idea first floated by John F. Kennedy before his assassination in 1963. JFK had wanted to go on a national tour, debating his likely Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, before the 1964 election. It was a noble-seeming idea, and it might possibly have civilized and elevated the 2008 election. But it was not to be. McCain proposed debating every week until Election Day—some 20 weeks away. Obama's aides were wary of taking on the GOP candidate in forums that seemed to favor McCain's brash, conversational style. They counterproposed two "Lincoln-Douglas style" debates, where each candidate would give an hourlong speech and have a half hour for rebuttal, in addition to the traditional three debates in the fall. This format favored Obama, the orator. The Obamaites wanted the first debate on July 4.
McCain really believed his opponent would do the town halls with him and was disappointed by Obama's response. But his aides were outraged, or pretended to be. (One later confessed to a NEWSWEEK reporter that they never expected Obama to say yes; they were just looking to take the moral high ground.) The Fourth of July, said Rick Davis, was "the worst viewing night of the year," and he told a reporter that the Obama response was "the most sarcastic thing I have ever heard anybody do." The Obama team, for its part, was indignant when the McCain team went to the press with its complaints before negotiating with Obama—or even replying to his counteroffer. Before long, the whole idea collapsed in recriminations.
McCain's inner circle was furious when the press appeared to give Obama a free pass or equally apportioned the blame. The press treatment of the whole affair deepened the perception among McCain's aides that the liberal media establishment was determined to get Obama elected. McCain was no longer the darling of the media, or so it appeared to Schmidt, Salter and Davis. That was the message they wanted to impress on the candidate. Reporters, they told McCain, don't want to debate you about the great issues of the day. They just want "gotcha" stories. The McCain advisers were particularly leery of the "embedded" TV-network producers, who carried small cameras everywhere to capture every campaign moment. Their network bosses back in New York were salivating for footage of McCain stumbling, Schmidt concluded. Salter, still simmering over the New York Times story about McCain and the female lobbyist, agreed. Salter felt betrayed; after all that access, the press just wanted to "get" McCain. The two began warning McCain not to speak to reporters. "When he goes to the back of the bus, Schmidt and I say, 'Danger, danger, not the same press corps. They want to make news today, and the easiest way to make news is if it comes at your expense'," Salter told a NEWSWEEK reporter.
Schmidt, Salter and Davis spent hours working themselves up over the perceived unfairness in coverage. McCain aides began joking that NBC, mother ship of MSNBC's avowedly liberal anchorman Keith Olbermann, had become "National Barack Channel," while Davis scoffed to the NEWSWEEK reporter that "The New York Times has become a 527"—a provision in the tax code regulating such groups) that buys ads to push pet causes, usually with the effect of promoting one candidate or another.
McCain was nonplused about the end of his honeymoon with the press. He liked hanging around with reporters; they were his friends, or at least his sparring partners. (He enjoyed the challenge; "he never met an interview he didn't think he could beat," said his spokesperson, Jill Hazelbaker.) McCain would want to head back to the reporters' section of the plane, and Davis would pull him back. "No, no, no, I want them around me," McCain would say, referring to the reporters. "No, no, no, they're screwing you," Davis would retort.
At McCain's insistence, his new campaign plane this past summer had been fitted with a large bench-style couch, to re-create the space on the Straight Talk Express bus, where the candidate had spent hours jawing on the record with reporters, half a dozen or so at a time. But reporters were never asked to sit there. McCain did not look happy about being kept on a tight leash, as least as far as reporters could tell from a distance. ("It was like withdrawal," Lindsey Graham conceded to a NEWSWEEK reporter.) Around reporters, McCain sometimes looked like a sheepish teenager who has been told by his parents that he has to stop seeing a girl. At a stop in Wisconsin, reporters watched while McCain drank coffee with a delegate. The candidate looked up and made eye contact with the reporters. "How are you guys today?" he said, smiling. Before anyone could say anything, campaign aides swooped in and began ushering reporters from the room. When one reporter tried to talk to McCain, he looked up expectantly and seemed about to say something. "Senator, can I …" the reporter began. An advance man stepped in. "Thank you, let's go," the staffer said.
McCain's almost willful tendency to step all over his scripted lines exasperated his aides. Before Obama left on a widely anticipated overseas trip in mid-July, the McCain camp tried to orchestrate a counterattack. Jill Hazelbaker went on Fox TV's morning show to mock Obama. "Let's drop the pretense that this is a fact-finding trip and call it what it is: the first-of-its-kind campaign rally overseas." She called the trip "one giant photo opportunity." But McCain promptly told reporters that he disagreed with Hazelbaker and that he would speak to her about it. McCain said he was "glad" that Obama was going to Iraq and Afghanistan to see for himself. Hazelbaker was so upset that she did not come to work the next day and refused to take McCain's apologetic phone calls. Schmidt told the candidate in no uncertain terms that he had to change. McCain, for once, seemed to get the message.
On July 24, after touring the Middle East and Europe, meeting with foreign leaders and generally impressing the American and international press, Obama spoke to a huge crowd in Berlin. His campaign was eager to strike echoes of John F. Kennedy traveling to Berlin in 1963, the vibrant young leader thrilling the world with his defiance of Soviet communism. An advance team looked into the possibility of Obama's speaking at the Brandenburg Gate, near the place where Ronald Reagan had challenged the Soviets to "tear down this wall!" in the last days of the cold war. But Obama vetoed the site. He did not want to appear "presumptuous," he told David Axelrod, by speaking at a site normally reserved for heads of state. Still, he ended up speaking on a raised platform before the soaring Victory Column, not too far from the Brandenburg Gate, and the effect was both dramatic and grand.
Sen. Lindsey Graham was watching on TV. McCain's friend, who had sharp political instincts, saw an opportunity. As he later recalled, he thought, "Oh, boy," as he reached for the phone to call McCain. "Look at this!" he exclaimed to the candidate, who was also watching. "Who the hell does this guy think he is? And who are all those Germans, and what are they cheering about?" To Graham, Obama's speech was all about Obama, grandstanding for a bunch of foreigners.
Other McCain advisers were having similar thoughts and inspirations. That weekend, the senior strategy team met at a hotel near McCain's house in Phoenix to ponder how to turn Obama's big moment against him. McCain, his wife and Graham joined at the end of the meeting to see what they had come up with.
Schmidt took the lead. Obama was flying so high that McCain's guns could barely reach him, he said. So the answer was … make him fly a little higher, until the voters saw that he really was nothing more than a hot-air balloon. "This guy is acting like a celebrity," Schmidt said. "He is a celebrity. Only celebrities draw 200,000 people. Presidents do, too, but he's not a president. He's the biggest celebrity in the world. OK, let's give him that. Let him have that. But then we get to ask, do you want a celebrity running the country?"
Graham immediately perked up. "That's great!" he exclaimed. McCain nodded. "Yeah," he said. Schmidt quickly got to work on an ad. On July 30, the "celebrity" ad went up and was quickly flashed around the country on news shows and YouTube. "He's the biggest celebrity in the world," a breathy announcer declares, while images of Obama's Berlin speech are juxtaposed with shots of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.
Most pundits huffed at the ad as trivial and a cheap shot. But it dominated the news cycle for several days, something McCain had failed to do for months. Obama didn't get much of a bounce from his trip, despite the heavy, overwhelmingly admiring press coverage. The ad had helped stall Obama's momentum and, with some voters, raise doubts about his depth of experience. Schmidt's status rose: his chippy, in-your-face attack mode seemed to work.
Still, McCain's own adman, Mike Hudome, was unsettled. He told a NEWSWEEK reporter that Paris Hilton and Britney Spears were not his style. Friends and colleagues would stop him and say, "Hey, Mike, the celebrity spot?" Hudome would hasten to tell them that the spot was all Schmidt's doing. Hudome liked Schmidt, but he felt bad about the direction of the campaign; under Schmidt, it was being run more like a traditional political campaign, going negative and sticking to the sound bites. He worried that the campaign was forfeiting "the real McCain maverick message." And yet he had to concede the ad worked.
McCain himself seemed grouchy and unhappy on the campaign trail. He was doing fewer town-hall meetings, and his aides, upset when no one laughed at the candidate's tried and-true jokes at one particularly sorry affair in Belleville, Mich., decided they'd better start packing the hall with McCainiacs. (The audience was full of undecided and skeptical voters; the campaign had been trying to make a point with the press and Obama by daring to plunge the candidate into true arenas of democracy—i.e., before unscreened voters.) Before long, McCain's "town halls" were almost as tame as George W. Bush's in 2004, when the president spoke to by-invitation-only crowds.
McCain chafed at his handlers from time to time. But as one close aide explained to a NEWSWEEK reporter, he did not mind sudden course shifts in his campaign. He was a fighter pilot, an improviser, not a "steady as she goes" sailor. All through his political career, he had been willing to tack away from the fleet. He was regarded as quirky and unpredictable by his stodgier, more conventionally partisan colleagues. McCain may have bridled at doing fewer town-hall meetings or cutting off the press, but he was able to reconcile any qualms about going negative by regarding change—in this case, a tougher, sharper-edged approach—as not only necessary but desirable. "There aren't very many politicians who are instinctively as good as John at saying, 'I got it. New campaign? No problem'," said a close adviser. "His whole career is all over the map. This is not like Ronald Reagan—'Here's what I believe, I've never changed in 20 years.' This is John McCain, so change is a little bit quicker. He's like, 'OK'."
McCain did not, in any case, resist taking a few jabs at Obama. McCain did not really respect his opponent. He can be forgiving, but he can also hold a grudge, and for him politics is deeply personal. He felt that he had been betrayed by Obama in the Senate, and that Obama, as he put it, lacked guts (a critical test to the macho McCain). McCain's essential world view, bred into him by his Navy-admiral father and grandfather, is that of a warrior. In his bestsellers, McCain made clear that the personal quality he extols above all others—even courage—is honor. Over time, egged on by his subordinates, he came to believe that Obama was a nice enough young man, but somehow lacking in this most noble of warrior virtues.
McCain was fairly bipartisan in his likes and dislikes; he was just as willing to denounce a Republican pork-barreler as a Democrat, and he would gladly work with Democrats he could trust. Indeed, in "Worth the Fighting For," he recounts his close friendship with, and deep respect for, the late Morris Udall, a liberal Democrat from Arizona. McCain was always ready for friends across the aisle. At first he thought he had found one in the young Obama. As a freshly elected U.S. senator in 2005, Obama had approached McCain and told the senior senator that he didn't want to be a party hack—that he wanted to be more like him. "McCain is always on the lookout for guys like that," recalled Salter.
McCain decided to ask Obama to collaborate with him on ethics reform. McCain was part of a bipartisan group with Sen. Rick Santorum, a conservative Pennsylvania Republican. Obama showed up at one meeting of the Santorum group—but never again. (According to Santorum, McCain gave Obama a "syrupy" welcome when he walked into the room.) Obama had publicly stated that he was open to working with Republicans on ethics reform, and he had privately assured McCain of his cooperation. But then he backed out, without first calling McCain. Salter assumed that Obama had been yanked back by Harry Reid, Democrat from Nevada, the fiercely partisan Senate majority leader who did not like freshmen wandering off the reservation.
What really irked McCain and Salter was the way Obama backed out. He wrote a somewhat formal letter to McCain, thanking him for the chance to participate in the Santorum working group but saying he preferred his own party's legislation. Before the letter made it to McCain, it was leaked to the press, probably by someone in Reid's office. Salter was incensed when he learned of Obama's intentions by reading the newspaper. He fumed: How dare this junior senator throw McCain's generosity back in his face! And do it so publicly!
McCain was also miffed, and he instructed Salter to ghost-write a letter back to Obama: "I would like to apologize to you for assuming that your private assurances to me regarding your desire to cooperate in our efforts to negotiate bipartisan lobbying reform legislation were sincere," Salter's draft began, dripping with contempt, and just grew more sarcastic: "I understand how important the opportunity to lead your party's effort to exploit this issue must seem to a freshman Senator, and I hold no hard feelings over your earlier disingenuousness. Again, I have been around long enough to appreciate that in politics the public interest isn't always a priority for every one of us."
Salter would later say that the tone of the letter was perhaps more bitter than McCain intended (though McCain did sign the letter). Obama, for his part, seemed genuinely startled by McCain's acid-tipped arrow. He wrote McCain, "The fact that you have questioned my sincerity and my desire to put aside politics for the public interest is regrettable but does not in any way diminish my deep respect for you or my willingness to find a bipartisan solution to this problem."
Obama further alienated McCain on the immigration issue. McCain took great political risks on immigration, defying the GOP faithful who wanted to build a wall across the Mexican border and arrest and detain illegal immigrants. Working with Ted Kennedy and a bipartisan group, McCain came up with compromise legislation to create a guest-worker program. Obama asked to join the group. The senators agreed to hang together to vote against amendments from both the right and the left. Some very conservative senators honored the agreement, voting against conservative amendments—but Obama did not, voting in favor of a number of liberal amendments. After one meeting, Kennedy chewed Obama out for his fickleness. (Months later, asked by a colleague why he had endorsed Obama for president, Kennedy gave a one-word answer: "Caroline.") With his aides, McCain initially took a forgiving tone toward Obama. When Salter ranted to his boss that Obama was being spineless on immigration reform, McCain responded, "He's a rookie, he's a rookie. Maybe he'll grow into something." But on the campaign trail in late July 2008, with the election less than four months away and McCain hanging in close behind the front runner, when Schmidt and others pressed to go negative and mock Obama, McCain did not hold them back.
There was a notable lack of diversity at the top of the Obama campaign, a situation that Obama himself occasionally complained about, though not so strongly that anything was done to add on more minorities. Hillary Clinton had put two black women (campaign manager Maggie Williams and chief of staff Cheryl Mills) in charge, replacing her first campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, who is Hispanic. More gay men found high-level positions on her staff as well.
After Clinton bowed out in June and Obama's staff bulked up for the general election, one newcomer, settling into the open workspace at 233 North Michigan Avenue, noticed something else different from Hillaryland. The campaign veteran took note of the "No-Drama Obama" atmosphere, but observed to a NEWSWEEK reporter, "There's drama in Obama. People just whisper, not yell." David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, ordered his staff to welcome the Clinton refugees (reportedly threatening that if they did not, "I will hunt you down"). There was a slight hitch when Clinton's top fundraisers were folded into Obama's finance committee. According to one of Obama's moneymen, the Clinton people wanted to know what their job titles would be and were taken aback when they were informed that the Obama fundraisers had no titles. (Several wealthy women who had raised money for Clinton decided instead to raise money for McCain; one of them, Lynn Forester de Rothschild, later said that Obama was an "elitist" who talked down to "rednecks.")
The former Clinton adviser noticed that the atmosphere felt different from Hillaryland in another way. "People walk around there," the Clintonista said, gesturing to the tower on Michigan Avenue, "thinking there is no possible way he can lose." The adviser came from an alternate universe, one with a healthier sense of impending disaster. "I worked in the Clinton White House," the adviser recalled, "and we assumed that if something could go wrong, it would go wrong."
By early August, however, the true believers in the Obama campaign were beginning to have a few doubts. They were bothered that McCain's "celebrity" ad had apparently penetrated Obama's image armor, even though their own internal polls still seemed to be holding up. To the former Clinton aide, it seemed, some of the top Obamaites were operating under the illusion that they had weathered the worst from Hillary Clinton. "They live in a world where they think Hillary was the meanest she could be," the aide told a NEWSWEEK reporter. The Clintonista believed that Hillary had held back—noting that when Hillary was asked in a debate if Obama was electable, she said yes, which was not what she was saying privately.
There were some Obamaites bracing for the worst. Media man Jim Margolis took notice of the fact that McCain had announced that he would not "referee" between the 527s, the independent-expenditure groups. If there was any racist or truly low-road attack on Obama, it was likely to come from the 527s, which are prohibited by law from communicating with presidential campaigns—and are thus free to sling mud with impunity. It had been a 527, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, that did the most harm to John Kerry in 2004, by questioning his war record in Vietnam. The Internet was constantly buzzing with viral assassins who spread rumors that Obama was a Muslim, that he had attended a madrassa and that there was a video of Michelle making a crack about "Whitey." "It's a lie," Margolis told a NEWSWEEK reporter in June. "We're going to be aggressive." That same day, the Obama campaign launched a Web site called Fightthesmears.com to rebut the various falsehoods.
Obama's own approach was, as usual, to play it cool. In April, when Clinton was beginning to push the line by saying that she stood for "hardworking, white Americans," Obama told a crowd in Raleigh, N.C., "When you're running for president, then you've got to expect it, and you've kind of got to let it …" He paused, shrugged and made a brushing motion with his right hand, as if flicking some dust off his right shoulder, then his left. The crowd, which included many African-Americans, burst into surprised laughter and applause, and many stood to cheer as Obama gave a self-satisfied smile and an exaggerated nod, and then said, "That's what you gotta do." He was playing off the popular song "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" by the hip-hop artist Jay-Z. ("If you feelin' like a pimp nigga, go and brush your shoulders off/Ladies is pimps too, go and brush your shoulders off/Niggaz is crazy baby, don't forget that boy told you/Get that dirt off your shoulder.")
With McCain's "celebrity" ad, the Obama camp saw a warning shot. Obama's aides did not think the McCain campaign would ever explicitly play the race card, but by raising questions about Obama's experience, McCain's message makers hoped to fuel fears that Obama was not trustworthy and that he was somehow "other" from mainstream voters, particularly working-class older whites. At least that's the way it looked to Obama's spinmeisters, so they began feeding Obama lines aimed at inoculating voters. In Springfield, Mo., on July 30, the same day the "celebrity" ad first aired, Obama told the crowd, "So nobody really thinks that Bush or McCain have [sic] the real answer for the challenges we face, so what they're going to try to do is make you scared of me. You know, he's not patriotic enough. He's got a funny name. You know, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills, you know. He's risky." Obama repeated the same message at two more stops along the trail of mostly white voters in Missouri.
At McCain headquarters, righteous indignation was the order of the day. Political campaigners rarely lack for excuses to describe the opposition as wicked and evil, but the race issue seemed to strike a particularly sensitive chord among the McCain advisers. Republicans as well as Democrats learned (or perhaps overlearned) the lesson of the Swift Boat attacks on Kerry in 2004: don't wait to hit back. At McCain headquarters, voices were raised against Obama for daring to suggest that McCain was using racial innuendo. It was decided to play a little jujitsu and have Rick Davis accuse Obama of playing the race card himself. "Barack Obama has played the race card, and played it from the bottom of the deck," Davis declared in a press release.
That afternoon, Davis did a phone interview with Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC to defend his comments and the "celebrity" ad. "Explain to me, Rick, how is what he said playing the race card?" Mitchell asked in a skeptical tone. Davis accused the Obama campaign of telling reporters and liberal bloggers that McCain's attacks "had racial overtones." Mitchell challenged Davis about the increasingly negative feel of the campaign, and the conversation grew testy. Davis regarded Mitchell's tone as condescending, and he grew so hot arguing with her that he forgot he was on a phone call being played over the air to hundreds of thousands of MSNBC viewers. When he hung up the phone, he barged out of his office to clear his head, and he was startled to receive a standing ovation from his staff.
On the campaign trail, McCain was asked about Davis's "race card" remarks. McCain looked uneasy and tepidly endorsed his campaign manager's remarks, but said that the campaign needed to return to debating the issues. After a brief kerfuffle, the press let the matter drop. Reporters are as uncomfortable as the politicians they cover about discussing race.
Still, among the punditocracy and on the blogs, there was some chatter. As they sat around in greenrooms waiting to go on cable-TV talk shows, pundits and reporters engaged in some cynical speculation. Had the McCain campaign attacked Obama for playing the race card precisely to bring up the whole question of race? To remind voters that race was an issue—the elephant in the room? There was a certain logic to these suspicions. In many polls, the generic Democrat defeated the generic Republican by 10 points or more, simply because voters were ready for a change after eight years of Republican rule. Yet Obama and McCain, by midsummer 2008, were essentially tied. Why wasn't Obama doing better? McCain's supporters argued that McCain outperformed the generic Republican candidate because he was a maverick attractive to independent voters and because he was a more experienced leader than Obama. But some polling experts suspected (though they couldn't quite prove, since polling on race is so difficult) that Obama was held back by the color of his skin.
Given the national mood, McCain was going to have a difficult time persuading a majority of Americans to vote Republican come November. Standard procedure among political consultants faced with such reality is to go negative. Negative ads can depress the candidate's standing, that's true. But if done right, they bring down the opponent's standing even more. Hence, McCain's best (perhaps only) hope was to bring down Obama.
There was no question but that Schmidt & Co. were going negative, and that McCain was somewhat grudgingly going along. But McCain's advisers took violent exception to any suggestion that they were using race in any way to undercut Obama. Their touchiness on the subject had a whiff of "the lady dost protest too much," and some of the anger at reporters was calculated, intended to scare the press away from writing stories that even hinted that McCain was using the old Republican playbook. But they were determined not to do or say anything that might be deemed racist. At one point they considered mocking Obama as "the One" with an ad showing footage of him onstage with Oprah Winfrey. But the idea was nixed—it might be misinterpreted. There was genuine frustration on the part of McCain's aides, who griped that they would get blamed by the press for playing on racial fears no matter what they did. They heatedly pointed out to reporters that McCain had denounced a Republican operative who used racial innuendo in an ad in North Carolina, and that McCain had repeatedly expressed his distaste for race baiting in political campaigns.
McCain was sincere. He did not want to win by playing on racial anxiety. He had too vivid a memory of being smeared in South Carolina in 2000. His wife, Cindy, had an even more searing recollection. She personally blamed Karl Rove, Bush's political guru, for unleashing the old Lee Atwater attack machine, using anonymous smear artists to spread around leaflets suggesting that her adopted daughter, Bridget, was the love child of John McCain and a black prostitute. Rove always vigorously denied any such thing, and the link was never proved. McCain, who prided himself on his sense of forgiveness, told friends that he was willing to get along with Rove and move on. But Cindy never did. At a private gathering in Aspen, Colo., in the summer of 2007, a friend asked Cindy whether she would stab Rove in the back if he walked by. "No," she answered, "I'd stab him in the front."
To the casual visitor, the New Media department at Obama headquarters seemed at once ultrahip and painfully earnest, a touchy-feely, emo sort of place where people talk about saving their souls and use lefty academic jargon like "agency." One reporter described the sentiment toward the candidate as a sort of "Lincoln 2.0." The frat brothers over in Communications liked to joke about whether the geeks in New Media were still virgins.
When it came to what they actually did, however, the nerds of New Media were cold realists. "We never do something just because it's cool," the campaign's official blogger, Sam Graham-Felsen, told a NEWSWEEK reporter. "We're always nerdily getting something out of it." He showed off the Obama '08 iPhone application. With its deep Obama blues, correct fonts and glassy graphics, it looked like an electronic bauble for the well-heeled voter. Closer inspection revealed a sophisticated data-mining operation. Tap the top button, "call friends," and the software would take a peek at your phonebook and rearrange it in the order that the campaign was targeting states, so that friends who had, say, Colorado or Virginia area codes would appear at the top. With another tap, the Obama supporter could report back essential data for a voter canvass ("left message," "not interested," "already voted," etc.). It all went into a giant database for Election Day.
Early that summer, the campaign made the unorthodox decision to announce its vice presidential pick via text messages sent directly to supporters. It wasn't just a trick to do something flashy with technology and attract media attention. The point was to collect voters' cell-phone numbers for later contact during voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts. Thanks to the promotion, the campaign's list of cell-phone numbers increased several-fold to more than 1 million. (Among the registrees: one Beau Biden, son of Joe.)
"I don't care about online energy and enthusiasm just for the sake of online energy and enthusiasm," said Chris Hughes, head of New Media's social networking. "It's about making money, making phone calls, embedding video or having video forwarded to friends." There was nothing starry-eyed about Hughes, who had been the Harvard roommate and later partner of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and made his first millions before he was 24. His goal was to make old techniques—like call centers and getting polling information to voters—more efficient. "When computer applications really take off, they take something people have always done and just make it easier for them to do it," he said. "And maybe bigger."
During the primaries, the sight was familiar at vast Obama rallies. Before the candidate appeared, a campaign official would come onstage to urge audience members to pull out their cell phones to call or text their friends and neighbors. By the thousands, people of all ages would spread the electronic word—and dollars and votes would follow. Joe Rospars, the director of Obama's New Media, noted, "We didn't invent the idea of our supporters calling one another. We just made it a lot easier." Rospars had written a blog for the Howard Dean campaign in 2004. Under Rospars, the Obama campaign had basically perfected Dean's 1.0 tactics with an important twist. Dean was all about creating a national network, but in Iowa he failed to build a true grass-roots campaign. In Obamaland, where the sayings of Saul Alinsky resonated ("think globally, act locally"), the emphasis was local—neighbor to neighbor, friend to friend, family to family. Joe Trippi, the unorthodox political genius who created the Dean Internet juggernaut, often said that if the Dean campaign was like the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, then Obama was the Apollo program—in other words, in one cycle skipping over commercial aviation, jet travel and supersonic transport to go straight to the moon. (Asked about this analogy, Rospars replied evenly, "Not really, if you consider that Kitty Hawk was a successful flight, as compared to something that blew up on the f–––ing launchpad.")
The power of the Obama operation could be measured: doubling the turnout at the Iowa caucuses, raising twice as much money as any other candidate in history, organizing volunteers by the millions. (In Florida alone: 65 offices, paid staff of 350, active e-mail list of 650,000, 25,000 volunteers on any weekend day.) The ultimate test would come Nov. 4. In the meantime, there were indications of a great storm brewing. At the end of August, as Hurricane Gustav threatened the coast of Texas, the Obama campaign called the Red Cross to say it would be routing donations to it via the Red Cross home page. Get your servers ready—our guys can be pretty nuts, Team Obama said. Sure, sure, whatever, the Red Cross responded. We've been through 9/11, Katrina, we can handle it. The surge of Obama dollars crashed the Red Cross Web site in less than 15 minutes.