There are worse ways to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon than swinging lazily back and forth on a tire swing strung up under a massive sycamore tree in a quiet Arizona canyon, the sound of a gushing stream nearby. Almost grazing the ground and hung on rope that looked to have been tied and retied again over the years, the swing belonged to John McCain, who stood several dozen yards away, carefully monitoring giant slabs of pork ribs on a smoking grill.
It was an idyllic scene, and one that might have made the Democratic contenders envious. As Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama fight it out for their party's presidential nomination, campaigning well into the night, McCain has been lying low. On Friday the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee took a break from the campaign trail in Texas and flew to his weekend cabin outside Sedona, Ariz., about two hours north of Phoenix.
On Saturday McCain hosted his staff and several of his top supporters, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former senator Phil Gramm of Texas, for a so-called "thank you" barbecue on the eve of the primaries on Tuesday, March 4—the day McCain is expected to lock up the delegates he needs to officially win the GOP nomination. On Sunday afternoon McCain fired up the grill again, inviting nearly 40 reporters to his spread in Page Springs, about 15 minutes outside Sedona, for an on-the-record barbecue.
The campaign booked the senator's aides and reporters into one of the only big hotels in town: the Enchantment Resort, a five-star hotel nestled so far back in the picturesque red rock canyons of Sedona that most in the group found that their cell phones were out of range. To cope with the stress of being incommunicado, people booked massages at the hotel spa and went on hikes, including one on which an instructor sought to help participants unblock their "inner chi." "Let me tell you, I've got a lot of chi today," joked Steve Duprey, a close friend of McCain's from New Hampshire who has been traveling with the campaign. Others played golf, went swimming or simply explored the hotel compound. "I haven't walked this much in eight months," one campaign regular confessed. Perhaps this scene gives some insight into why McCain jokingly refers to the media as his base.
McCain and his aides had initially hoped to keep the soiree at his cabin off the record, billing it as a strictly social gathering. But they reversed course when some members of the press said they wouldn't be able to come unless the senator was on the record. To compromise, they allowed reporters to bring their notebooks but banned tape recorders. Meanwhile, pictures for publication were not allowed. As a result, several reporters could be seen furiously scribbling and typing notes into their BlackBerrys throughout the afternoon, at times so intensely that an observer might think McCain was divulging his deepest, darkest secrets.
But that was hardly the case—unless you count McCain's decision to disclose his recipe for the dry rub for his ribs ("One-third pepper, one-third garlic powder and one-third salt," he said proudly, shaking out a quick taste of the mixture into the palm of a reporter's hand) or where to find the best meat. (He swears by Costco.) As he grilled, McCain wore jeans, sneakers, and a white sweatshirt with a Christmas photo of his family on the front (a Father's Day gift from way back). Later, as the afternoon got chillier, he donned a jean-jacket vest.
At one point McCain wandered down the back steps of his cabin for an impromptu tour of his property, which he has owned for 24 years. Nestled in a canyon at the end of a steep, winding road, the area is called "Hidden Valley Ranch," just like the salad dressing. The McCain family owns several cabins on the land, which is dotted with dozens of large old trees. The property sits adjacent to Oak Creek, a usually slow-moving stream that recently swelled its banks because of runoff from snow in the nearby mountains.
On Sunday McCain pointed out a black hawk's nest high in one of the old sycamore trees, marveling at the time he watched a mother hawk teach her baby how to fly. "It was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen," he gushed. A few feet away McCain motioned up toward a dead branch frequented by a certain woodpecker and noted that there are 67 different kinds of bird on his property. He motioned toward barren bushes and talked of the roses and spring flowers that will soon bloom. Reporters nodded and scribbled in their notebooks. "What kind of tree did he say that was?" one whispered.
Reporters were given surprisingly free rein on the McCain property. As the senator grilled, and his wife Cindy and other aides talked to reporters, members of the press were allowed to roam around, availing themselves of the opportunity to take rides on the tire swing and exploring his house, which features a mat outside the door that says, "Geezer (formerly known as Stud Muffin) Lives Here."
McCain's living room is decorated with historic Navajo rugs—"Worth a lot of money," he said—and other Southwest-themed art, including a massive watercolor of the Grand Canyon that sits above his fireplace. A mechanical telescope sits in one corner of the room, while pictures of his family and awards McCain has received over the years decorate mantels and tabletops. His bookshelf includes tomes by Henry Kissinger, a biography of Jesse Ventura and Sen. Jim Webb's book, "The Emperor's General."
On the back porch McCain talked at length about the Zen he gets from grilling. "Nothing makes me happier," he said. "I have a lot of nervous energy … It keeps me moving." A few minutes later it was reporters who were moving, ushered back to buses by campaign aides. "We'll have to do this again," McCain called, waving. "See you tomorrow!"