Leave It To Weaver
What John McCain’s former chief strategist thinks of his campaign.
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The place where I was meeting John Weaver was all wrong—a nondescript office building on F Street in downtown Washington, near Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln was shot. He should have been miles away, across the Potomac in Crystal City, Virginia, at 1235 South Clark Street—the national headquarters for the John McCain for President campaign. Weaver, after all, is the political consultant who fashioned McCain into a presidential candidate. Eleven years ago, he sat in a bar in Alabama and sketched out on a cocktail napkin for a fellow consultant how McCain could become president. Weaver, the onetime executive director of the Texas Republican party, recognized the value of McCain’s unique traits—his candor, his independence, his character (which Weaver juxtaposed with Bill Clinton’s)—and he foresaw how they could be turned into gold-plated political assets. He took his plan to McCain. The reaction? “John’s staff thought I was a kook.”
But not for long. Weaver would soon become political director for McCain’s 2000 campaign and put his napkin strategy to work. It was his idea to introduce McCain to the nation on the Straight Talk Express, a bus that ferried the candidate and members of the national media around in the weeks leading up to the 2000 New Hampshire Republican primary. On the bus, the media had complete and unlimited access to McCain. The frankness and comfort he displayed carried him to a nineteen-point upset victory over George W. Bush and rekindled an old rivalry between Weaver and fellow Texan Karl Rove, who once were on the verge of going into business together before they had a bitter falling-out in the late eighties. Weaver gave ten years of his life to the cause of electing McCain president, but on July 10, 2007, with the campaign floundering, he resigned as chief strategist, along with several other top officials.
Since then, McCain has rebounded to win the GOP nomination, and Weaver has consistently refused to comment on the presidential bid he left behind. But several weeks ago, as the McCain campaign appeared to be entering a new, more aggressive phase designed to drive up Barack Obama’s negatives, Weaver broke his silence, first to me and subsequently to several other reporters. On the day I met him at his office, Weaver was relaxed, lounging back in one chair and propping up his boots on another. He spoke on the record and with a frankness that astonished me. Only a few minutes into our conversation about the current presidential race, he said, “The Greek tragedy aspect of this election could turn out to be, George Bush defeats John McCain twice.”
Weaver is starkly pessimistic about the Republicans’ prospects this year. “We’re sailing into a hurricane in a wooden boat,” he told me. “We’re the party in power, so we’ll get blamed for the home loans crisis and government bailouts. There’s the ‘third [Bush] term’ issue, a recession, the wrong-track number—it’s ninety in Michigan, there may be a higher number somewhere, like Chechnya—gas prices, Nixon-like job approval, and an unpopular war. This isn’t like 1988, when we could win by talking about flag lapel pins and Willie Horton. Today, if you talk about these things, it’s talking about small ball. It will just piss people off.”
Sure enough, a few days later, when the McCain camp released a memo accusing his rival of self-aggrandizement, accompanied by a television ad negatively comparing Obama’s “celebrity” to that of Britney Spears’s and Paris Hilton’s, Weaver told Marc Ambinder, of the Atlantic Monthly, that his successors were adopting a style that “diminishes John McCain.” Calling the ad’s premise “childish,” Weaver noted, “John’s been a celebrity ever since he was shot down.”
Weaver is no longer shy about offering his critique of the campaign, or of the Republican party. He is, in many respects, a man with nothing to lose. At 49, he has twice been within reach of the ultimate achievement for a political consultant, to run a successful campaign for president of the United States. Twice he fell short. Nor have his struggles been confined to the political. In 2002 he was diagnosed with leukemia and started sixteen months of chemotherapy. (He has been free of the disease for almost four years.) As he told the New York Observer in 2004, shortly after the news broke that he had helped put McCain in touch with Democratic nominee John Kerry, leading to speculation that the Arizona senator might become Kerry’s running mate, “Get divorced, quit your job, switch parties, and get leukemia in one year—this is not a recipe for success.”
Weaver’s flirtation with the Democrats was partly a reaction to the nasty turn Bush’s campaign took after McCain’s primary victory in New Hampshire, and he sees the Republican party’s current malaise as at least partly related to the divisive tone set by Bush and Rove in that election. “The chickens have come home to roost” is how he put it to me. “Their policies are all about politics. The government is out of step with the hopes and dreams of Americans. The party is at its nadir. The president has had Nixon numbers for three years. We can’t go on being the all-male, gated-community party. We now know who our twenty-seven percent is. Parties that oppose immigration end up on the dust heap of politics.”
Perhaps in all those years Weaver spent with McCain, the senator’s penchant for frankness rubbed off on his onetime strategist. Or perhaps it had always been Weaver driving the Straight Talk Express. Either way, his observations spared no one. “The party has lost its principles,” he told me. “We’ve had the DeLay and Mark Foley scandals. DeLay was a poster child for the hubris of our Republican leadership. He rewarded his K Street friends when the Republican party is supposed to be the party of Main Street. Spending is now the most since the Great Society, but without the heart. That’s a loser.” He shook his head. “We need to go through a wilderness. I have a bad sense we’ve just started.”
John Weaver grew up in Kermit, in far West Texas, in a working-class, conservative Democratic household. In 1978 he was baptized in politics during his sophomore year at Texas A&M, where, as a reporter for the student newspaper, he drew an assignment to write a profile about an economics professor named Gramm—not Phil, who was also an economics professor, but his wife, Wendy.
“They thought it was a fair article,” Weaver said of the Gramms, “and even back then they weren’t used to fairness.”
At the time, Phil Gramm was running for the Democratic nomination for a vacant congressional seat. He offered Weaver a job in the campaign: $200 a week and a room above the Gramms’ garage to write press releases and serve as a travel aide. The three-way race was close, but Gramm won after barely making it into the runoff. His victory had a major impact on the future of Texas politics. After he co-sponsored Ronald Reagan’s budget cuts in 1981, House Democrats punished Gramm’s apostasy by stripping him of his seat on the Budget Committee. Gramm responded by switching parties, resigning his seat, and running in the special election as a Republican. He won easily and went on to run for the U.S. Senate in 1984. By that time, Weaver had been promoted to political director for the Senate campaign, handling political organization, scheduling, and communications. Gramm won by a landslide.
Weaver’s star was now rising in the state GOP. In 1986 he ran Tom Loeffler’s unsuccessful primary race for governor; Loeffler was one of several Republican wannabes whose prospects evaporated when former governor Bill Clements entered the race. After Clements won the primary, Weaver moved over to his team as deputy campaign manager. When Clements regained the governorship, Weaver landed at the state Republican party as its executive director. The job did not go smoothly. The Texas economy had been weakened by the collapse of the price of oil, and in 1987 Clements was faced with a bill to raise taxes. Weaver, who has never been an ideologue and believes “politics is about governing,” thought he should sign it, which Clements eventually did, despite having promised during his campaign never to do so. “A majority of the [State Republican Executive Committee] voted to fire me,” he told me, “but they needed two thirds.”
Before the Republican convention at which the elder George Bush would receive his party’s nomination for president, Weaver left the state party to become the executive director of Victory ’88, a state committee designed to get around the federal spending limit in presidential races (then $54.4 million). The New York Times called such committees “loopholes big enough to drive a campaign motorcade through” because they could solicit money from big donors and corporations “whose contributions would be illegal if they were given to the campaigns themselves.” Victory committees in effect became the real campaign organizations. On election night, Bush carried Texas by 12 points, 55 percent to 43 percent.
This was a triumphant moment for Weaver, but it turned out to have a dark side. At the Victory ’88 party that night, a negative story began circulating about an alleged indiscretion of Weaver’s on the campaign trail. A recent book, Machiavelli’s Shadow, by veteran political writer Paul Alexander, names Rove, Weaver’s rival for the unofficial title of Most Important Republican Consultant in Texas, as the story’s source (without offering persuasive evidence). “There was no truth to the rumor,” Alexander writes, “and when a reporter tried to confirm the story with a member of the staff of Victory ’88, Rove’s efforts were derailed.” Personally, I cannot vouch for the credibility of the tale, or for the theories of Rove’s involvement in spreading it, but the purported incident is widely regarded as the origin of the Weaver-Rove feud, though some have suggested it stemmed from a billing dispute.
Weaver was always more of an inside player, working behind the scenes, while Rove was more visible, giving speeches and getting quoted in the press. Four years later they clashed again over Victory ’92, the committee that led the Bush reelection effort in Texas. Both sought to play major roles in the campaign. Rove was close to the elder Bush; Weaver was close to Rob Mosbacher Jr., who headed the committee. Mosbacher had $1 million to spend on direct mail, and Weaver got the better deal: a $750,000 contract, leaving Rove with $250,000. Soon afterward, syndicated columnist Robert Novak wrote that Mosbacher’s job was in jeopardy. The story wasn’t true, and Mosbacher, believing Rove to be the source, dismissed him from the committee. (Both Novak and Rove denied that Rove had been the source.)
Weaver had won the battle, but Rove was winning the war. His clients included Kay Bailey Hutchison, Rick Perry, John Cornyn, and eventually, George W. Bush. Hutchison won a special election for the U.S. Senate in 1993; Weaver’s candidate finished third. Weaver took on Phil Gramm’s presidential campaign in 1996, but it went nowhere. By this time, Bush was governor and headed for the White House, and Rove was riding high. If Weaver was going to get back in the game, he would have to do it somewhere other than Texas.
Weaver and John McCain first met at a couple of fundraisers when Weaver was still executive director of the state party and again when he was national field director for the Gramm presidential bid. By this time it was clear that the younger Bush had his sights on the White House, but Weaver felt that the senator from Arizona would make a better fit for the presidency. “I had known W. from Forty-one’s campaign in 1988,” he told me. “I didn’t think he was prepared to be president or had the transcendental bigness compared to John McCain.”
I was struck by the perceptiveness of the comment. A lot of people have tried to identify the flaw in the Bush presidency, and Weaver’s observation comes closest to the mark. “Presidents strive for the big moment,” he explained. “Bush had it and didn’t take advantage. Instead, he went along with the decision to polarize everything—homeland security, the war, religion, the Justice Department.”
“Was that Bush?” I asked. “Or was it Rove?”
“The tone is set at the top,” he said. “The president can stop it.”
Weaver has said that the primary showdown between Bush and McCain was “the proudest thing I’ve ever been involved in. It was as tough as any in history. John didn’t know Bush. He knew his father and had lots of respect for him. He thought W. was a likable guy. The antipathy didn’t surface until South Carolina.”
McCain was a formidable candidate. “He was second only to Colin Powell in the admiration of the American people,” Weaver reminded me. “He had a power base outside of Washington.” The game plan was for McCain to win New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Michigan, showing strength in three very different states, and create enough momentum to run the table. It almost worked. New Hampshire was a rout—“the worst defeat suffered by a front-runner of either party in the modern history of the New Hampshire primary,” according to the Washington Post—and the battle shifted to South Carolina.
The Bush campaign had to hit McCain hard, and it did. It unleashed J. Thomas Burch Jr., the chairman of the National Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans Coalition, to charge that the former Navy pilot—and war hero—was weak on veterans’ issues (“McCain had the power to help . . . veterans,” Burch is quoted as saying in Alexander’s book. “He came home, forgot us.”) And that was just the beginning.
In a recent article titled “Frenemies: The McCain-Bush Dance,” about the on-again, off-again Bush-McCain relationship, Time retold the story of the pivotal South Carolina primary, which turned out to be a winner-take-all battle for the Republican presidential nomination. “Bush’s high command agreed to attack McCain as a double-talking Washington insider and closet liberal,” the article explained. “A network of murky anti-McCain groups ran push polls spreading lies about McCain’s record. They papered the state with leaflets claiming, among other things, that Cindy McCain was a drug addict and John had fathered a black child out of wedlock, complete with a family photograph. The dark-skinned girl in the photo was, in fact, the McCains’ daughter, Bridget, whom they adopted as an infant after Cindy met her on a charity mission at Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Bangladesh.”
“Up to that point in the campaign,” Time wrote, “McCain had been more or less ambivalent about Bush personally.” The article quotes “a close McCain associate” as saying, “He thought Bush was a lightweight but a nice enough guy.” Not after the campaign turned nasty. “During a commercial break in a debate,” the article recounted, “Bush put his hand on McCain’s arm and swore he had nothing to do with the slander being thrown at his opponent. ‘Don’t give me that shit,’ McCain growled. ‘And take your hands off me.’”
Looking back on it, however, Weaver does not blame Rove for McCain’s defeat. “Our mistake was that we made emotional decisions,” he said. “We stopped talking about our reform agenda and started talking about process, what Bush was saying about us.” I said I thought Bush probably had the breadth of support and the resources to survive a loss in an early state like New Hampshire, South Carolina, or Michigan. “It was always a long shot,” Weaver conceded. “We had to win all three primaries. And even then we might not have won the nomination.” (McCain did win Michigan, but by then it was too late.)
Weaver and Rove finally buried the hatchet at a meeting arranged by Mark McKinnon, a mutual friend and a Democrat who had worked for both Bush and McCain. As Weaver puts it, “Karl and I came to our own peace.” But he still thinks that it was a mistake for Bush to bring his political consultant into the White House. “If John McCain is the president,” he said, “there won’t be a John Weaver type in charge of domestic policy.” And he remains puzzled by the two presidential races Rove ran for Bush. “I know Karl wanted to expand the party and improve Hispanic outreach,” he said. “But when he had his opportunity, he chose not to do that.” Instead he stuck with the Republican base.
“He chose to win both campaigns by a field goal,” Weaver said. “Ronald Reagan always advised, ‘Run on bold colors, not pale pastels.’”
For a time after Weaver left the McCain campaign, he remained in touch. In February, a flap arose about whether Weaver was the source of a New York Times story that hinted at a romantic link between McCain and a female lobbyist, and some reports portrayed the former strategist as on the outs with the new campaign leadership. Weaver denied this, telling the Washington Post: “From the moment I left the campaign until today, not one day—not one—has gone by that I haven’t reactively or proactively talked with the campaign leadership. . . . To suggest anything else is wrong, a lie and meant to do nothing but harm.” (Senior campaign adviser Steve Schmidt went on MSNBC to defend Weaver as well.)
But in our conversation, he made no effort to conceal his disagreement with the current strategy of attacking Obama. “They want to get Obama’s negatives up, but the country doesn’t want to hear it,” Weaver said. “If we run that kind of campaign, Obama could win by a landslide.” Indeed, McCain’s recent “celebrity” television ad, which featured shots of controversial celebrities Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, turned out to be a hanging curve for Obama, who responded immediately: “You’d think we’d be having a serious debate. But so far, all we’ve been hearing about is Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. I do have to ask my opponent: Is that the best you can come up with? Is that really what this election is about? Is that what is worthy of the American people?”
In contrast, Weaver told me, “I would go another month without mentioning Obama’s name. The bigness in John McCain is his best quality. This election is ideally suited to him. He won the nomination because he was the right Republican at the right time. He is the one guy who will take on spending and mean it. He should honor Obama as the first African American nominee, not attack him, except on policy differences.”
Meanwhile, McCain continues to have trouble raising money, even as the Republican standard-bearer. “John’s a terrible fund-raiser,” Weaver said. “He never asks for a check. He took on the special interests [in the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform], and it had a negative impact on his fund-raising. Now there’s a malaise in the donor base.”
Regret seemed etched on Weaver’s face. I recalled the way a New York Times reporter had described him during the 2000 race: “the constant brooding presence.” It was spot-on. Weaver’s mind works in such a way that it still conjures strategies, but these days he has the air of a retired football coach drawing up plays that will never be run: “Draw a line from Minneapolis to Philadelphia and tell John that he has to stay up there. Go after the Reagan Democrats—whites, Catholics, women. He needs to show he really understands the concerns that real Americans have, especially for their children. They are pessimistic about the lives their children will lead.”
I asked him the cliché question: Does he miss it?
“I missed it for a while,” he said. “I don’t miss it now.” He is building a new business, he said; he is engaged; he and his fiancée are expecting a child.
“You chase things,” he said. “They’re very ephemeral. The things that matter should come first. I paid a price to learn that lesson. I don’t have to wear a name tag at home.”