Leave It To Weaver

What John McCain’s former chief strategist thinks of his campaign.
DON’T STOP BE-WEAVING: McCain with Weaver on an October 2006 flight over New Hampshire, where he would soon begin his campaign.
Photograph by Scott Photos

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

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