Leave It To Weaver

What John McCain’s former chief strategist thinks of his campaign.

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,”

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