Leave It To Weaver

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

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

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