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Is it in his hug? The Bush-McCain relationship

As much as the presidential hopeful tries to distance himself from the current administration, the two are cut from the same cloth, says author Paul Begala in his new book, "Third Term." An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

In his new book, author Paul Begala, a former senior strategist and counselor to President Bill Clinton, says that as much as presidential hopeful John McCain tries to distance himself from the current administration, the two are cut from the same cloth. Begala points to evidence including McCain's voting record, statements made in support of Bush Administration policies, and one infamous hug. An excerpt.

Chapter one: The Hug
He has earned our admiration, and our love.— John McCain on George W. Bush

I love you, man!— George W. Bush on John McCain

It is the defining moment of John McCain's political career: The Hug. George W. Bush's 2004 reelection campaign needed help. After four years of a surprisingly radical brand of conservatism, Mr. Bush needed some moderate bona fides. After a campaign of fiction and falsehoods that led us to war, Bush needed a credibility transfusion. After the Democrats nominated a certified war hero, John Kerry, Mr. Bush (who famously avoided serving not only in Vietnam but even in the Alabama National Guard) needed a warrior's support.

And so John McCain gave him The Hug.

In embracing George W. Bush that August afternoon in Pensacola, Florida, John McCain embraced Mr. Bush's agenda, his policies, his principles, and his manipulative, mendacious brand of politics. And McCain embraced him with gusto.

This wasn't an irrationally exuberant Sammy Davis, Jr., spontaneously wrapping his arms around Richard Nixon. This was a calculated, choreographed commitment. The John McCain most people thought they knew would never have hugged George W. Bush. More likely, he'd have punched him in the nose. And for good reason.

The smear The South Carolina Republican Party has long been the putrid petri dish of right-wing sleaze, and in the 2000 GOP primary, the slime oozed from Team Bush all over John McCain and his family. South Carolina became Ground Zero for the Republican presidential nomination after John McCain stunned George W. Bush in New Hampshire, beating him by 19 percent.

We show our character in defeat, and in response to the humiliation of New Hampshire, George W. Bush's true character emerged. He went hard right and he went down and dirty. Suddenly whisper campaigns sprouted up like kudzu all across the Palmetto State:

  • McCain is crazy. Here's how the Dallas Morning News reported the rumors: "In recent weeks, the Bush campaign has been accused of — and has denied — spreading rumors that Mr. McCain may be unstable as a result of being tortured while a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Several Senate Republicans, among them party leaders who favor Mr. Bush for president, have been identified in published reports as being responsible for privately pushing the allegations. Also, James B. Stockdale, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam who ran as Ross Perot's running mate in 1992, said he got a call from a friend close to the Bush campaign soliciting comments on Mr. McCain's 'weakness.' "
  • McCain is "the fag candidate." This gem came from push-polling, a despicable tactic wherein a voter is called by someone pretending to be a pollster but who is in fact spreading dirt. Anonymous push-pollers called South Carolina Republicans and described McCain as "the fag candidate" — perhaps because he met with the pro-gay-rights Log Cabin Republicans.
  • McCain's wife is a drug addict. Cindy McCain, like millions of Americans, from the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist to radio gasbag Rush Limbaugh, had been treated for dependency on prescription drugs. Rather than saluting her courage and recovery, leaflets surfaced in South Carolina calling Mrs. McCain "a drug addict."
  • McCain abandoned his "crippled first wife." Carol Shepp, McCain's first wife, was badly injured in a 1969 auto accident while McCain was a POW. Seven years after he returned from Vietnam, McCain's marriage to Carol fell apart. McCain has accepted responsibility for the marriage's failure, but it was hardly fair to say McCain "abandoned" Carol, or that Carol was "crippled." Like half of all marriages, this one did not work out.
  • McCain fathered children out of wedlock. Richard Hand, a professor at the racist, anti-Catholic Bob Jones University, wrote a now-infamous e-mail in which he alleged that McCain "chose to sire children without marriage." When Hand was told on CNN that there was no evidence that his charge was true, he replied, "That's a universal negative. Can you prove that?"
  • McCain's dark-skinned, adopted daughter was the product of a McCain extramarital affair. This was the worst. Anonymous callers alleged that McCain had fathered "a black baby" with a prostitute. In truth, Cindy McCain had brought a dark-skinned baby home from Mother Teresa's orphanage in Bangladesh. She and John adopted her and named her Bridget. In 2006, Bridget Googled her name and learned of how she'd been smeared when her father had been losing to George W. Bush. A teenager today, she is still owed an apology that will never come.

So there was, one might say, some baggage in the Bush-McCain relationship. But perhaps I understate. To paraphrase a friend of mine, if Paris Hilton were to check into the Plaza hotel for a two-month stay with a full retinue of hairdressers, masseurs, manicurists, florists, bartenders, and aromatherapists, the entire entourage would have less baggage than the Bush-McCain relationship.

Think about it. Put yourself in McCain's shoes. Someone benefited from (and, some believe, orchestrated) the most savage attack on your sexuality, your sanity, your marriage, your wife, and your daughter. He smirked as his supporters attacked your honor, your dignity, your manhood, and your innocent child. What would you do? Seriously. Some of us might have shunned someone who'd treated us that way. Others might have cursed them. Still others might have kicked them in the shin or kneed them in the groin. But not John McCain.

John McCain hugged George W. Bush.

What about forgiveness? you may ask. Good point. But forgiveness starts with confession and contrition, and neither Mr. Bush nor his top advisers have ever manned up and confessed to smearing McCain. Indeed, as recently as 2007, Karl Rove aggressively challenged a questioner who alleged he had "helped spread the false story" about McCain's daughter. "That is absolutely not true, and I take offense," Rove replied to the questioner at Troy University in Alabama. "If you have any bit of evidence that anybody connected with the Bush campaign was involved in that, you bring it forward, because it is a reckless charge."

So why would John McCain embrace George W. Bush? Not to be too simplistic: He wanted to. He believed in the Bush agenda and wanted to advance it into a second term.

The Weaver-Rove rift The McCain-Bush split probably began before they knew each other. Its roots lie in the caliche soil of central Texas, where two up-and-coming Republican operatives got their start. Karl Rove and John Weaver were instrumental in capitalizing on the disaffection some Texans felt with the Democratic Party after LBJ embraced racial equality. After Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he prophesied to Bill Moyers, "I think we've just delivered the South to the Republican Party for the rest of my life, and yours."

It took a while, but LBJ's prophecy came true in his beloved Texas — and Karl Rove and John Weaver were central to that historic shift. In the mid-1980s, Rove and Weaver were friends and partners in a successful political consulting firm. As so often happens, there was a dispute — some say about money (it almost always is). In any event, Weaver decided to strike out on his own. This happens in business — especially the political consulting business — every day. Weaver lured away one of Rove's top employees and was named executive director of the Texas GOP by Rove-Weaver client Gov. Bill Clements. Then, according to the Atlantic's Joshua Green, "Rove spread a rumor that Weaver had made a pass at a young man at a state Republican function."

The rumors persisted, Weaver's business faltered, and in time Weaver quit Texas, leaving Rove the dominant GOP consultant in the Lone Star State. Although he'd departed Texas, Weaver carried some heavy Rovian baggage with him; baggage he brought aboard the Straight Talk Express.

A brief flirtation Doubtless nursing a grudge from the vicious campaign in South Carolina, McCain spent much of the first Bush term taking well-timed jabs at the new president. He voted for an initial Senate version of the $1.35 trillion Bush tax cuts, but when the bill came up for final passage, McCain voted no. Echoing Democratic denunciations of a giveaway to the rich, McCain told his Senate colleagues, "I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us, at the expense of middle-class Americans who most need tax relief."

There were other apostasies, and even a brief flirtation with switching parties. At the center of the talk, of course, was Weaver. On March 31, 2001, Weaver had lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Bethesda, Maryland, with Tom Downey. A former congressman from New York, Downey was still as well connected as anyone in the Democratic Party. Downey insists the lunch was at Weaver's request. But the courtship was mutual and intense. Weaver suggested that McCain might bolt the GOP "if the right people asked him." Downey immediately contacted Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle, who recruited Senators Harry Reid, John Edwards, and Ted Kennedy to join in the effort to persuade McCain. At various points over the next two months, members of the group spoke with McCain on the Senate floor, in his office, at a gathering in Senator Kennedy's office — wherever they could buttonhole him. The talks got pretty specific. "We talked about committees and his seniority ... [a lot of issues] were on the table," Daschle recalled.

As the courtship of McCain heated up at the senatorial level, Weaver and four other McCain confidants gathered for lunch; leaving the GOP was on the menu. McCain had just voted against the Bush tax cuts, and Weaver (who reportedly coined the 2000 campaign's most incendiary slogan, "Burn It Down!") was thinking about new ways to light the fire. "Did it [leaving the GOP and running as an independent in 2004] come up? Sure," Weaver told CNN. "Some people want him to do it, but as far as we know, it is not an option on the table." The conservative writer and editor Bill Kristol was also at the lunch. "I believe that McCain thinks about it a little bit," he said. "But he's been very discreet. All the talk has been among aides and friends."

The talks collapsed on May 24, 2001, when Vermont's Republican senator, Jim Jeffords, became an independent, thus swinging control of the Senate to the Democrats. In the wake of Jeffords's move, McCain was quick to renounce all talk of leaving the GOP. "I have no intention of running for president, nor do I have any intention of, or cause to, leave the Republican Party," he told CNN.

For John McCain, the die was cast. His future was with the Republican Party — and the Republican Party was with George W. Bush.

The attacks of September 11, 2001, caused a rally-round-the-president phenomenon that boosted Bush's anemic approval rating into the stratosphere. McCain could have shown his maverick bona fides then. He could have pointed out that Bush was derelict in his duty when he ignored the CIA's warning that BIN LADEN DETERMINED TO STRIKE IN U.S. He could have noted that a real leader would not have panicked, as Bush did; a real leader would not have run and hid, as Bush did; a real leader would not have hesitated, as Bush did. McCain could have told the nation that a real president would not have sat frozen in front of schoolchildren for over five minutes after being told, "America is under attack." But McCain did not. He joined the chorus of Bush suck-ups, feeding the false story that this incompetent man was somehow the strong, brave, wise leader we needed.

John McCain would remain a Republican. And a Bush Republican at that.

Caving in over coffee And so in early 2004, John Weaver reached out to Team Bush. He called Mark McKinnon, Bush's media adviser (and my friend since college). It was a smart choice. A conciliator by nature, McKinnon was among the least anti-McCain members of the Bush inner circle. McKinnon had traveled a long and difficult route in American politics: from the far fringes of the student left when he was in college (he considered me a sellout for supporting student government and serving as student body president), McKinnon moved from his first job with the stalwart progressive Texas Democrat Lloyd Doggett, to Ann Richards. Then, in the late '90s, he fell in love with George W. Bush. Perhaps in an ironic tribute to his formerly iconoclastic views, McKinnon named his firm Maverick Media, and the Maverick began making ads for George W. Bush. McKinnon is gifted, and soon the Yale frat boy with the Harvard MBA was seen droppin' his g's and wearin' jeans and boots and swingin' on the front porch with his beloved Laura: just a regular Texas good ol' boy.

Still, it wouldn't have been surprising if McKinnon had retained some deep-hidden respect and affection for another self-styled maverick. Besides, Weaver could hardly have stomached picking up the phone and calling Rove directly. McKinnon called Rove and brokered a date for him with Weaver. They met at Caribou Coffee, at 1701 Pennsylvania Avenue — a short walk from Rove's office at the White House. Weaver made the first move. "Time to put this behind us," he told Rove. There was no need to define "this": the years of bitterness and backstabbing needed no reiteration. Rove was gracious, as gracious as McCain's grandfather was as he stood on the deck of the USS Missouri to help receive the Japanese surrender. It's easy to be gracious when the other side offers total capitulation. "I know how hard this must be for you," Rove said. "And I appreciate it."

Rove then posed the question: would McCain come out and campaign with Bush? The two had suffered through an exquisitely awkward joint appearance in Pittsburgh in the 2000 campaign. McCain left the 2000 convention early. Some believed he could not bear the Bush coronation; others reported he was being treated for cancer. Rove knew just what to ask for — a little of the McCain magic on the campaign trail. "All you had to do was ask," Weaver replied. McKinnon paid the bill, but both sides walked away buzzing from more than the caffeine.

One person who knows both McCain and Bush well suggested the rift was more driven by aides than personal animosity. "McCain and Bush like each other's toughness," this person told me. "Always have." The ease and speed of the reconciliation suggests there is much truth to the point.

"Listen, we had a very tough, intrafamily fight [in the 2000 primaries]," Weaver recalled in a 2007 interview with the Washington Post's Peter Baker. "These are always tougher, the fights between families. McCain was over it before everybody else was. Like a lot of these things, some of the lower-level soldiers didn't come out of the hills for a long time."

It is interesting that Weaver used a military analogy. Of course, all of us campaign hacks fall back on that — even the word campaign comes from the world of warfare. John Weaver, ever the loyal soldier, was offering his most bitter enemy — and his boss's — an unconditional surrender.

The first date On June 18, 2004, McCain accompanied Bush to Fort Lewis, Washington. Before a Bush campaign rally, they met briefly in the lodge where Bush had stayed the night before. Then the old warrior introduced the old draft dodger to the crowd. The staff of the independent, bipartisan 9/11 Commission had just reported that there was no evidence of any "collaborative relationship" between Saddam Hussein and the al Qaeda terrorist networks, making Bush a liar: One of his principal arguments for invading Iraq was the fact that Saddam was somehow linked to al Qaeda. Again and again Mr. Bush and his vice president sought to associate Saddam Hussein with the terrorism of 9/11. And now Bush's lie was shattered — and John McCain was there to pick up the pieces. McCain vouched for Bush. He did so with gusto, with relish. McCain said the president "led this country with moral clarity." He said Mr. Bush "heard the call to action on that terrible morning in September and summoned the rest of us to this long and difficult task."

I do not know — indeed, cannot know — what was going through McCain's mind at the time. He already knew Bush was a liar; he'd said as much in the 2000 campaign. And he knew that no lie was beyond this man and his supporters — just ask young Bridget McCain. McCain also knew, must have known, that Bush's mendacity violated every sense of honor in McCain's Naval Academy DNA.

As if that wasn't enough, McCain defended Bush's incompetent handling of the Iraq War, which McCain would later pretend he'd been consistently critical of. "There have been ups and downs," McCain told the soldiers of Fort Lewis. "As there are in any war, but like you, he has not wavered in his determination to protect this country and to make the world a better, safer, freer place." McCain closed with a suck-up that would have made the McCain of 2000 gag. He actually drew a moral parallel between the lying coward he was sharing the stage with and the six thousand heroic military men and women he was speaking to. "You will not yield, nor will he."

It was a stunning performance, even for someone used to the phoniness of politics. Tellingly, Bush didn't even try to return the compliment. After McCain's sycophantic introduction, the man who became president in part by smearing McCain and his family dismissed the vanquished with a perfunctory thanks and boilerplate compliments: "It is a privilege to be introduced to our men and women in uniform by a man who brought such credit to the uniform. When he speaks of service and sacrifice, he speaks from experience. The United States military has no better friend in the United States Senate than John McCain."

When Bush finished, he embraced McCain. The Washington Post said, "Bush, waving repeatedly to the crowd as he strode onto the stage amid applause, walked straight toward McCain and put his arms around him. The Arizonan leaned his head toward Bush's cheek, and then the president grinned as the senator whispered in his ear."

How sweet. McCain's admirers probably would like to believe that their hero whispered a four-letter-filled entreaty for Mr. Bush to commit an unnatural act on himself. But no dice. Whatever whispered words were shared by the pair, the two amigos continued their hug-a-thon later that day in Reno. After McCain introduced Mr. Bush there, he gave Bush a hug and patted his back six times.

The Hug that will live in infamy But The Hug — the legendary embrace that appears at the beginning of this chapter — came a few months later in Pensacola, Florida, on August 10, 2004. The location could not have been more fraught with significance for McCain. Pensacola is the home of the oldest naval air station in America, the cradle of naval aviation. It was there that a newly minted Ensign John McCain reported for his first assignment after graduating from the Naval Academy. It must have been a bitter moment for McCain to return there forty-six years later to introduce a man who'd refused to report for duty in the Alabama Air National Guard while John McCain was being held as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton.

But McCain rose to the occasion — or, rather, sank to it. "He was determined and remains determined to make this world a better, safer, freer place," McCain said. "And he has more than earned our support — he has earned our admiration and our love." And then McCain did it. There was no sneaking up, no surprise gotcha-grab from behind. McCain strode over to Bush. Both men had removed their coats and ties and had rolled up their sleeves in deference to the August heat in the "Redneck Riviera." As he approached Bush, McCain shifted his body ever so slightly to his right, extended his arms — first the right, then the left — and pulled Bush in for a massive bear hug. Bush at first seemed to want to continue waving to the crowd, but McCain's embrace was so all-encompassing that Bush could only give in.

As they embraced, Bush patted McCain's back, and then McCain gently nestled his head on Bush's chest. It was as submissive a posture as one could imagine: the defeated beta wolf offering his jugular to the alpha male. To complete the tableau, Bush gave McCain a peck on the temple.

That's right — the younger, feckless playboy dismissed the older, fearless flyboy with the kind of peck on the head you use for shooing away a cloying, annoying little nephew.

Weaver was ready to spin The Hug into political gold. "I wouldn't characterize either man as a hug victim," he told the New York Times. "I think they were mutual hugs, and mutual looking forward." Rick Davis, McCain's longtime right-hand man, eagerly reinforced the argument that Bush and McCain were essentially identical ideologically, telling the Times, "I think what they [the Bush campaign] have found is McCain doesn't upset their conservative base because he's a conservative. He's both a religious conservative, he's pro-life — you couldn't run a thread between his position on abortion and Bush's — and yet at the same time he speaks to a much broader audience politically. So why not hang around with that guy?"

Why not indeed? The truth is, The Hug was probably not as painful for McCain — nor as emotional, nor as difficult — as I would have thought. The truth is, John McCain was merely reverting to form, as Davis said. McCain was, is, and ever shall be a Bush Republican. His occasional forays into Bush-bashing were simply expressions of ambition, an attempt to beat another right-wing corporate tool to the top of the greasy poll. But there is no ideological difference between them, and the combination of their shared policy agenda and their equally fanatical ambition made it easy for McCain to embrace George W. Bush — embrace him personally and politically; embrace his values and his principles; his agenda and his priorities; his war and his economic policy; nearly all things Bush both foreign and domestic. Perhaps that's why loyal Bush spokesperson Nicole Devenish vouched for the authenticity of The Hug, saying, "I don't think either man is capable of pretense." Devenish is now known by her married name, Nicole Wallace — and by her new professional role, coordinating strategy and communications for the John McCain campaign.

The Hug was real; it was the "Straight Talk" that was phony

Excerpted from “Third Term: Why George W. Bush Loves John McCain.” Copyright (c) 2008 by Paul Begala. Reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster.