John McCain seemed oddly self-assured as he walked to the podium to deliver the final address of his 2008 presidential campaign--a concession speech. He wore a blue suit, a light blue shirt and a gold tie that matched his wife's dress. Sarah Palin and her husband stood on stage with the McCains, several feet away.
Many of McCain's closest friends and biggest supporters were gathered before him on the back lawn of the famed Biltmore hotel here. Ollie Harper, who lives with his wife Sharon next door to the McCain ranch in Sedona, was there. So was Phil Gramm, the former senator and former McCain adviser whose ill-timed comments about the country being in a "mental recession" were used by Democrats to paint McCain as out of touch and led to his banishment. Former Navy secretary John Lehman was in the crowd. So were actor Jon Voight, an outspoken McCain supporter, and Hank Williams Jr.
McCain opened his remarks by acknowledging that the American people had spoken with their vote. And he smiled that slightly impish grin as he noted that they had spoken clearly. McCain's staff wore their disbelief--that their man had lost, that this all-consuming race was over--on their faces. Several of them nodded enthusiastically and exchanged knowing looks when McCain mentioned the "challenges" his campaign faced in the current political climate.
A few young women in the crowd began to weep. One female staffer close to the stage let out sobs so loud that she drew looks from those around her, concerned that her cries might have been audible to McCain.
McCain didn't seem to notice. McCain's speech was magnificent, and he delivered it well. "I urge all Americans--I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together, to find the necessary compromises, to bridge our difference, and help restore prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger better country than we inherited," he said. "Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that."
It was obvious that McCain felt this way even as he raised questions about Barack Obama's "associations." His heart wasn't in it. When he was asked about William Ayers, McCain said the issue was about telling the truth, but he would start his answer by saying: "I don't care about some washed-up old terrorist." It was easy to believe him. McCain likes to be loved and wants to be admired. And he finds the rough and dirty side of politics distasteful. When he did allow his campaign to make tough attacks--like the questions about Ayers--they were ineffective. His sense of decency did not allow him to countenance using Ayers as part of a broader narrative and without that narrative the attacks fell flat.
The media largely missed this. Any attack on Barack Obama was too much.
One writer for The Atlantic Monthly put it this way last week. "What I've learned from watching McCain these past two months is that there's nothing he wouldn't do if it could get him a small bump in a news cycle, polarize the electorate, and appeal to a rabid base that is now his only source of power." He added: "My view is that McCain has shown his character in this campaign: it's vicious, petty, lazy, reckless, vain and dishonorable."
That's a little hysterical, but it provides a telling look at the prism through which many in the media saw the campaign. McCain never used Reverend Jeremiah Wright, as he promised. He did not campaign on his opposition racial quotas or on the hypocrisy of Obama's defense of racial preferences, despite the fact that those issues were on the ballot in two states. He said little about gay marriage, though voters in California and Florida had before them initiatives to ban it.
Watching McCain's concession speech, I got the impression that he was happy to have those decisions behind him. His speech brought back the old John McCain.
No one enjoys giving a concession speech, of course, but McCain seemed quite comfortable delivering his. He never appeared comfortable with winning. Back in 2000, after his unexpected triumph in New Hampshire, Tucker Carlson memorably described McCain as the "dog who caught the car." The overriding question: Now what?
In a sense, that question returned throughout the general election, and the struggle to answer it accounts for many of struggles of his campaign.
Watching McCain brought to mind an exchange I'd had with McCain traveling on his campaign bus through Florida back in the spring, before he won the Republican nomination. I asked him about the fact that he always seems to prefer being the underdog. "People have accused me of that. I feel good about our campaign," he said. Then he paused for a full five seconds.
It's not that I like being behind. I don't think anybody in sports, in business likes to be behind. But you also know, Steve, that in my life, I've always kind of relished the fight. Whether it's coming to defend a little guy on the playground that's getting picked on or whether it's gonna be telling the guard in the prison camp--yell the obscenities at him as we're going to the latrine. There is something in my personality, I gotta admit to you, that I enjoy the fight. I enjoy the challenge. I just, I just do.
Ryan Lizza, of the New Yorker, asked McCain to clarify the thought. "Do you enjoy losing?" he asked.
I don't think that's the right description. I don't enjoy it. I've never enjoyed losing. I'm a passionate competitor and passionate competitors don't like to lose. But I'm willing to stand on principle. Because I've found in my experience that if you stand on principle that stuff's going to come around again. It's going to come around again. I've never ever enjoyed losing.
When I interviewed McCain two weeks ago aboard his campaign plane, I started by reminding him that I was with him in New Hampshire way back in September 2007, when he was at 9 percent in the polls. We had a three-hour, on-the-record dinner at a Thai restaurant in Concord. He had plenty of time to give. Although New Hampshire voters still turned out by the dozens to ask him questions at town halls across the state, the national press had written him off.
On the plane, McCain remembered that one Sunday show failed to include him in a list of Republican contenders. "They were talking about all the others and wouldn't even mention my name," he recalled with a slight smile. "Those were fun times. Those were the best times we had."