Papa John

by Jason Zengerle | April 23, 2008

In politics, there's only one thing worse than being accused of schtupping a lobbyist: being accused of leaking the story of said schtupping to The New York Times. It was the latter accusation that John Weaver faced in February, after the Times published its front-page article on the "close bond" between John McCain and Vicki Iseman. And the circumstantial evidence against Weaver did seem rather damning. First, there was motive: Weaver was McCain's top strategist for nearly a decade, until he quit last year after his rival, Rick Davis, was appointed campaign manager. Second, there were fingerprints: Weaver had given the Times one of its only on-the-record quotes--telling the paper about a 1999 meeting with Iseman in which he warned her to stay away from McCain. And so, on the morning of the Times story, some McCain backers allied with Davis fingered Weaver as the Judas who had betrayed McCain, and their accusation soon echoed across blogs and cable news.

As it turned out, the accusation couldn't have been further from the truth. According to Weaver, he went on the record with the Times only because the paper had already learned about his confrontation with Iseman from other sources. What's more, Weaver says (and a McCain adviser confirms) he kept the campaign apprised of his dealings with the Times--sharing with the campaign his answers to the Times' questions. In other words, Weaver was acting in what he-- and, apparently, the McCain campaign--thought were McCain's best interests.

But that's hardly a surprise when you consider that, even after his acrimonious departure from the McCain campaign, Weaver has remained deeply committed to it. "I would like to say I've been detached," Weaver told me a few days after the Times story broke. "But not one day went by, including holidays, between the point I left and this week, when I didn't get a phone call or wasn't asked to make a call or multiple calls to help the current campaign leadership understand a situation or cajole a state leader to do something favorable. Whatever it was, I was happy to do." Indeed, it was around the time Weaver was supposedly stabbing McCain in the back that he was also quietly working to secure Mitt Romney's endorsement of the Arizona senator. As Rob Gray, a media consultant who has worked for McCain, puts it: "Weaver bleeds McCain." And, yet, that didn't stop some McCain supporters from trying to use the Times story to knife Weaver.

All of which reveals two somewhat conflicting realities about McCainland. The first is the tremendous loyalty McCain instills in those who work for him--and even in those who have left his employ. "Pat Moynihan once said that, if you're involved in politics, there'll be one guy in your life who touches you more than anyone else, and that's the one guy you'll go to the mat for," says Craig Turk, who served as the general counsel to McCain's 2000 campaign. "For Moynihan, it was Kennedy. For a lot of people today, it's McCain. Working for him isn't just a job, it's a passion project." But then there's the second reality of McCainland--which is that, despite its inhabitants' loyalty to McCain, they don't have much loyalty to one another. "The McCain internal world is very dysfunctional," says one McCain adviser. "But the overwhelming function is the huge love everyone has for McCain. That's the functional part that holds it all together."

Indeed, it's precisely the passion McCain's advisers feel for him that causes them to fight with one another. Less a politician captaining a team of rivals than a patriarch presiding over a brood of squabbling children vying for Daddy's affection, McCain has built a political family that has served him well enough to carry him to the threshold of the White House. But now, as that family tries to carry McCain over that threshold, the animosities within McCainland continue to persist. And, as much as ever, they have the potential to violently erupt.

 

McCain has been running for president now for the last ten years, and, for much of that time, his advisers have been battling one another. More often than not, McCain has refused to play referee. The fundamental schism that McCain has been unable--or unwilling--to mend has been between the McCainiacs loyal to Weaver and those loyal to Davis. Weaver, a laconic Texan, first got to know McCain when he was working for Phil Gramm's ill-fated 1996 presidential bid, which McCain supported during its brief existence. Weaver came away from that experience convinced that McCain was the one of presidential timbre and, eventually, convinced the Arizonan of that. In the process, he developed an allegiance that, in some McCain supporters' views, is almost too intense. Not only a Washington outsider but an outsider even in Texas--where he famously clashed with Karl Rove--Weaver found stability in McCainland. For nearly a decade, he was a constant presence at McCain's side, traveling with him not only to offer political advice but to straighten his hair or help him perform the other tasks that McCain can't do himself owing to the injuries he suffered in Vietnam. McCain, for his part, dubbed the mordant Weaver "Sunny." "Weaver sees McCain as a dad and has a really heavy connection to him that isn't the conventional staffer-senator relationship," says one McCain friend. "It's not just that he admires him for his service in Vietnam. It's so much more than that, so much deeper."

Ironically, one of the first people Weaver brought on board to McCain's first presidential run was Davis. A smooth lobbyist whose firm's clients ranged from the Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha to the gambling conglomerate GTech, Davis had a record of prodigious fund-raising for Republicans. He was as much of an insider as Weaver was an outsider, and he possessed the finance and management talents that Weaver lacked. Signing up with McCain, who then chaired the Senate Commerce Committee, wasn't bad for Davis's business, either. But, while he didn't develop a relationship with McCain as deep as Weaver's, Davis considered him more than a transactional client. "He's stuck with [McCain] through some very hard times when a guy who was just on the make would have bailed," says one person close to McCain.

As McCain's 2000 campaign manager, Davis was in charge of the campaign's administration, while Weaver handled strategy. And the division of labor might have worked, according to several McCain insiders, were it not for the fact that Davis wanted to play a larger role in strategic decisions and Weaver didn't want to cede any turf. Making matters even more uneasy was the fact that campaign came to be defined in the press by "the bus"--where Weaver, the voluble consultant Mike Murphy, and McCain's longtime speechwriter Mark Salter (who, like Weaver, has an almost filial relationship with McCain) hosted a rolling, rollicking frat party--while Davis toiled away, uncelebrated, back at headquarters. This tension reached the point that, while McCain battled George W. Bush, he also dealt with his own nasty civil war between headquarters and the bus--which ultimately surfaced in the press, with the sides using reporters to stab each other in the back.

When McCain's 2000 campaign ended, Weaver and Davis both started working to convince a reluctant McCain to make another White House run--and to put Davis or Weaver, depending on who was doing the convincing, in charge of the effort. That McCain was in the midst of a profound ideological transformation--even flirting with bolting the GOP--evidently didn't shake either's faith in him. For a while, close McCain watchers thought the Arizona senator would tap Davis, as McCain was said to have grown weary of Weaver's volatile persona. Tipping the scales even further in Davis's favor was Weaver's battle with leukemia, which sidelined him for a stretch. But Davis's bid to lead McCainland took a devastating blow in 2005, when the Reform Institute--a McCain-affiliated campaign finance reform nonprofit of which Davis was president--came under scrutiny for soliciting donations from communications corporations that had business before the senator's committee. After a spate of negative press stories, McCain ultimately stepped down as the chair of the Reform Institute. As one McCain associate explains, "Rick had lost John's confidence."

When McCain finally decided to embark on an '08 campaign, he once again turned to Weaver to helm it. But Weaver had no intention of replaying McCain's 2000 bid. Although he had taken McCain's defeat harder than perhaps any other McCainiac--actually becoming a Democrat for a time--Weaver believed that the road to victory lay in following the Bush model. It was almost as if the lesson he took away from the defeat was, if you can't beat them, join them. He set out to construct a front-runner's campaign like Bush's in 2004 and hired top talent from that effort. Steve Schmidt, who directed Bush's rapid-response operation, was brought on as communications chief, and Mark McKinnon, who'd been Bush's media man, was tapped to cut spots. Most importantly, Weaver hired Terry Nelson, Bush '04's political director, to serve as campaign manager--Davis's old gig.

But there was one personnel decision that Weaver didn't control. McCain named Davis the campaign's CEO, or chief money-raiser; rather than cast Davis out, McCain offered him a consolation prize. His Solomonic decision backfired: Weaver and Davis's animosity proved too deep, and the McCain campaign soon reverted to tribalism. One problem was that Davis still wasn't content to be a mere fund-raiser. As Weaver and Nelson worked from the top-down Bush playbook, Davis pushed for a radically decentralized campaign, with regional offices around the country--going so far, at one point, as to line up space in Beverly Hills and Manhattan before Weaver and Nelson quashed the idea. But the bigger problem was that the factionalism created a situation in which the people raising the money (who reported to Davis) didn't communicate with the people spending it (who reported to Weaver), and the campaign soon faced a cash crunch, as inputs didn't keep pace with outputs. "Whoever heard of setting up a system where the strategic and political arms are so separate from the finance arm that they don't know how much money they're raising and can't be told?" asks one Republican strategist. "And that's the system McCain set up, because he didn't want anyone to get their feelings hurt."

Even if he hadn't had to deal with Davis, it's not clear that Weaver's front- runner campaign would have worked. Indeed, in April 2007, after months of pleading, Weaver and Nelson finally prevailed upon McCain to reduce Davis's role and turn the fund-raising responsibilities over to a representative from their tribe. But the campaign still struggled, and the candidate was unhappy. Despite Weaver's bond with McCain, his strategy didn't reflect a deep understanding of the candidate. "McCain is a fiscal conservative when it comes to campaign spending," says one McCain associate. "And the campaign spending was driving him crazy." Even the number of donuts the campaign bought for the Straight Talk Express was a source of irritation. All the while, according to several people in McCainland (and Robert Draper's extensive reporting in GQ), Davis stoked McCain's anger behind the scenes, telling him--and his wife, Cindy--that Weaver had done a terrible job. Finally, last July, McCain installed Davis as campaign manager. Even then, McCain didn't totally break from his passive management style by taking the logical step of firing Weaver and Nelson. Instead, he left it to them to resign.

Davis had finally fulfilled his old desire. "Rick's like every finance guy, whose dream is not to have to stand by an ice sculpture raising money," says one McCain adviser. "He wants to be a political guy." But, while Davis got his wish, the campaign he inherited was in shambles. Almost everyone Weaver and Nelson had hired followed them out the door. Even Salter--the ultimate McCain loyalist--flirted with resigning before agreeing to stay in a reduced capacity. So Davis went to work with what he had and cobbled together a new brain trust. Although the rest of the media team Weaver had assembled quit, McKinnon agreed to keep producing ads for McCain at cost. Similarly, Schmidt--who is very close to Nelson--had bonded with McCain in a way that Nelson never did (McCain affectionately dubbed him "Sergeant Schmidt," presumably a reference to the bullet-headed Schmidt's resemblance to Sergeant Schultz on "Hogan's Heroes") and agreed to stay and work gratis. Salter, despite planning to scale back his involvement, ultimately couldn't resist helping McCain in his time of need and jumped fully back into the campaign. And, for the final piece of McCain's new inner circle, Davis turned to Republican wise man Charlie Black--a former lobbying partner of Davis's whom Weaver had originally signed up to help with debate prep. Under Davis, Black filled the strategist chair that Weaver's departure had created.

With Weaver and his loyalists largely gone, the inner circle that Davis assembled worked in relative harmony. Even Salter, who's close to Weaver and sided with him in intramural battles, put aside any ill will he felt toward Davis. ("Salter is probably the greatest human being of all of them," says one McCain associate. "He's only interested in McCain.") And the new inner circle did more than just get along. Although it lacked such essentials as a pollster, it plotted a course to the nomination. McKinnon turned out memorable ads, including a video--with footage of McCain as a POW--that stirred audiences before rallies. Schmidt came up with the idea to dub McCain's first major swing after his mid-summer implosion the "No Surrender Tour"--an allusion to his own refusal to quit the race as much his desire to remain in Iraq. And Black brought a mature and polished presence to a political operation that, under Weaver, tended to be more emotional than cerebral. "He's totally unflappable ... and he's an incredibly calming influence," says one adviser.

Presiding over it all was Davis who, even some critics concede, accomplished the improbable. "Rick kept an operation together under some pretty challenging circumstances," says one McCain associate allied with Weaver, "and made sure McCain had enough resources to do what he had to do."

 

But, as the McCain campaign turns toward the general election and begins the necessary expansion and adjustments, the rivalries have begun resurfacing. Some McCainiacs simply can't bring themselves to credit Davis for McCain's comeback, attributing it to the candidate himself. "He took the campaign on his back, both literally and figuratively," says Weaver. "I think it was more grit than strategic thinking that got him the nomination."

Others focus on mistakes they believe Davis made during the primaries. "My criticism of the current operation," says one McCainiac, "is that it's much more inclined to figure out what the senator wants and then organize that, as opposed to doing what's in his best interest to win." This McCainiac cites the use of Joe Lieberman, who often served as McCain's travel companion rather than as a surrogate: "McCain likes to have some people with him, but it didn't make sense to have Lieberman with him. You could have had twice the benefit if Lieberman went someplace else. But John didn't feel that way." Complains one Republican leader: "There's got to be someone or some people around with the kind of crazy cojones or attitude to tell the candidate no. Charlie's not going to do it because lobbyists by nature don't do that; they're in the making-friends business. And Mark [Salter] can only do it so much."

Even more pronounced is the griping about Davis's plans for the future. Now that Davis is in charge, he's taken his old decentralized strategy--the one Weaver and Nelson killed--off the shelf. As The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder first reported, the campaign will feature ten different regional offices that will be run as ten different campaigns. The offices will be helmed by regional managers who will have enormous autonomy--including the power to hire and fire and build their own field programs. As Charlie Black told me, "A presidential campaign is a series of statewide races. ... Because of the electoral college, you have to win individual states. The smartest way to approach that is to run statewide campaigns with smart people and experienced people, just like you were running a campaign for governor or U.S. senator."

Black rightly describes the plan as unprecedented. And it is the extent of its ambition that has provoked grumbling from some McCainiacs, who view the plan as being less about winning the election and more about Davis trying to prove, once and for all, that he's not just a rainmaker--but a master strategist. According to these dissenters, the plan has the cash-strapped campaign footing the bill for nuts-and-bolts functions--like get-out-the-vote operations--that traditionally are the party's province. Some of these critics think Davis's plan is so crazy that it's actually a feint and a bit of misdirection. Others fear that it's all too real--and reflective of a campaign lacking strategic smarts. "The political pros were removed from the campaign and replaced with lobbyists," complains a former McCain aide who left the campaign last summer. "You don't have political pros there. I realize our craft ranks right down there with bail bondsmen and mattress salesmen, but I think we're still slightly above lobbyists."

All the while, just offstage are Weaver and Mike Murphy, the latter of whom sat out the primaries because he didn't want to choose between McCain and Romney. McCain still talks to both men, and they are said to give advice to McCain that contradicts Davis's; it's also said that both would like to return to the campaign. Of course, it's possible that McCain could get all of his loyalists to grit their teeth and work together until November, but there aren't many McCainiacs who consider that realistic. Indeed, these McCainiacs can't imagine a campaign that includes Davis, Weaver, and Murphy--although they all agree that this would be McCain's best squad.

Laments one prominent McCain supporter: "I think the campaign would be well-served if they had more of them involved. But I wonder if the organization could withstand the personality differences and the insecurities that would come along with that on both sides. The only way it would happen is if McCain brought them together and forced them to work together and took control of it, and that's not necessarily his management style." After all, the hardest thing about being a father figure is having to choose among your children.

Jason Zengerle is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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