Inside the McCain campaign: what we didn’t know

Losing presidential campaigns always prompt criticism and “what if’s” but most savvy observers were surprised that Senator John McCain and his creative team kept it as close as they did.   John McCain didn’t come away looking like a loser.  He played a remarkable game with very bad cards.


I mentioned in one of my earlier blogs that Senator McCain had to have had a little conversation with himself.  He probably locked himself in a bathroom and looked in the mirror and said, “Buddy, the economy is in shambles, the president’s approval rating is in the toilet, the GOP is a damaged brand.  You cannot run a traditional campaign.  You have to take big risks.”  And he certainly did and almost all of them paid off, even if the inevitable happened anyway.


Now, we are learning little bits and pieces of what went wrong for the GOP.  And especially about how badly they were alienated from their evangelical base and needed Sarah Palin to bring it together.


Why Pat Robertson endorsed Rudolph Giuliani?


First, the unexplainable Pat Robertson endorsement of the Mayor.  Turns out to be very simple.  Giuliani and one other early candidate were the only ones who showed any interest in Roberson’s pet Regency University.  When the hated New York Times published a story saying that Robertson would never endorse Giuliani, that sealed it.  It turns out that Mike Huckabee, who recently expressed exasperation at the fickle evangelical religious leaders, who should have coalesced behind his candidacy, could have had the endorsement too.  He just had to fly in and pick it up.


McCain – EST Connection?


What was causing such a drag on the John McCain campaign was more than his caustic remarks of 2000, when he famously lashed out at evangelical leaders as “agents of intolerance.”  It turns out that the Senator’s religious journey may have been more complicated than many first surmised.  And by 2008 rumors were rife that the Senator had once been involved in EST in California, and the concern was that the experience may have influenced his spiritual evolution. 


EST or Erhard Seminars Training were popular in the 1970’s and represented an intensive 60 hour, two weekend course that urged participants to experience a personal transformation.  Laced with elements of Zen Buddhism, Werner Erhard led flamboyant, marathon sessions which became famous for restricting food, talking, writing, bathroom breaks or conversations with friends for 15 hour periods.  Participants were sometimes reduced to urinating and vomiting publicly during the sessions all supposedly worth the humiliation if a participant could arrive at an awareness of “self.”  It is not clear to what degree, if any, that the Senator participated.  But rumors were rife.  And they came from credible and prominent Arizona sources.


In 1991, Cindy McCain joined the North Phoenix Baptist Church, then pastored by Rev. Richard Jackson, a leader of the moderate wing of the Southern Baptists Convention.  A source close to Jackson told me how the pastor “led Mrs. McCain to Christ” and urged her to have her husband join her in a Baptism ceremony but the Senator firmly declined.  The source says that the Senator, baptized an Episcopalian, joined his wife in visiting religious services at the North Phoenix Baptist Church beginning in 1991.  The church is now pastored by the Rev. Dan Yeary, also a leader in the moderate wing of the SBC. 


The McCains have visited other Arizona congregations on special occasions, such as, Fourth of July programs at the First Assemblies of God, pastored by the Rev. Tommy Barnett.


McCain – Dobson standoff


In May, 2008, James Dobson invited Senator McCain to Colorado Springs to be a guest on his radio show.  It was an olive branch from Dobson who had announced earlier in the primary season he would not, in any circumstances, support McCain if he were the eventual GOP nominee. 


But May was not a good month for politicians and preachers.  Senator Barack Obama was still reeling from controversies with his pastor, the Rev. Wright.  So Senator McCain politely turned down Dobson’s invitation.  Later, in June, on a swing through Denver, McCain invited Dobson to meet him there instead.  Dobson demurred.  Neither man budged.


During this period a prominent McCain staffer told me that the Senator privately was saying, “I’ll be damned if go down there,” referring to the pilgrimage to Colorado Springs.


McCain and Dobson eventually met but the estrangement between the Senator’s presidential campaign and the evangelical base was severe. 


In July, 2008, the Associated Press and TIME magazine reported on a private summit of evangelical leaders in Denver.  According to their reports, the evangelical leaders had coalesced behind Republican candidate John McCain.  But in fact, I was at this very private meeting, and there were some very lively exchanges with some of the more savvy leaders warning the evangelicals that they should not give away the store without getting anything in return.


Ken Connor, past president of the Family Research Council, urged attendees at the private meeting not to automatically endorse McCain.  And a former congressman, meeting with leaders afterward, warned that those calling for unconditional, unreciprocated support of McCain were extremely naïve.  Another evangelical congressman said the McCain supporters in Denver had reduced the work of three decades to “amateur night.” 


So the choice of Governor Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate was a stunning and immediate solution to a fissure much deeper than the public or the media guessed.   She was a woman governor, with an 80% approval rating in her home state, and a maverick politician in the McCain mold.  But she was more.  She had been raised in the evangelical Christian tradition and knew all the buttons to push.  The decision sealed the deal and all concerns from conservative Christians faded immediately.


What the McCain campaign had not counted on was the virulent evangelical backlash that attends any public figure from that despised culture.  Momentarily stunned by the Palin choice, the media regrouped, gathered itself and went on the attack.  They may just get another shot at her in 2012.


More later, as it keep unraveling.


Published by Doug Wead

Doug Wead is a New York Times bestselling author whose latest book, Game of Thorns, is about the Trump-Clinton 2016 election. He served as an adviser to two American presidents and was a special assistant to the president in the George H.W. Bush White House.

10 thoughts on “Inside the McCain campaign: what we didn’t know

  1. To those of us who watched Mike Huckabee win virtually all of the legitimate internet polls preceding the Republican Vice Presidency selection, the astonishing choice of Sarah Palin came as just one more indication of the vast right-wing conspiracy against him. No one will ever convince me that there was not a conspiracy of the powerful against him, and no one will ever persuade me that the Republican party is not run by morons. Huckabee was the one man who could have won the election for John McCain, because he is the one man who could have out-debated Obama. As it is, Obama has adopted a good porion of Huckabee’s campaign policy positions.

  2. Uh, Doug, please get your facts straight, Robertson founded REGENT University, not REGENCY, which is a hotel chain.

    Second of all, your post proves one thing … that the evangelicals you represent are as self-centered, selfish, and petty as those “sinners’ they enjoy railing against from the pulpit every Sunday morning. The “what’s in it for us” message when weighing support for McCain was very clear.

    So really, again, it also proves that belief in mythical supernatural beings as means to asset one’s superiority over non-believers is equally self-serving as well as illogical.

    The superior moral choice would have automatically been McCain if you had asked yourself who would have been better for the COUNTRY … McCain or a black radical kook with no experience.

    Fifty five million people thought McCain, so I’m sure evangelicals did as well, despite their huffing and puffing.

    That’s nice that you have inside information, Doug, but the truth of the matter is that some of things you mentioned here were trivialities of concern to a very small minority of voters within the evangelical community.

    The MSM never mentioned a thing about Cindy McCain’s church affiliation, so to whom was this most important?

    Sarah Palin should have been groomed much earlier instead of making her pick seem like a last ditch desperation move, which is what it truly was.

  3. davide7:

    You discredit yourself automatically when you cite the word “conspiracy.”

    You just don’t get how the world works, do? You fail yet again to be able to separate your fantasies from reality.

    The world doesn’t run on your cloying and naive principles. It runs on image and marketing a “brand.” Where the hell have you been?

    America has proven it doesn’t want old white guys for its leaders, plain and simple. The GOP has to start developing younger and fresh talent if it wants to win in the future

    Why can’t you get that through your thick bohunk head?

  4. And please, will someone please explain how one can parse the stupidity of EST and not the stupidity of a religious ceremony where people are holding snakes and speaking in tongues? How is the ritual of dunking heads in the little concrete pool in the basement of a church any less ridiculous than restricting bodily functions for hours on end?

  5. David Black: 2500 years ago in ancient Greece, the legal system evolved around the ability to argue, and the belief arose that whoever was the best arguer wins, because, there is such thing as truth. They were called sophists. Then along came Plato to insist that an abstract truth did exist that was more real than the mere appearance of things.

    This argument has continued for 2500 years. As far as I am concerned, most of the advances in western civilization can be traced to a belief in absolute truth and the scientific principles that have emerged from that presumption, whereas most of the damage that people do to each other each day is rationalized by the denial of truth as an objective absolute. Every person takes sides in this argument and decides whether to believe in something or to believe in nothing. I hope you will find your way to the light.

  6. Is there no one else but me who bases their personal beliefs on direct and meaningful life experience as opposed to what they have read in books?

    I do believe in something … me and my own flesh and blood.

    I believe in my ability to survive and prosper by my own wits without help from strangers.

    Let’s be honest, davide7, your idea of the truth is based on the fact that some old white guy from a hillbilly state says what you want to hear.

    It’s no different than these redneck crackers backing Ron Paul. They have very limited intellects and are predisposed to be being followers, whether it’s before some dumb ass politicians, televangelists, or mythical supernatural beings.

    Freud may have been right when he suggested that too many people look for daddy figures to look after them or take or them in life, no matter if its Barry O., Ron Paul, John McCain, the Tooth Fairy, or Jesus H. Christ.

  7. Well, actually. Evangelicals enjoy exposure to Jewish culture and can enjoy films like Yentl and others that show Jewish life. It shouldn’t be so offensive to have a blog that entertains discussions on Evangelical life and how it affects politics and culture. If 40 percent of Americans are born again Christians then it wouldn’t hurt the public to know a little about them and how they think. Indeed, it is probably unhealthy to be so ignorant of such a large block of the electorate.

  8. Excuse me, but tripe like Yentl was Hollywood’s romanticized idea of Jewish life in Russia.

    The life of Jews in Russia was about persecution, torture, and murder.

    Based on discussion here over the last months, what so-called “evangelicals” know about Jews is pitiful and basically collected from media depictions, not first hand knowledge.

    And unless you are from New York in live in New York, you really wouldn’t know.

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