I moved to Tucson seven years ago and I have voted for and supported Senator John McCain since I became an Arizona resident. I got to hear and talk with McCain this week for the fourth time. Three of those meetings have been here in Aspen which should tell you something right off the bat about why so many Arizona residents aren't so fond of him. I've only heard him in Tucson once.
Presidential candidate McCain was here at the Aspen Institute to address a crowd of about 1,000 people. It was a mcuh older, whiter, cleaner-cut crowd than we normally see in Aspen. They wore a lot of outfits decked with flags and McCain stickers with red, white and blue definitely the colors of the day. I didn't think there were that many Republicans in Aspen but I learn new things every day here.
During the last month, the national news coverage has focused on McCain's apparent confusion over a number of pretty important facts and the sharp negative tone his campaign has taken since Karl Rove-trained Steve Schmidt took over the campaign several weeks ago.
I noted that the front rows of the venue were filled with GOP stalwarts such as Jack Kemp, Senators John Thune and Lindsay Graham, and McCain economic advisor Phil Gramm who is apparently back after being chased out of the campaign a few weeks ago for calling the American people "whiners" for complaining about the economy.
I settled in and waiting for McCain to embarrass himself by stumbling and spreading more lies about Barack Obama. But it didn't happen.
He was questioned by Aspen Institute Chairman Walter Isaacson for almost an hour and McCain was very impressive. He was funny, articulate, presidential and seemed reasonably well informed. He explained his views on Iraq, the economy, the situation in Russia and Georgia, and our energy challenges with clarity and focus.
He also didn't mention Barack Obama's name once.
During the audience question period I told him that I was proud to have voted for him as my senator because I admired his courage and maverick positions. I also said that I respected the way that he and his family had responded to the vicious personal attacks they endured from the Rove slime masters during the 2000 Republican primary. Since Aspen is so intimate, I got to throw a glance at Schmidt, Rick Davis, and Charlie Black in the front row as I said it. I LOVE this place.
"That is why," I said, "I am so disappointed that you have flipped on most of those courageous positions during this campaign and that you have hired the very people who smeared you so badly in South Carolina eight years ago to run your campaign right now."
"After you and your wife stated publicly that you would run a clean campaign focused on the issues all you ads and statements lately have been attacks on your opponent filled with lies and innuendo. During a three day period, you called Senator Obama a traitor who would rather lose the Iraq win that lose the election, you accused him of blowing off the troops in Germany because reporters couldn't come with him on the visit while every reporter on the trip said that was a lie, and you accused him of being a hypocrite when he wrote a beautiful message at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. What has happened to the man I admired so much over the years?"
It was the last issue that bothers and confuses me the most. McCain and his family were devastated during the 2000 Republican primary in South Carolina when the Rove-led Bush attack machine conducted a phone and email smear campaign to spread the false rumor that McCain had fathered a black baby. The truth is that the McCains had actually adopted a child from Bangladesh. After that, McCain reportedly didn't speak to Bush or Rove for years.
Then, as is the custom at the Aspen Institute, I sat down. String questions or debates from the audience are not allowed. But I didn't stay seated for long.
"Please give that man the microphone back," said McCain. "Sir," he said as he pointed at me. "Get back up." I was in the sixth row and could see the veins on his neck starting to bulge.
"You have accused me of changing my views on positions. Be specific."
I then pointed out his flip on the issue of cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans while we were engaged in a war that we weren't paying for. McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 but now he supports them. I also pointed out that he called the late Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and others on the Religious Right "agents of intolerance" several years ago but now he seems to be pandering to those same people in his effort to secure his base.
He claimed I had the facts all wrong to great applause from the McCain Fan Club that surrounded me. He never addressed the issue of why he had turned to the GOP slime machine to run his campaign after being so critical of their tactics eight years ago and going out of his way to promise a positive, issues oriented campaign just months ago.
"I believe in a big Republican tent with room for everybody," was the closest he came to a response. I didn't think he really answered my questions but the crowd loved went wild. They loved his spunk and the way he took me on.
So I had my fifteen minutes of fame with John McCain. The McCain-Gellman exchange was noted by BOTH Aspen daily papers.
But I actually came away far more impressed with his ability to address the issues of the day clearly and effectively than I thought I would. He seemed totally confident and on top of his game throughout the session--even as he artfully dodged my questions.
"He was really impressive today. Why doesn't he do that all the time?" I asked one of the many Republican campaign operatives around me--one of whom had previously promised that McCain campaign would be "Swift Boat times five." None of them had a respnse.
I don't plan to vote for McCain for president. It's not because I don't like him or his policies that much. It's because I believe the current leadership of the Republican Party did more to ruin our country in every way over the last eight years than any group in my lifetime. I have voted for and actively supported many Republicans in the past--including McCain--and I'm sure I will again. I just believe right now they need to be delivered a strong message that they need to change with a landslide loss in November. Hopefully they will regroup under new leadership.
But if John McCain were to ask me for my advice, I would tell him to be himself and not let the "experts" bring him down as they did during the last year. A year ago, McCain was a big favorite to win the Republican nomination. People loved him and his maverick tendencies. Then he started listening to his handlers and tried to pander to the Republican base. He proceeded to fall so far behind in the primary race at that point that he almost had to drop out.
By ignoring those experts and following his instincts, he won in New Hampshire and never looked back. He had become John McCain again.
But then he panicked during Obama's whirlwind trip to Europe and the Middle East and brought in hatchet man Schmidt to run his campaign. Suddenly McCain became an attack dog and abandoned the moral high road that he and Cindy had pledged to follow.
He has won some early points with that approach but being negative and spreading lies about his opponent is not his style and he doesn't look very good doing it.
John, I'm sure you won't ask me for my advice. But if you did I would tell you to go back to being yourself and give the American people the debates on the issues and the high road campaign that you yourself said they wanted and deserved.
Not only is the right thing to do, I think you're pretty good at it and you might even win in November.