"There are two John McCains. . . The one I love is a very big man, and he's willing to take on big issues in a big way. Then there's another side of John, he'll admit, that is petty and angry and petulant and small, and that side has overtaken the other one."
"There are fewer people who are willing to stand up and speak truth to power and tell McCain he's being an asshole," says an ex-staffer in McCain's 2008 campaign. "And the chief person who did that is Mark Salter-and if you do that for long enough, you lose your capacity to fight. You're totally exhausted by it."
To a person, ex-advisers and staffers to John McCain describe the same man: Impulsive, emotional, dependent to a fault on the advice of others, but unwilling or unable to resolve infighting, he lets mismanagement corrupt his best intentions, winning elections and congressional victories almost despite himself.
The presidential campaign had magnified these weaknesses, leaving a trail of wounded and disillusioned McCain aides who felt they'd seen the worst of American politics, the heart of McCain's darkness. One former McCain insider says the election left a "cancer on their souls."
The cycle of dysfunction continues even today: In May, McCain's Arizona campaign manager, Shiree Verdone, left over internal disputes with Mark Buse, so irate that she refused for a time to take McCain's phone calls. (Through a spokesperson, she declined to comment.)
For John McCain, being a maverick always meant following different and contradictory scripts, according to his whim and the political realities of the moment. Long dependent on advisers to harness and manage his political energies, McCain has never resolved an inherent contradiction in his brain trust...
But this year, as McCain has been gripped by fear of political mortality, one of the voices in his head is, increasingly, drowning out the other.
"He's angry at Obama, at former staff, at his family life, at his fellow Americans," says a veteran Republican strategist who has worked closely with McCain. "He's angry."
There has been a sense of urgency in this campaign that was absent from his presidential run. McCain told friends early on that he didn't want to "go out like Barry Goldwater," his Arizona predecessor in the Senate, who barely eked out his last reelection bid.
McCain needed to train his ire on someone. And though Hayworth hadn't officially announced he was running, McCain's people agitated for an FEC complaint over Hayworth's alleged abuse of radio airwaves to promote a political run, hoping to intimidate him. Grant Woods, a lawyer and now senior adviser on McCain's campaign, thought it was rash and advised McCain to wait and see if they could privately dissuade Hayworth from running instead.
Some of McCain's friends questioned the advice he was getting from his D.C. advisers, Davis and Black. "He makes emotional decisions," says a GOP strategist who has worked closely with McCain. "If he says, 'I want to do X,' they're like, 'Let's go do X on steroids.' It's exactly what he does not need."
But there was something more than just McCain's pent-up anger at work. Many in Arizona point to another factor: McCain's pent-up money, over $20 million left from his failed presidential bid. That account could be used to fund millions in TV and radio ads in Arizona and, depending on the arrangement, McCain's advisers could also profit.
By setting himself up against Hayworth, McCain was locked into a fight for the tea-party vote-essentially a race to the right, one in which McCain would be hobbled by his past positions. There was intense internal debate among McCain's advisers in the fall of 2009 about whether McCain should even appear at a tea-party rally. McCain's chief of staff, Mark Buse, was terrified of McCain getting booed off the stage and having the image go into cable-TV rotation. Until March, his advisers repeatedly refused to let McCain appear at one.
The most complicated decision McCain had to face involved his own political Frankenstein monster. Until the fall, McCain wasn't sure Sarah Palin, his political creation and now a catalyst for the tea party, was going to be politically advantageous for him. When asked by an adviser to reach out to her last summer, McCain growled that "it's not the right time." And as her book, Going Rogue, was about to launch in November, it looked like it might be too late. When asked by advisers to recruit her in the fight against Hayworth, McCain complained, "She won't even return my calls."
McCain's writings from the seventies admitted to almost no personal change after his release from prison, as he appeared to repress emotional fallout and instead famously flew to Rio a year after his release because you "have a better chance of getting laid," as he once told a fellow POW, later divorcing his wife to marry the wealthy blonde heiress Cindy Lou Hensley. A military psychologist, examining McCain after his five-and-a-half-year imprisonment, concluded that he had a "histrionic pattern of personality adjustment," meaning he needed attention.
Thus began the lurch to the right that has so captivated national media-the ones he used to call "my base"-and horrified the liberals who took McCain as an example of the right kind of conservative. But McCain didn't always like the sound he was hearing. An adviser in Arizona who knows McCain well says, "He doesn't like doing what he's doing." Which, for this person and several I spoke with, makes McCain's transparent pandering all the more confusing: "If ever there was a political environment in which you want to be a maverick, this is it," he says. "Why would he choose this time, with all the dynamics going on in the election, to deny what everyone knows is true? Sometimes he just checks out and you wonder what the hell is going on."
When Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy's old seat and agreed to campaign for McCain in Arizona, McCain could hardly believe he needed a political neophyte from the Northeast to help him draw crowds in his own state, especially one who had declined McCain's invitation to campaign for him in Massachusetts (fearing McCain's Establishment taint). After a rally at Grand Canyon University, McCain was annoyed when Brown tried giving him campaign advice while they drove in a car together. Three nights later, Brown and McCain were scheduled to have dinner, but McCain canceled.
McCain spokesperson Brooke Buchanan, who shadows him everywhere and writes his Twitter feed, would have to temper his rage when he came off as too harsh or bitter. During one event last spring, she told him, "You can't do that, you've got to stop it."
Weekend after weekend, he was driving from town hall to parade to VFW, greeting sparse crowds of 40, 50, 60 people, like he was stumping for his political life. "I didn't work this hard in the presidential race," he told an aide. "I can't believe how hard I'm working."
Ironically, both McCain's opponent and his own supporters agree on one thing: If he wins, he'll probably morph yet again, a lame-duck senator with nothing to lose, tacking left to reclaim his old mantle as a thorn in his party's side. It's what friends like Graham envision for him.
In Worth the Fighting For, McCain's 2002 book, McCain admitted that in the 2000 presidential primary, he'd supported South Carolina's right to fly the Confederate flag against his own belief that it was a symbol of racism. "I didn't want to do this," he says. "But I could tell from the desperate looks of my staff that we had an enormous problem. And that it could come down to lying or losing. I chose lying."