He had left Blair House early that morning to go to church, two churches in fact, Grace Reformed at 15th and O and then New York Avenue Presbyterian near 13th Street. The reporters doing live TV were still trying to figure it out—“I didn’t know McCain was particularly religious, Chris”—when a member of the new White House staff called and helped them out: One was the church of Teddy Roosevelt, and the other was the church of Abraham Lincoln. Two of McCain’s heroes. He had others: Thomas Moore, Lord Nelson, Joan of Arc, Julius Caesar, Colin Powell (his new secretary of State), Charles Darwin (how the creationists had howled about that one), Ted Williams, Mother Antonia, and Aung San Suu Kyi.
But this morning he wanted to feel close to the spirits of those two great men, two great presidents, two great Republicans, who represented two great ironies: The one who hated war had led his nation through its most terrible conflict, and the one who loved war a bit too much had served only in peace. McCain did not want to think about the ironies he might face.
He left Lincoln’s church in the chill morning air. The homeless people who lived in the little park in front of the church had been hustled away, and McCain made a mental note to make sure they would be let back in. He looked at the armored limousine idling at the curb, clouds of exhaust billowing from it, and the other 17 cars in the motorcade and then asked his wife, Cindy, if she would like to walk back. She nodded and took his arm, and they started down New York Avenue, the Secret Service scrambling to set up a new security perimeter. There was no real risk. The streets were empty except for law-enforcement officers and uniformed military. Passing Lafayette Square, McCain barely glanced at the mobile Patriot-missile launchers that now flanked the statue of Andrew Jackson. Ever since 10/31, nobody was taking any chances.
A Secret Service agent had seen his lips move and hurried up to him. “Sir,” he said, “do you need anything?”
“No,” McCain said. Yes, he thought. A cigarette.
Mark Salter, his chief of staff, was waiting for him outside Blair House, a sheaf of papers in his hand. They were handwritten notes from the Democratic leaders who still controlled the Congress and who had spent a good part of the last year denouncing McCain as a dangerous warmonger who was sure to imperil the peace of the planet. Now their notes were effusive in their congratulations and their desire to work with him, praising his wisdom and deep sense of patriotism. “If hypocrisy were gold,” McCain whispered to Salter, “the Capitol would be Fort Knox.”
He didn’t really care what they had called him. In his life, had been called just about everything from a war criminal to a Keating Five crook. It did not matter. Few men looked forward as relentlessly as John McCain. It was what drove him. Besides, who cared what anybody had called him yesterday? In a few hours, they would call him Mr. President.
After his loss to George W. Bush in the Republican primaries of 2000, his staff had packed him off to Bora Bora for a vacation, thinking it would be a welcome relief from the rigors of campaigning. McCain hated every minute of it. He had gone from the nonstop adrenaline of the campaign to . . . nothing. “It was great, and then it just stopped,” McCain said.
When he had won his first Senate primary in 1986, the first call he made was to John Tower, his political mentor. Tower shared some advice with him, the same advice Tower’s father had given him when he won his first race: “Son, don’t let your shirttail hit you in the ass. Keep running.”
McCain liked that advice. And knew he would run again because he had faced that terrible dread that kept many from ever running: the humiliation of defeat. “I’m not going to be driven by a fear of losing,” McCain told his staff. “I’m going to have fun.”
It had started out that way. The Straight Talk Express 2.0 (which in an hour would be driven to the Smithsonian Institution and placed on exhibit) blasted through the countryside, crammed with reporters. Once again, McCain kept his staff far and reporters close. Part of it was tactical—when you give reporters the access they want, it is hard for them to hate you—and part of it was just McCain. He enjoyed the give and take, the challenge of answering question after question. The campaign was going to be about authenticity, John Weaver, his political guru, had said. And you couldn’t establish authenticity by hiding behind staff and rope lines. McCain answered questions until reporters could think of no more and lapsed into what became known as the Lightning Round.
Favorite word, a reporter asked him.
“Principle,” McCain replied.
Favorite dead hero.
Favorite living hero, nonsports.
“Colin Powell, served his country, a wonderful man.”