My Life with the Candor Man
Forget straight talk, there was no talk at all from John McCain for this former Arizona Republic reporter.
By Adrianne Flynn
Adrianne Flynn runs the Annapolis bureau of Capital News Service for the University of Maryland College of Journalism.
U.S. SEN. JOHN MCCAIN and I share something very special.
It's certainly not a warm, fuzzy relationship, as you'll see in a moment. And it's probably not even mutual respect, although I confess there's much to admire about the Arizona Republican.
Nope. It's our birthday. His is August 29, 1936. Mine is August 29, 1959. And I credit that happy cosmological coincidence with thawing, however briefly, his frosty relationship with his state's largest newspaper, the Arizona Republic.
I started covering McCain in 1984 as a rookie reporter for Tribune Newspapers, headquartered in Mesa, Arizona. McCain was running for his second congressional term. I had hints of his temper then, but it wasn't until 1986, the year McCain ran for Senate, that I felt the full force of his wrath.
I was helping the paper's senior investigator on a little thing he was working on--the fact that Charles Keating, owner of American Continental Corp. and a thrift called Lincoln Savings and Loan, had bundled contributions from his family and employees and given them to Arizona politicians, including McCain. It took more than a year for the national press to catch up with this story--what became the disgrace of five U.S. senators and the largest thrift bailout in U.S. history.
As I pressed McCain for comment on the evolving story, he exploded. I remember his face: scrunched as a Cabbage Patch doll and as red as a gale-warning flag. I remember my ears ringing with rebuke and the embarrassment I felt.
Don't worry, my editor said, McCain does that a lot. It'll blow over.
We had a few other run-ins while I worked at the Tribune. I once hopped the fence around his driveway in Phoenix to "expose" a secret meeting he was holding with the congressional delegation. This did not make him happy, although he did come out and talk to me.
I helped cover a couple of his campaigns and, despite his mostly tepid competition, those could be some emotional times. I was well aware that he was, by the mid-1980s, Arizona's most powerful politician. That he demanded loyalty. That he liked to bully and intimidate those he felt were not on his side. I hadn't seen anything yet.
By March 1995, I was one of two Washington, D.C., correspondents for my former rival newspaper, the Arizona Republic.
My first day in the bureau I learned that John McCain didn't talk to us---the big US. Every member of the newspaper's staff was persona non grata.
We are talking about no phone calls, no faxes, no press releases--not a single member of his personal or committee staffs would speak to us. And the weirdest thing was, he'd never told the paper he was cutting us off, and he never told us why.
We learned from others that the senator was infuriated by an editorial cartoon drawn by the Republic's Steve Benson that ran August 23, 1994. It showed McCain's wife, Cindy, holding a small child over her head, shaking some pills out of the child's mouth into hers.
In 1994, Cindy McCain entered a drug diversion program after it was revealed that she'd had doctors for her charity medical organization, which worked with children in Third World countries, provide her with pills to feed her drug addiction.
McCain complained to the top ranks of the paper. And then just shut up. My partner in the D.C. bureau, Jeff Barker, and I took the brunt of this silence. We covered his office full time, close up.
One day, shortly after I started, we decided to pay a courtesy call on the senator to tell him that I was around, this being a normal thing for new reporters on a beat to do. We saw McCain striding through a back door into his suite of offices in the Russell Senate Office Building.
We went in the front door and asked for him. We were told he wasn't there. I said, "Hey, wait a minute. We just saw him go in the back door."
They told us he was busy. We laughed like fools, to the embarrassment of the young staffer at the front desk and the people in the waiting room.
McCain would look right through us at press conferences and wouldn't answer our questions. He and his staff would work mightily to give us the slip, and then brag about it afterward. Clearly they weren't supposed to tell us they weren't talking to us. They were just supposed to not talk to us.
It was, in hindsight, kind of fun. We'd get through to then-Press Secretary Deirdre Blackwood and she'd say, sweetly, "Oh! Adrianne! I'm really busy right now. I'll call you back."
She never did.
We savored the stories we wrote about McCain, his programs or legislation, because they were that much harder to get. We gloried in our abilities to stymie his efforts to shut us out. We managed to cover his office and committees throughout the embargo, often with the help of other reporters who sympathized with our plight. While they wouldn't tip us to anything really juicy, they would, at least, let us know when he was having a press conference.
This year, whenever I'd read another story of McCain's supposed candor on his campaign bus, the "Straight Talk Express," I'd laugh out loud.
So what about this shared birthday business? In August 1995, I sent McCain a birthday card. I used to make it a practice to send my members of Congress (or the legislature or county government) birthday cards. I tried very hard to make these fit their personalities without going beyond the bounds of good taste.
Sometimes this was hard.
McCain's was a very tasteful one--a gilded antique map of the world, I think--with a simple "Happy Birthday" message. I wrote inside that it was my birthday, too. And that I had covered him for the Mesa Tribune and was happy to be covering him again for the Arizona Republic.
About a month or so later, I called Blackwood for comment on a story, rolling my eyes as I did so, sure of what her response would be.
She took my call. What's more, she answered my questions.
Suddenly, we were visible again. Relations were not exactly warm, but the thermometer had risen above 32 degrees.
But McCain reverted to the old tactics when we asked questions he didn't like. For example, I called him up about his bullying a military officer and throwing his weight around to arrange military transport for a tourist group from Arizona to visit the USS Phoenix in Florida. He screamed at me over the phone that "no reputable journalist" would run a story like that, and that clearly I was no reputable journalist. The story never ran, though not for lack of proof or because of intimidation. The editors thought it wasn't a big enough deal.
And, now that I'm gone--I left the Washington bureau in late 1998--the Republic's relations with McCain have once again chilled.
Arizona Republic stories the senator views as negative have piled up, and I think he sees them as part of a pattern of attacks against him by the paper. But probably the greatest blow to relations came in early February when the paper ran a bizarre story about the murder of a former Phoenix sportswriter.
The writer had been peddling a tale about a purported affair between McCain and actress Connie Stevens, one the Republic investigated and said it found no evidence to support. Yet the paper ran a story about its pursuit of the rumor anyway--describing it as a "search for the truth"--and capping it with a picture of the senator and actress together taken by the tabloid newspaper Star at a party for Milton Berle.
Even though he had nothing to do with the Connie Stevens story, Barker reports he was excluded from the Straight Talk Express. And McCain's presidential campaign staff was not exactly helpful to the paper.
Regardless, I still like to credit myself and my lucky birthday with bringing about the temporary truce between McCain and the Republic.
But it takes an analytical Virgo to know one. Late 1995 was just about the time McCain was gearing up to push the presidential candidacy of his friend, Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican. McCain's tireless stumping on his behalf, and later on behalf of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, was all part of the strategy that raised his profile for his unsuccessful White House run this year.
So it may have been politics that softened up McCain. But it's just as likely it was that birthday card.