|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
He began this mid-October day in Sioux City, appearing at a fund-raising Siouxland Breakfast for Representative Steve King, an immigration hard-liner. Recently he had called McCain an "amnesty mercenary" for daring to work with Senator Ted Kennedy on a compromise bill that would provide an eventual path to citizenship for the millions of immigrant workers already in the United States illegally. A day earlier, in Milwaukee, in front of an audience of more sympathetic businessmen, McCain had been asked how debate over the immigration bill was playing politically. "In the short term, it probably galvanizes our base," he said. "In the long term, if you alienate the Hispanics, you'll pay a heavy price." Then he added, unable to help himself, "By the way, I think the fence is least effective. But I'll build the goddamned fence if they want it."
"I'm willing to negotiate anything," McCain tells the breakfast crowd in Sioux City, explaining that there is no way the millions of illegal aliens now here can be sent back to their countries of origin. But he acknowledges that anything seen as amnesty for illegals is "totally unacceptable, particularly to our Republican base."
The battle between Bush and McCain in 2000 was bitter, with Bush supporters in South Carolina spreading rumors that McCain was insane and that he had fathered a black child....When I asked McCain how a rapprochement with Bush could ever have been achieved, he began by saying, "For 10 days I wallowed," then made it clear that the best balm was his realization that the campaign had raised his stature. "We came out of the campaign, even though losing, enhanced nationally, with a lot of opportunities in the Senate legislatively, with more influence, and eventually, if necessary, to be able to go at it again."
"The Iraq situation looks like we're in a quagmire," one man in Milwaukee says. Another adds, "It seems to be tipping." A third asks, "What should the president be doing differently?"
McCain is subdued. Like the rest of official Washington, he has been waiting for the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan commission on Iraq led by former secretary of state James Baker and former representative Lee Hamilton. He hopes the commission will point the way to some promising new direction, and he knows that, whatever the wise men say, he must refine his own approach to the war. But his remarks this morning are uninspired, even vapid. "The next few months will be critical," he tells the businessmen, his critical faculties not as acute as they had been with me just a month earlier, in private, when he said, "A lot of people tell me that the next four months or so are critical … but I'd like to say that, two years ago, everyone said the next six months would be critical."
Finally, a questioner lays it all on the line: "The war's the big issue," he says, adding, "Some kind of disengagement—it's going to have to happen. It's a big issue for you, for our party, in 24 months. It's not that long a time." McCain replies, "I do believe this issue isn't going to be around in 2008. I think it's going to either tip into civil war … " He breaks off, as if not wanting to rehearse the handful of other unattractive possibilities. "Listen," he says, "I believe in prayer. I pray every night." And that's where he leaves his discussion of the war this morning: at the kneeling rail.
On the way to our next stop, McCain tells me, "It's just so hard for me to contemplate failure that I can't make the next step." And that afternoon, at a roundtable with more Republicans in Appleton, McCain gets testy with a woman who says that her grandson and granddaughter have served in Iraq and that things there are going better than the American media say.
"The situation is not improving," McCain says shortly. "There's no biased reporting in the number of casualties."
A week after the November elections, I went to have another conversation with McCain, in his Senate office. I pressed him on the war. He maintained that deploying more American troops was "the only viable option," but added, "There are no good options from where we are today." He went on: "My difference with these people who are saying, 'Threaten the Iraqis with leaving and then they'll do more'—that assumes that they can or will do more. And there's no way that you're going to have any kind of stability without security. Political progress cannot take place unless you have the fundamental elements of a security situation. So, do I know it would be a tremendous strain on the army and Marine Corps? Absolutely. But I saw the kind of impact of a broken army, a defeated army and Marine Corps, after Vietnam. And I'd much rather have 'em take a strain and have some success than be defeated."