Richard Reeves

No More Mister Nice Guys

WASHINGTON -- John McCain has shown once again that he was the smartest guy running for president this shortened political year. He had the brains to take a vacation when it was over. Beyond that, he took that vacation about as far away as you can get -- in Bora Bora.

George W. Bush, meanwhile, continued to demonstrate that he is either not the swiftest or is the most defensive guy in the tinier and tinier candidate pool. Never trust a guy who answers questions with "Oh, yeah?", which is what Bush did in his now-famous or infamous New York Times interview "dissing" -- that is, disrespecting -- the fairly vanquished McCain.

The tone of the interview was Texas Testy, with the sore-winning governor of the state answering with lines like: "Who's saying that?"... "Like what? Give me an example." ... "What should I regret?" ... "Well then, how come he didn't win?"

Or he dismissed (or totally missed) the startling impact of the McCain candidacy in questions and answers like:

"Has John McCain elevated your consciousness about reform?" ... "No, he didn't change my views ..."

"Is there anything McCain brought to light for you or changed your opinion in any way?" ... "No, not really ..."

It's amazing to me that at his age Bush does not understand that there is no percentage at all in diminishing people you have actually defeated. All that accomplishes is diminishing the victory itself -- and the victor, too. It's stupid.

Part of the reason that smart candidates -- or candidates interested in their own futures -- go on vacation after a campaign is that they have come to hate their opponents. I have seen a lot of campaigns and known a lot of candidates of all parties, ideologies and dispositions -- and I cannot think of a single one who, no matter how he or she began the campaign, did not end up despising his or her opponent.

That is part of the process; it is part of what enables candidates to get out of bed in the morning to begin their daily rounds of small humiliations. They have to go away with someone they trust, and who still loves them after seeing them in combat, to let the hostility drain away into warm sand and water.

I should add that candidates also, almost invariably, end up hating the press. It is not smart to show that in public, either. The most famous incident of that kind was Richard Nixon's so-called "last press conference" after he was defeated in a race for governor of California in 1962 and lashed out at the press on the morning after. To round off the agony-of-defeat theme -- you gotta blame somebody. A candidate named Dick Tuck, in a California Assembly race, began his concession speech by saying: "The people have spoken, the bastards!"

Now Bush has to grovel before McCain when the senator returns from his South Pacific vacation, which is what he should have been doing these past few days. Whether you like or respect the man or not, many people fell in love with McCain over these past few months. I have been knocked out by the people I know, particularly younger people, who were drawn into politics for the first time by the magic of the man from the Straight Talk Express.

It reminds me most of devotion that attended Eugene McCarthy after his brave, self-centered run for president in 1968. McCarthy, not the easiest man in the world to like, changed American politics for a generation, and McCain may have, too. For better or worse, it is possible that McCain fans, many apathetic before, will be bitter forever. He may not have won, but so far he has left a bigger footprint than either Bush or Al Gore.

Speaking of Gore, who had the wit to be gracious to both McCain and Bill Bradley in claiming his victory, he also revealed a good deal of himself in the campaign. At times, particularly in debate, he appeared as darkly combative as Nixon ever was. This is a tough guy. It is not going to be a nice campaign, this combat between Texas Testy and Nashville Nasty.

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