McCain’s testy exchange with New York Times correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller was particularly striking because it goes against the grain of McCain’s normally cozy approach to the press. When he invited more than 40 journalists to join him at his Arizona ranch last weekend, the dominant storyline that emerged was how expertly McCain handles himself around a grill.
Reporters who actually live in Arizona, however, say the tense back-and-forth with Bumiller is much closer to the John McCain they know — a sometimes pugnacious politician whose media strategy is a far cry from joking asides and backslaps around the barbecue pit.
The state's dominant newspaper, the Arizona Republic, warmly endorsed McCain’s presidential bid this year and editors describe current relations with the senator as positive. But in interviews with Politico, several former Republic reporters and editors said that the chummy relationship between McCain and the national press hasn’t always been the case back home.
In late 2002, Ward Bushee arrived at the Republic as editor and had to deal early on with the fact that the newspaper was not getting much access to McCain, despite his reputation in Washington as one of the most accessible politicians roaming the Capitol.
“As his hometown newspaper, we had no line of communication, and we were not competitive,” said Bushee, who recently left the paper to become editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Reporters trace the first major spat between McCain and the Republic to 1989, when McCain was embroiled in the Keating Five scandal.
“We saw it evaporate before our eyes,” reporter Andy Hall, now at the Wisconsin State Journal, said of what had once been a “cordial relationship” with McCain.
Hall was working on the Republic’s investigative team, which raised questions about McCain’s undisclosed involvement with savings and loan kingpin Charles Keating. The reporting included details of an investment by McCain’s wife, Cindy, with Keating in a shopping center as well as family trips to the Bahamas aboard the banker’s private jet. Those trips initially were not reimbursed.
McCain yelled on the phone and called members of the investigative team reckless, Hall said. In one “highly emotional” incident, Hall said, McCain dubbed it the most difficult moment of his life. When Hall brought up his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, McCain said, according to Hall: “Even the Vietnamese didn’t question my ethics.”
In his 2002 memoir, “Worth the Fighting For,” McCain acknowledged “ridiculously immature behavior” in his dealing with Hall and colleague Jerry Kammer, whom the senator had called liars. By questioning McCain’s ethics over ties to Keating, the reporters “provoked me to rage,” he wrote.
McCain campaign aides referred requests for comment on his relationship with the Republic in the 1990s to his Senate press office, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment by phone and e-mail.
By 1994, tensions became more strained following the Phoenix-based newspaper’s reporting on Cindy McCain’s addiction to painkillers and her procurement of drugs from a charity she was running — the subject of a particularly harsh editorial cartoon.
In the next few years, with the relationship between McCain and the Republic badly fractured, the romance between McCain and the national press began to bloom, beginning with a flurry of flattering profiles in agenda-setting publications like The New Yorker and The New Republic.
Amy Silverman, managing editor of Phoenix New Times, an alternative weekly, had been one of McCain’s most persistent critics in the late 1990s and during his first presidential run in 2000. She documeted the national press phenomenon in a prescient 1997 piece, “The Pampered Politician.”
“Is it outlandish to believe that sophisticated — gasp, liberal — Washington, D.C., reporters would ignore Republican Senator McCain's well-documented ignoble record in and out of office?” Silverman wrote.
Meanwhile, McCain’s relationship with local journalists worsened. The Republic, which had previously backed McCain in his congressional elections, published an editorial in October 1999 that questioned his fitness for the Oval Office. McCain called it further evidence that the paper had a “vendetta” against him.
"If McCain is truly a serious contender for the presidency, it is time the rest of the nation learned about the John McCain we know in Arizona,” the editorial stated. “There is also reason to seriously question whether he has the temperament and the political approach and skills we want in the next president of the United States."
Not long after, during the 2000 primary campaign, Republic reporter Kristin Mayes was removed from McCain’s Straight Talk Express campaign bus — according to two former Republic staffers — at a time when political reporters at East Coast papers and magazines couldn’t get enough of the rambling road trip through New Hampshire and South Carolina.
When asked about Mayes, John Weaver, a McCain aide at the time who often dealt with Republic reporters, described her in an e-mail as “a fine reporter and person” who just “happened to be only a victim of the poor management of the Arizona Republic at that time.”
Mayes, now the commissioner of the Arizona Corporation Commission, a potential Republican candidate for Congress this fall and a McCain backer, declined to comment.
The bizarre slaying of Ron Bianchi, a controversial Arizonan and one-time Phoenix Gazette columnist, ignited another battle in February 2000.
A year earlier, Bianchi alleged to the Republic’s publisher and managing editor that McCain had an affair with singer Connie Stevens, a friend and supporter. Although the Republic investigated the matter in 1999, and again after Bianchi's death — and found no evidence whatsoever — the paper raised Bianchi’s claim in its 6,800-word account of the writer’s murky life and death. McCain staffers were outraged — as were a number of media critics with no ties to the senator.
Covering the preliminary stages of McCain’s second run for president was equally tense at the Republic.
In August 2006, reporter Billy House wrote that McCain’s temper might once again become an issue if he sought the White House again. To House, given the focus on McCain’s temper in the 2000 race and the fact that the senator raised the issue himself in his 2002 memoir, the topic seemed fair game.
But the McCain camp didn’t see it that way. Shortly after House’s story was published, Weaver told House he was “off the bus,” according to then-Republic national editor Tina May. (By e-mail, Weaver told Politico he remembered “having a strong discussion with Billy back then, but there was nothing to kick him off of.”) House declined to comment.
“I think that’s a perfect example of how McCain people treated the Republic differently than the national media,” May told Politico by phone. She’s now the editor of the Monterey County Weekly in California and recently made clear her opinion about McCain in a column headlined: “The McCain I Know: Why he never should be elected president.”
May claims the 2006 incident led to her reassignment to the business desk and House's being steered away from covering McCain as a candidate. House is now at the Tampa Tribune.
Bushee says that’s not correct.
“I will say that we received complaints from staff members of all canidates from time to time, which is quite common,” Bushee wrote. “But we would never allow a complaint from a staff member to dictate ... who covers an officeholder. Weaver was not calling any shots.”
Republic editors as well as McCain aides contend that tensions between the paper and senator have eased.
McCain spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker described the senator’s current relationship with the Republic as “a productive, solid relationship.”
“We are in the process of ramping up our team as we move out of the primary phase and into the general election,” said Republic editor Randy Lovely. He added that more reporters will be assigned to cover McCain through November.
“We want to cover [the campaign] more thoroughly and aggressively than anyone else,” Lovely said. Dan Nowicki, who replaced House on the McCain beat for the paper, declined to comment.
In a Republican debate Jan. 30, McCain boasted to then-rival Mitt Romney that he had won the support of not only Romney’s hometown papers, the Boston Globe and Herald, but that he would “guarantee you the Arizona Republic will be endorsing me, my friend.”
And the editorial board did provide such a glowing endorsement this time around.
“Anyone surprised to learn that the Arizona Republic judges U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona the best Republican choice for president in 2008 simply hasn't been paying attention,” it began.
David Corn, Washington bureau chief at Mother Jones, recently noted the stark contrast between the 1999 and 2008 editorials.
“What a difference two election cycles make,” wrote Corn. “The endorsement says nothing about McCain's ‘volcanic temper’ and worrisome temperament. It seems the Republic has made its peace with McCain — especially since he became a front-runner.”