First of all, neither Time nor McCain paid my way to Sedona or for my stay while I was there. As I answered in a thread earlier, I put the whole thing on my personal card — though, to be totally transparent, I will likely be expensing or writing off specific items as they relate to actual stories. I don’t know what arrangements other reporters made.
Mind-numbing details culled in the interest of transparency follow. (Seriously, folks, if you start asking reporters to write about every social event where they speak to politicians, well, I think we’ll fill all the tubes on the internet… But I understand this is a special, specific case.)
I’d been avoiding posting on this because I know that a certain segment of our readership will use it as an opportunity to decry coziness, McCain personally, me personally, the MSM generally or maybe even barbecue for that matter. (I assume some of you have already prepared such posts in case I did comment. Go for it, James and Stuart. Last one up is a rotten troll!)
I’ll spare you a write-up of the event because most of those that did write pieces covered it as if they all got the same pool report, hitting all the same items that offered themselves up as vaguely interesting to the public. There just wasn’t a lot happening that was worth reporting (more on why that was in a sec). What we were left with (and this stuff is hardly news itself, obviously):
he wore a twee sweatshirt (it didn’t actually say “World’s Greatest Grandad,” it might as well have)
he grilled ribs and chicken; the ribs were very tasty, the chicken notsomuch
he gave a tour during which he pointed things out while still carrying his BBQ tongs
there are 67 varieties of birds on the property
the house whose porch he grilled on is decorated in pretty stereotypical “Southwestern” style*
the recipe for the grilling rub he used is 1/3 each of salt, pepper, and garlic salt; grill the ribs bone down and baste liberally with lemon juice throughout (he repeated this “secret” recipe to anyone that would listen; I think it’s so public by now Al Qaeda is thinking of trying it out.)
there’s a creek
there’s a black hawk nest and once he watched a mama hawk teach a baby hawk to fly; he was moved
Two pieces actually had relatively unique takes. Holly Bailey over at Newsweek has a straightforward but very lively account (she includes the humorous doormat that others shied away from); Libby Copeland put the whole thing in context of other presidential retreats and the flakiness of New Age Sedona.
It was on-the-record, but staffers discouraged anything but “socializing.” (And they supposedly banned “pictures for publication,” which I tried to litigate because if Meghan McCain can post them, why can’t we? Same subject, same event… Oh well. Her pictures are good.) A few of us tried to sneak in political questions but he would sort of laugh them off or just say, “I’m not doing interviews today.” I managed to engage with him about Iraq for a couple of minutes; I told him I had finally picked up Fiasco (which he is constantly recommending). A rough recreation of the dialog:
McCain: Great book, great book. [He continues flipping ribs.]
Me: I was surprised by how well it’s written.
McCain: Yeah, it’s really… it’s not dense, like some others. It’s like a mystery… [He continues flipping ribs.]
Me: It reminds me of a spy novel…
McCain: That’s it. [He continues flipping ribs.]
Me: Like, where you have the author foreshadowing just how big a disaster is on the way and you sort of want to shout, “Don’t go up the stairs!” or whatever. Because you know what’s coming.
McCain: Yep. [He continues flipping ribs.]
Me: It’s interesting how much he relies on military sources, though of course they’re the ones who saw it coming.
McCain: Uh-huh. [He continues flipping ribs.]
I started to get the sense I wasn’t going to get much out of him. (I’m quick that way.) This in itself is sort of newsworthy because Iraq is the one area where he usually talks more than he should (see, “100 years, staying” — relive that beautiful moment here). But he can be stubborn as well and I think he had just decided he wasn’t gonna do politics that day. I’m sort of surprised I got as much as I did. The gist of the book is not especially flattering to anyone who gave approval to the invasion as it was proposed and carried out. Anyway, wrapping up, I asked:
Me: What else on Iraq would you recommend?
McCain: [Finally turning to me, leans on a table and pauses.] Let’s see… there’s Cobra Two, of course… but that’s a bit dense… a bit dry. Frankly, once you’ve read Fiasco you’re going to be pretty up speed.
Me: Can I have another rib?
I didn’t try asking about anything else “serious.” Those of you who think the press fell down on the job in not using that time to query him, well… the guy holds about five hours of press conferences a day when he’s on the trail. A lot of questions get asked. In fact, at the press conference he held the very next day, he was asked about the Boeing deal, Hagee, and his own “red-phone” moments. (He didn’t respond any differently than he has in the past, except on the red-phone q, which — tooting own horn — was mine.) Maybe we missed the ones you want asked; in which case you should keep agitating the people who have the access and responsibility to ask questions on behalf of the public (though I — we all, I think — would appreciate if you agitate while also showing some humor and basic manners). You might also start a blog and then try to get the campaign to let you on the bus. They’ve done it before. (Though I’m sure it’s harder now than it was last fall.)
On the larger issue of the relationship of McCain and the press. Well, it’s a worthy topic and more complicated than I thought it would be when I started covering him. You could, as they say, write a book on it.
And the post is long enough to be one. Back to the Dems! (Hmmm, maybe all of this writing means I can expense the whole trip now… Kidding.)
*It’s not actually “his” house, though of course they own it. Their personal bedroom and whatnot are in a newer home about 100 yards away. We did not get a tour of that.