"Dirty Sexy Politics," written by Meghan McCain, daughter of former Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona, goes behind the scenes on the campaign trail and in the spotlight to discuss why she thinks the Republican Party has veered from its roots.
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Freedom is addictive. Once you've tasted it, you will hunt for it again and again. And our passion for freedom brings us together more than it pulls us apart. We have fought to remove obstacles in the way of it -- we have battled and died, picketed, paraded, rallied, and staked everything we've had on it. We founded our country with our desire for freedom and it continues to drive our nation's energy and progress.
I was raised in a house that was open to new ideas, new people, and open to our differences. We had rules about how to treat others, rules about being honest and respectful. We had rules about tolerance. But they weren't rules that were supposed to brainwash us and turn us into mini Cindy and John McCains. My brothers and sister and I were raised with a taste of freedom. My parents believed in us – believed in the people we were and the people we would become.
Would they really want me to have tattoos, swear on TV, or even write this book? Uhmmm. Maybe not. And that's the point. I am not a social or physical extension of my mom and dad -- except that I represent their great hope that freedom, and room to grow, is how individuals find themselves and create their own lives. Under that big, wide open sky of Arizona, where I grew up, there seemed to be room for everybody.
Honesty is a quality of freedom – and is addictive and exhilarating in the same way. By being honest about yourself, you are asking for room and space. You are making a declaration of your humanity and independence. If we are honest with ourselves and about ourselves, suddenly everybody has a little more room to be free. We are more trustworthy if we are honest, too. If we are open, we aren't hiding anything.
"There are no secrets" is my personal motto. I feel that hiding is a waste of time and energy. Everybody will figure out what kind of human being you really are. So I like to save people the trouble and just lay it out there. What you see is what you get. But I do respect the fact that some people are more private by nature than I am.
Which is why, after writing a draft of this book, I took a step back and considered whether I had been too honest. Maybe I was making a mistake to share so many of the intimate details as I watched my dad run for president. Suddenly, it seemed scary to open the windows and let everybody see a snapshot of my life at a time when I was young, impressionable, and feeling a bit frantic. But the children of politicians have a surreal life and it was time somebody started talking about it.
Did I change any names to protect the innocent? Normally I don't like this kind of thing. But ultimately, I decided to protect the identities of a few campaign staffers and members of the media about whom I had bad things to say. I did not give my parents carte blanche to make changes, nor did my father's senate office have a look at the manuscript before it was published. So if you have a problem with the contents of this book, hold only me responsible.
In a few instances, nicknames are used. This is meant as a goodwill gesture. I am a work in progress – and embarrassed myself many times during the seventeen months that I was on the road with the campaign. I thought it would be only fair to give a few people the break I would hope they would give me.
Did I make stuff up? No. Apparently there is a long-standing tradition of making things up in a memoir so your life seems worse and better than it really was. I get it. There's a need for drama and good plot twists. But in the case of this book, I didn't make things up. As for plot twists, the whole world knows how this book ends already. My dad loses.
If events seem altered, it isn't intentional. It is how I remembered things. I checked dates and facts, and corroborated my accounts with friends and family, but my stories are decidedly impressionistic rather than reportorial. This is how I remember my time on my father's campaign.
Another thing this book doesn't do intentionally: score settling. Lots of political memoirs are written with an axe to grind. The embittered writer comes off like the wisest or folksiest person around and, if the world had just listened to her, everything would have been fantastic. Well, I really hope that this book isn't like that.
I am not a politician trying to drum up support. I have no plans to ever run for office. My hope is to present a unique account of history without compromising it with attempts to make myself look really good. I turned twenty-three and twenty-four while on the road campaigning and, as you will see, my age and inexperience showed.
I don't have a secret agenda, in other words, aside from wanting to be honest, entertaining, and also insightful about a particularly interesting election in our nation's history. My hope is that this book will encourage readers to become involved in the democratic process – and look at politics in a new way. If I'm totally honest with myself, the only score that I may be trying to settle is one with the Republican Party, which seems to have lost its way in the last ten years.
I realize that it is ironic that this book tells the story of my own struggle to get my act together. But it is one of the bizarre realities of life that you can be a mess yourself but still see so clearly what is wrong with others.
I used to joke that I am hooked on "taking the red pill," a reference to the science fiction movie The Matrix in which the main character, Neo, is "taking the red pill" and choosing to face the reality of the Matrix – rather than "taking the blue pill" and wanting to believe in a lie. When I meet somebody new, I will sometimes say, "He's taking the blue pill." This means he is living in a dream world.
Here's my dream: The political party that identifies with the color red should start taking pills of the same color.
Honesty. Individualism. Freedom. Back in the day, these concepts were the bedrock of the Republican Party. It wasn't that long ago, either. I am old enough to remember Barry Goldwater, the late senator from Arizona. He was a great conservative visionary, a man of great charm and a playful spirit. As a little girl, I remember goofing around with him. Once, when he and I were having our picture taken together, I stuck my tongue out at him. Without a moment's pause, Senator Goldwater stuck out his tongue at me right back.
Like my dad, Barry Goldwater had an independent spirit. He was a natural leader and natural politician. And even though he ran for president and lost, the principles that he stood for endured and inspired a generation of conservatives who followed him. He believed passionately in freedom and protecting the rights of the individual -- ideas that later became fundamental to Ronald Reagan twenty years later, and would lead to his success. Goldwater's lifelong crusade against groupthink and the expansion of federal government continue to be relevant today, as we wonder where the Obama bailouts and big programs will take us and our country.
I love the ideas of Barry Goldwater, and what he left behind. Yes, his vision was anti-big government, but even more than that, it was pro-people and pro-freedom. He believed in making room and space for individuals to live their own lives, and create relationships and families and businesses with as little interference from others as possible.
It was about removing fences, not building them. It was about tolerance. It was about appreciating differences and new ideas. He was called, "Mr. Conservative," and in Goldwater's dream for America, and the one he fought for his entire life, there was room for everybody to flourish.
These days, the name Ronald Reagan – as well as his legacy – has become oversaturated, just white noise. Conservatives love to evoke him, using him as an example of whatever brand of politics they happen to be selling. But what they seem to have forgotten is that moderates and Democrats elected Ronald Reagan, not the far right. The ideas that he stood for -- freedom, the individual, and self-reliance – appealed to a broad political spectrum. He believed that it was our independent spirit and our differences that made this country great.
I have to wonder, if he and Goldwater were alive today and could see where their party has gone in the last decade, what they would think. Somehow the walls closed in. The conservative movement seems hell-bent on constricting our freedoms rather than expanding them. The base has moved to the Far Right and sadly, it seems to be dying there.
Rather than the party of openness and individual freedom, it is now the party of limited message and less freedom. Along with an ideological narrowness, an important PR battle is being lost. Rather than leading us into the exhilarating fresh air of liberty, a chorus of voices on the radical right is taking us to a place of intolerance and anger. We hear them on the radio and TV. They love to spread fear because it keeps the money rolling in. You know who I'm talking about. The more afraid we are, the richer they get.
If they have their way, we will be scared all the time, particularly of ideas that seem new, or foreign, or different, even if they are great ideas, even if they are in support of freedom.
Rather than being the party of limitless freedom and rejection of groupthink, they want the Republican Party to become a private club. Not everybody is allowed in, or invited. If you don't hold the accepted attitudes, you don't fit in. You are called a RINO, or "Republican in Name Only."
That's what they call me, in fact -- as if I haven't earned the right to be included in the party.
If not me, who?
Would Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan be RINOs too?
Somehow, being a Republican isn't a political decision anymore. It is a lifestyle choice. You have to look one way, think one way, and act one way. Wear the uniform! Embrace groupthink! And for goodness' sake, no strangers allowed! Somehow it is wrong to consider modern life and the complications and innovations and changes the last thirty years have brought. The doors and windows aren't just shut. The curtains are drawn.
Let's open the windows! I don't like private clubs or secrets or living in a bubble world. Let's honor our differences, and different lifestyles, even celebrate them. With this book, I hope to bring some fresh air into the room, maybe knock down a few walls. I wouldn't mind crash through the ceiling, too. Let the sky open up, and freedom ring. Hey everybody, come on in!
1. How Things Went Badly
The night before it was announced that Sarah Palin would be my father's running mate for vice president, I went to sleep joking with Shannon and Heather about what it would be like campaigning across the country with five married Mormon men and all those baby grandchildren of Mitt Romney. My roommates and I had lots of jokes about the Romneys, who seemed doomed to join the campaign any second. They were all so handsome, in a tooth-whitener commercial kind of way, and so seriously wholesome. We wondered whether The Five Brothers, the nickname for the Romney sons, could handle the constant drinking and swearing that went on in our campaign – the press corps included. Not to mention all the tawdry stories about crazy-sex that you never read about.
Crazy-sex, in case some clarification is necessary, is a category of sex on its own. It is sex with somebody who is extremely bad for you. Somebody you probably don't even like that much. But on the road, things have a way of changing. You don't have regular contact with friends. You don't see your family often. You start to miss them both, and your comfortable bed at home. This causes you to look at the world differently, through what we called "campaign goggles." It was just like "beer goggles," I guess, when people around you seem more fascinating the more you drink, except it was caused by prolonged contact. Each day of togetherness on a campaign, stuck on a bus or airplane, listening to one more stump speech, brought you closer and closer until, very slowly over time, even the most boring campaign drones and journalists started to seem attractive. Campaign goggles can distort reality very powerfully and are the cause of almost all crazy-sex and other campaign hookups.
Stories abound, and I'm sure you've heard some, about how wild and raucous and lusty political life can be, especially during a presidential election. When the stakes are high, the behavior gets really low. I don't want to give the impression that I'm immune to bad behavior. But while my father was making a bid for the presidency, I didn't have a death wish – which meant absolutely, positively, no crazy-sex for me. It was the kind of decision that has "SURVIVAL SKILLS" written all over it.
The night before the announcement, I had a nice big king-sized bed all to myself. It was late and I was having trouble settling down. I swilled Red Bull and Diet Coke all day on the campaign, gorged on pizza and donuts, and at night, after all that sugar and caffeine, it was hard to decompress. Shannon and Heather -- my friends, angels, and colleagues who took videos and still photographs for the campaign and my blog – were in an adjoining room. I could hear them laughing. On the road, we were always together, our days spent mostly in transit, on one of the three campaign buses that took everybody around the country. At night, we shared connecting rooms in Holiday Inns – very rarely anything nicer. One room had a king. The next room had two twins. We always took turns getting our own room.
When I finished college, I told my parents that I didn't want to go to graduate school, or open a clothing boutique, as previously discussed. I wanted to join the campaign. They said that I could come along if I paid my own way. The campaign was a sinking ship, or at least financially sunk, when I joined in July, 2007. There was no money for extras, and no money for me, or my blog, or the people I'd need to help me produce it. My father's campaign manager, Terry Nelson, and the campaign strategist, John Weaver – who was one of my fathers' closest friends, and like an uncle to me -- had run the operation into near bankruptcy, while paying themselves twice what the other candidates' campaign directors made. Polls numbers were slipping. Fund-raising had stalled. Our spirits were low and it was hard to be optimistic, but my dad wasn't resigned to another loss.
And neither was I. I would do anything for him, and relished the thought of a front row seat on the campaign. To bankroll myself and the blog, I used the money that my grandfather had left me, even if, by the end, I had spent every dime. It was a better education than graduate school and more worthwhile to me than opening a boutique. As far as I could tell, the Republican Party was hopelessly unschooled in lots of things, but particularly in its efforts to attract young people by using the Internet, in spite of all the millions of dollars spent on "web consulting."
By being independent, and not paid for by the McCain campaign, I'd be free to write what I wanted -- or so I hoped -- while revealing a more personal side of my dad and my family (the campaign, for all its experts and big thinkers, seemed particularly bad at this). But my blog had led to conflicts, a big ugly mess of them.
In my heart of hearts, I'd always hoped my father would pick Senator Joe Lieberman as his running mate. Aside from being a brilliant politician, Joe is one of the kindest, friendliest, and funniest people I have ever met, not particularly common traits when it comes to the famous and powerful. Always in good spirits, he never seems effected by the fray, or criticism. Sometimes his jokes alone kept me sane during those endless bus rides throughout the country.
Probably even more important, Joe Lieberman is one of the people whom my father can relax around -- always. For me, this counts for a lot. Like everything else in my life, the personal and the professional are hard to pull a part, and usually I don't want to. If I like somebody enough to be friends with them, that's exactly the kind of person I want to work with.
Politically speaking, picking Lieberman seemed like a brilliant move too. He is a former Democrat, and was previously the running mate of Al Gore. I have to admit, I loved the idea of having two independent-leaning politicians on the Republican ticket against the steadily left-leaning Barack Obama. I thought this would pull moderates like me – there were thirty million or more of us floating around the country -- in the party's direction.
But by the time I went to bed on the night of August 28, 2008, I had already been told that Joe Lieberman and Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, hadn't made the final cut. That left me assuming – to the point of certainty -- that Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, would be chosen. There was a slight possibility it could be Tim Pawlenty, who had a great head of hair. But aside from this fact, and that he was the governor of Minnesota, I knew nothing else about him.
My focus had been on Romney for months. He was a minor obsession of mine, I have to confess -- the politician whom I most loved to watch and ridicule during the primaries. He'd given me so many sublime moments of laughter. It was incredible how he kept switching his story, and backpedaling, and making my father out to be an old has-been and tired Washington insider.
YouTube had an irresistible Romney clip that we'd all seen and laughed over. It showed a heated squabble between the governor and a chubby, semi-dorky AP reporter named Glenn Johnson at press conference inside a Staples office supply store. Johnson is rumpled and sitting on the floor of Staples, legs stretched out, one earbud in his ear, his laptop attached to him like a college student. Romney is standing over him, super-erect, his hair gelled and perfectly black. He's wearing a plaid shirt and a Windbreaker, and like so many of Romney's "spontaneous" moments on his campaign, he seems so unnatural.
From his spot on the floor, Glenn Johnson keeps drilling away with questions about Romney hiring Washington lobbyists on his campaign, while Romney becomes more and more frustrated.
Romney's campaign manager eventually loses it, and pulls the reporter aside. "Don't be argumentative with the candidate!" It's truly priceless, and I loved how Romney, who always came off as slick and unreal, had been undone by such a visual mess of a guy. I'd seen the clip at least fifty times and laughed every time. (Much later, I ran into Glenn Johnson on the street in New York and told him how much I loved his YouTube clip. For the record, he'd lost an extreme amount of weight by then and looked great. )
It was hard to adjust to nice thoughts about Romney -- or to stop laughing at him. But that's politics. You could loathe somebody during the primaries and then, suddenly, consider him a good guy and shrewd politician as soon as you've beaten him and he's joined your team. Just a few months ago, Romney's campaign and ours were intense rivals. But now that we were supposed to be the best of friends, I needed to put jokes aside and focus on the tremendous positives Romney would bring to the ticket. He was handsome, smart, and extremely experienced in matters of the economy, an issue that would eventually become lethal to my father's campaign. Also, I had met the governor and some of his campaign operatives and have to admit that they were a lot more easy-going and real than I ever thought possible.
Let's be honest. We needed Mitt Romney. He made perfect sense. We could put down the sword because, at the end of the day, we were fighting for the same political ideals. We were all Republicans – and fought for individual freedom, smaller government, a strong defense. These ideals were things that we cared passionately about, and were supposed to be more important than cultural or religious divides, more important than what kinds of clothes we wore, or whether we had sex before marriage -- or even whom we had sex with.
That's how it was supposed to be, anyway. But increasingly, the more conservative wing of the Republican Party wasn't accepting of moderates like me. It wasn't enough that we all shared a conservative philosophy that we cared passionately about. It seemed like you had to prove you were conservative enough. It made me uneasy. And, like all humor, my jokes about Romney shielded something very real. It wasn't so much that I disapproved of the Romneys. I worried they'd disapprove of me – my bleached hair, my swearing, my "edgy" clothes, not to mention my gay friends. Would they accept me or scorn me as some kind of closet liberal who didn't fit in?
Being a Republican was sometimes difficult if you had any wayward ideas or attitudes, or if your lifestyle wasn't conventional -- even though what was "conventional" had eroded to the point of being unrecognizable, or didn't exist anymore. Republicans seemed to yearn for the golden era of the Reagan eighties, when AIDS wasn't discussed, along with so many other things. Now, in an effort to pretend nothing had changed, the party seemed like a secret sect, a membership that you had to prove yourself worthy of.
But what about the less "conventional" people who hated groupthink and just wanted to live life without big government breathing down our backs? And what about me? I am passionate about individual liberty. I believe in God and the church, but am as adamantly pro-life as I am passionate in my support of gay marriage. What worried me much more than the Romneys or Huckabees disapproving of me personally – I could deal with that -- was how moderates like me would ever fit into their idea of what a Republican was, or should be. With these exclusionary attitudes, in ten or twenty years there would be no party left.
But it was too soon to go down this road. We'd given up a shot at Joe Lieberman, and had most likely moved onto Mitt Romney. This would bring changes to our Pirate Ship, as our campaign was lovingly called. We'd have to clean up our act a little bit. Not that I really drank much, or ever took drugs. And I was celibate as a nun. But I suspected my days of swearing like a sailor and dancing in the bus aisles were over.
The future was full of unknowns. But I had learned a few things on the campaign already, and knew that change always brought complications and chaos – and sometimes a little entertainment. Drama was inevitable on a campaign and created almost out of thin air. Tempers were always flying, and feelings were always being hurt. There was no question that a running mate would add to the confusion and upset. There would be less time for fun. But I couldn't have predicted just how serious it was going to get.
From DIRTY SEXY POLITICS by Meghan McCain. Copyright © 2010 Meghan McCain. To be published in August, 2010 by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold. All Rights Reserved.