After working in four presidential campaigns and after covering the last seven with a press pass, I have concluded the following: Every presidential campaign is ultimately, and inevitably, a mirror of the presidential candidate in whose name it is run.
The criminality and paranoia of Richard Nixon's campaign began with the candidate himself. The energetic optimism as well as the chronic dissembling of Bill Clinton's campaign came directly from the man himself. I have never known any campaign to do anything that the candidate himself would not do or, at the very least, condone.
It is unimaginable to think that, during the 2000 South Carolina presidential primary, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush was some passive bystander to the unprincipled and dishonest attacks his campaign leveled at Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and his family.
What all of this tells us about a public man I truly admire, John McCain, and his own faltering 2008 campaign is anything but flattering. His campaign in the last two weeks has resembled a civil war in the leper colony, with "anonymous" fired or resigned political aides settling scores with each other in the press.
Overlooked, or maybe simply ignored, by all those now playing the blame game is how badly their score-settling reflects on Candidate McCain, for whom they all worked and to whom they all still pledge their total support and devotion.
The contrast between the 2000 and 2008 McCain campaigns is stark and significant. The 2000 campaign reflected reality: McCain was the maverick long shot, while Bush had the big GOP bucks and the big GOP names behind him. The McCain people were cocky and fun, the scrappy underdogs. McCain himself appeared to genuinely enjoy the company of reporters, who unaccustomed to such treatment from presidential candidates, reflected their appreciation for the Arizonan's company and, more importantly, his candor in positive press coverage of his candidacy.
Bush was the establishment candidate in a Republican Party where the followers — the primary voters — put great store in whom the leaders — the Establishment, including elected officials and major givers — endorse.
Somewhere between 2000 and 2008, the McCain folks chose to forget a first rule of Republican candidate-selection: Establishment candidates do not have multiple heresies on which they brazenly defy Republican Party orthodoxy.
Yes, as a man of steely conviction, John McCain has been the most stalwart supporter of the historically unpopular U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. But McCain opposed George W. Bush's tax cuts in 2000 and beyond. Backing the Republican president on the war does not compensate in the eyes of most Republicans for battling the Republican president on tax cuts.
His effective leadership on campaign finance reform convinced many, including more than a few GOP money people and conservatives, that McCain was willing, even eager, to risk their party's historic advantage in fund raising. But McCain also broke with Republican orthodoxy on the thorny issues of stem cell research, climate change and higher mandated mileage standards for Detroit cars. He regularly reminded all of us of "our duty to serve a cause greater than our own self-interest."
In 2004, McCain reconciled with Bush, and somehow it didn't look believable, especially to many in a prime McCain constituency, the political press corps. He suffered further defections in his press when he seemed to kiss and make up with another old foe, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.
But McCain's prominent leadership on the Senate immigration bill sealed his fate with a much more important constituency, Republican conservatives, who saw this as an issue on which McCain was not only wrong and indifferent to their objections, but also working intimately with Ted Kennedy.
By temperament and by creed, John McCain, the anti-establishment reformer, was constitutionally incapable of running as the candidate of the Republican Establishment. But that, from all appearances, was the 2008 McCain campaign strategy.
Now, by necessity, McCain is forced to run as the underdog, the long shot and still very much the outsider. He continues to have my admiration and my affection, even though he will never be the Establishment candidate.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.