By John Heilemann
Published Aug 1, 2008
On the morning in March when Barack Obama was preparing to give his speech on race in Philadelphia to try to contain the fallout from the Jeremiah Wright imbroglio, I was having breakfast in Washington with a member of John McCain’s inner circle. The topic at hand was whether McCain was licking his chops at the prospect of facing Obama in the fall—whether he relished the idea of running negative against the hopemonger on questions of his patriotism and, er, otherness. My McCainiac source noted that his boss had “demonstrated admirable restraint and respect for Obama in the last few weeks,” citing McCain’s rebuke of the Tennessee GOP when it issued a press release that invoked Obama’s middle name and featured that photo of him in Somali tribal clothing, calling it “Muslim garb.” “McCain has drawn a bright line and said that’s unacceptable,” my companion said. “It’s a genuine reflex: He really wants the campaign to be civil.”
The following night I was drinking with a big-time Republican operative who’d worked during the primaries for a rival candidate. When I floated the notion of the Good McCain, this person snorted. “He didn’t have a problem calling Mitt Romney a phony in New Hampshire or comparing George W. Bush to Bill Clinton in South Carolina in 2000,” he said. “McCain is a tough guy. He’ll do whatever he needs to do.”
Until last week, it was an open question which of these visions of McCain bore a closer relation to reality. But with the weeklong string of attacks uncorked by the Arizona senator and his people during Obama’s trip abroad and in its aftermath—some brutal, some mocking, but all personal and focused on Obama’s character—we now have an inkling of just how deep in the mud McCain and his people are willing to wallow in order to win in November: right up to their Republican eyeballs.