McCain's Prickly TIME Interview
For years, John McCain's marathon bull sessions with reporters were more than a means of delivering a message; they were the message. McCain proudly, flagrantly refused direction from handlers, rarely dodged tough questions and considered those who did wimps and frauds. The style told voters that he was unafraid, that he had nothing to hide and that what you see is what you get. "Anything you want to talk about," he promised reporters aboard the Straight Talk Express in Iowa back in March 2007. "One of the fundamental principles of the bus is that there is no such thing as a dumb question." When asked if he would keep the straight talk coming, McCain replied, "You think I could survive if I didn't? We'd never be forgiven ... I'd have to hire a food taster, somebody to start my car in the morning." Even after he won the GOP nomination, he demanded that his new campaign plane be configured to include a sofa up front so he could re-create the Straight Talk Express at 30,000 ft.
Sticking to the old formula seemed like a good idea. But with the press focused on Obama, McCain got attention only when he slipped up during one of his patented freewheeling encounters with reporters. And so in July, the campaign decided to clamp down on the candidate. Open-ended question time was reduced to almost nothing, and the famously unscripted McCain began heeding his talking points, even as his aides maintained he missed the old informality.
And so when TIME's James Carney and Michael Scherer were invited to the front of McCain's plane recently for an interview, they were ushered forward, past the curtain that now separates reporters from the candidate, past the sofa that was designed for his gabfests with the press and taken straight to the candidate's seat. McCain at first seemed happy enough to do the interview. But his mood quickly soured. The McCain on display in the 24-minute interview was prickly, at times abrasive, and determined not to stray off message. An excerpt: