Midterms are on the horizon—though you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d hit the shore—and reporters are stalking, scrutinizing, and sometimes even sitting down with the country’s office holders and their challengers. We spoke to the authors of two very different political portraits published last week about the challenges particular to political profiling: New York Times L.A. bureau chief Jennifer Steinhauer, who sat down with Arnold Schwarzenegger for “The Loneliness of Governor Schwarzenegger”; and New York’s Joe Hagan, author of a John McCain profile titled “What Would a Maverick Do?” Both took on men who’ve filled a mag or two and managed to wring a little freshness out of them.
We admit that when we first saw New York’s McCain piece, we almost sighed. “You again?” Everyone already knows what Hagan later described to us as the “calcified story” on the Arizona senator. So why should we go for seconds?
“You could write that story without any facts, just from news pickup,” Hagan says of the well-known recent McCain narrative. “What I wanted to do was find the internal events, get scenes and anecdotes and show people how that has been unfolding.” And he did. Like an epilogue to Game Change, Hagan’s piece is stuffed full of juicy behind-the-scenes goss: McCain refusing to answer advisor Mark Salter’s phone calls because “He’s going to yell at me”; communications director Brooke Buchanan tempering his rage at rallies; a testy McCain cancelling dinner with Scott Brown after the Massachusetts senator dared give his elder a little campaign advice on a visit to Arizona.
But he also offers a psychological assessment of sorts: McCain as the fighter, torn between an advisor in Salter who shaped and seeks to maintain the noble maverick image, and another in Rick Davis, currently winning the day inside his boss’s head, who encourages whatever shape-shifting moves will fell Senate primary opponent J.D. Hayworth.
Time’s Michael Scherer wrote in the magazine’s Swampland blog that the trope has a familiar ring—insert former McCain advisor John Weaver (“champion of the moderate, maverick McCain”) where you see Mark Salter, and the story could have been one of many surrounding the 2008 campaign. But Hagan does something more with McCain than the criticism suggests. His McCain is not merely the product of two associates with different plans, but a man who cogently chooses between them based on his own long-hewn survival instincts, and a fear of the political cold. As Hagan told us, reflecting upon Scherer’s charge, “He [McCain] made the decisions to put these guys in power and make them his advisors, and he made a decision to go in a certain direction.” And, as he writes…
…McCain has also begun thinking about his legacy. He recognizes, says a person who has spoken with him about it, that political life is fleeting, that he could one day be forgotten. It scares him. At this point, losing to J. D. Hayworth would be too much for McCain to bear, especially after all he’s sacrificed to prevent it.
“That’s no way to go out,” says Grant Woods, a longtime friend of McCain’s. “You don’t live the life he’s lived and lose to a goof like J. D. Hayworth.”
It’s an interesting if still familiar-feeling take, made fresher by the sheer rigor of the reporting (Scherer does say it is “the definitive account of John McCain’s last 18 months”).
Jennifer Steinhauer’s angle on Schwarzenegger is similarly familiar but distinct. Like Hagan, she faced a difficult, oft-profiled subject. She circumvents déjà vu by foregoing the traditional profile route and offering a fleshed out thesis in which Schwarzenegger is less subject than evidence: the lonely fate of a true bipartisan.
In the final analysis, it is more a look back at Schwarzenegger’s governorship and governing style for the national reader (sans anything personal, even his age) and how Schwarzenegger became the thing that McCain once was: a maverick (and, as of right now, a deeply unpopular one). The reflection is a chance to make some broad observations about the nature and consequences of bipartisanship.