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An apology to John McCain

McCain 2008
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks to employees at Savvis, Inc. during a campaign stop in St. Louis, Mo., Tuesday, March 11, 2008. Gerald Herbert / AP
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I owe the McCain campaign an apology.

I wrote the other week that he was clamming up and distancing himself from press and public. That was based on his grim, tight-lipped response to a New York Times story about his ties to a Washington lobbyist. I said that the “Straight Talk Express” had been put up on blocks.

I was wrong. Sen. John McCain and his inner circle knew, and still know, that the only way their 71-year-old candidate can run (and win) is if he campaigns as a man with absolutely nothing to fear from exposure.

Now, all he has to do is stay true to that vision.

I know McCain well, and I know that he sometimes has a compulsion to describe his own shortcomings.

I know that he is blunt and candid by nature — and that he has an alternately comic and bitter need to tell it "like it is."

He has political Tourette's syndrome.

But that is just the beginning of the story — his campaign continues now through November.

First, of all, there is a political strategy at work. The press corps is a group that needs stroking, and you do that by providing access to yourself and your top advisors.

The more colorful, confessional and crucial the information is, the better.

McCain has always made a virtue of what, for him, always has been a live-off-the-land necessity. In the 2000 campaign, he was the outsider renegade, harrying then-candidate George W. Bush.

The press corps loved to cover McCain’s comparatively penniless, carefree insurgency. For most of the 2008 campaign, he was broke and left for dead (by reporters like me).

He had no choice, even if he wished otherwise, to invite everyone aboard his bus with open arms.

Now, the trick is to sustain that attitude. Last week he hosted his traveling press entourage to his ranch in Sedona, Arizona, for a cookout. His cookouts are a great experience. The host presides over a vast array of outdoor grills, the family is around, there is a rushing stream nearby and the impressive rust-colored hills all around.

To reporters, who are in the business of being witnesses to history, it is an intoxicating experience. McCain’s willingness to throw open the doors is impressive, and winning.

It is not, however, by itself enough. There will come a time – and the New York Times story was not that time – when McCain will be forced to live by the laudable standard of openness he has set for himself and, indeed, for the other presidential campaigns.

The success of his strategy will depend, in part, on the identity and behavior of his Democratic opponent. If it’s Sen. Hillary Clinton, he is in better shape. Her basic instinct is to clam up; she has been doing it ever since the Whitewater controversy in 1991.

McCain is enough of an outsider (and, by the way, voracious reader) to find reporters interesting and good company at times.

If McCain’s foe is Sen. Barack Obama — and that is the more likely scenario — it will be interesting to see who wins the charm offensive. If "seeing history" is the lure, Obama will be way ahead. His candidacy makes history every day.

If candor is the measure, we'll have to wait and see. Obama has only just begun to take and respond to incoming fire.

His chief strategist is a former political reporter, David Axelrod. That, in and of itself, says nothing about how Obama will respond if a crisis hits.

The press is a fickle animal. George W. Bush’s attitude was to stay as far away from the beast as he could manage. McCain’s is the genial host, a senior citizen too wise and fundamentally honest to try to hide anything.

And it may work — if the talk is straight.