Chilly civility marks Bush-McCain union

GOP front-runner gets a lukewarm nod from former rival

May 10, 2000|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PITTSBURGH -- From the outset, it was clear who was in charge and who was the second banana when George W. Bush and John McCain met yesterday. The food in the hotel suite where they talked said as much: Coffee. Bagels. Pastries.

"Uh, no donuts," observed McCain, who subsisted for months aboard his campaign bus by feeding a craving for his favorite breakfast food.

In spite of the apparent oversight and continued chilliness between the two men, Bush got what he wanted from the private meeting with his vanquished rival. McCain emerged from the session and, at a somewhat awkward news conference, delivered a line the Republican nominee-to-be has waited two months to hear.

"I endorse Governor Bush," he said, though he had to be prodded by a reporter's question to use the word "endorsement." McCain lightheartedly repeated the line five times for good measure.

"By the way, I enthusiastically accept," chimed in Bush, who stood shoulder to shoulder with the Arizona senator, grinning.

The meeting may have put to rest any possibility that McCain would get the second spot on the Republican ticket. Bush made no attempt to change McCain's mind when the senator reiterated in private his standard comment that he wasn't interested in the job of vice president.

There was no embrace and only the briefest of handshakes as the two finished facing the cameras. McCain dutifully delivered his lines of praise, without much warmth or enthusiasm.

McCain's comment, in an interview last week, that he might not actually endorse Bush yesterday had created some doubt about what he intended to say.

But McCain, agreeing with a reporter's suggestion, said he had decided to "take the medicine now."

Perhaps tellingly, both men described the meeting in the arid language that diplomats often use to mask disagreement.

Bush called it "a very frank discussion." McCain remarked that it had been "a very useful and helpful conversation."

Bush was sipping coffee in the suite at the William Penn hotel in downtown Pittsburgh when McCain arrived shortly before 8 a.m., according to Karen Hughes, the Bush campaign's communications director.

After aides withdrew, the two men made small talk about mutual friends and associates, including Bush's father and former President Ronald Reagan. They chatted about issues, including taxes and a campaign-finance system that has lurched out of control. And they got around to taking care of some substantive political business.

Pre-emptive move

McCain said he pre-empted the question of an endorsement by telling Bush, "Look, I'm going to campaign for you."

Bush then introduced the issue of putting McCain on his list of possible running mates, by asking for the senator's counsel about the vice-presidency.

"I don't want to be considered," McCain informed him.

"I take you at your word," replied Bush, presumably foreclosing the matter for good.

Afterward, McCain indicated that some parts of the conversation were intended to remain private, and Bush described McCain at one point as "a plain-spoken fellow."

However, neither used the occasion to rebuke the other for his behavior in a primary campaign that at times turned quite ugly.

"There was no point in it," explained McCain.

Losing the nomination contest was McCain's first defeat in a political career that began two decades ago. The long delay between his elimination in early March and yesterday's endorsement was in part due to his undisguised anger over Bush's negative campaign tactics, such as accusing McCain of abandoning his fellow Vietnam veterans or opposing breast cancer research, in spite of the fact that McCain's sister suffers from the disease.

"Look," McCain said. "For me to look back in anger or with any rancor would be a mistake. It would harm me. It would harm Governor Bush. And it would harm those who supported me in this campaign."

The Democrats, meantime, are only too glad to revive McCain's primary attacks on Bush, hoping to use them as general-election ammunition against the Republican ticket.

A new Democratic National Committee Web site, McComity Central, quotes McCain's description of Bush in February as "a Pat Robertson Republican who will lose to Al Gore."

McCain's harsh criticism of Christian conservative leaders remains a flash point inside the Republican Party.

Bush ducked an opportunity to come to McCain's defense and rebuke Robertson, a prominent Bush supporter who is continuing to feud with McCain. In a weekend TV interview, Robertson described McCain as "intemperate" and said he would be a "dangerous" choice as vice president.

"Like John, I'm looking forward," Bush said. Asked if he wanted to say anything to smooth over what had been said during the campaign, Bush borrowed a line from a beer commercial.

"I love you, man," he said, drawing a chuckle from McCain.

`A key role'

Bush said he hoped McCain would get "a key role" at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia this summer, presumably an opportunity to deliver a major speech.

McCain said he intends to campaign for Bush this fall. Privately, McCain aides grumble that there have been no preliminary discussions about what the senator's role will be in attempting to persuade his supporters to back Bush. "Bush has got to talk genuinely about reform," said John Weaver, a top McCain strategist. "He's got to earn their support."

Bush said he and McCain agree on "the need to change the tone and temperament of Washington" and to reform Social Security, education and the military.

Bush said he told McCain "point-blank that he made me a better candidate. He waged a really good campaign and he put me through my paces."

McCain said he and Bush agree on more issues than they disagree on. But he said he would continue to pursue his reform agenda, including those, such as campaign finance, on which he and Bush are opposed.

"Our discussions and our debate will be healthy, and in the long run helpful to the party and to the country," McCain said.

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