Behind McCain Adviser's Exit
Close Aide's Departure
Points to Broader Woes
For Senator's Campaign
By JACKIE CALMES
The Wall Street Journal
July 13, 2007; Page A5
WASHINGTON -- For 11 years, John Weaver has worked for one thing: to make John McCain president. As difficult as it was for the chief strategist to be a casualty of the senator's shake-up of his faltering campaign, Mr. Weaver felt worse for his 14-year-old daughter, Jordan. For her, like him, the McCains had been family.
"I didn't get home in time to tell her before she saw the news on TV, and she was crying," Mr. Weaver, a single father, recalls of Tuesday's events. His association with the Republican senator "was all she's known since she was a baby. She's heartbroken, but kids are resilient. More than we are."
The turmoil in the McCain campaign continued yesterday. In Iowa, which holds the first presidential-nominating contest, top aides Ed Failor Jr. and Karen Slifka said they were quitting in solidarity with those whose resignations were accepted Tuesday, particularly former campaign manager Terry Nelson.
Tomorrow, the press-communications team is planning to resign, people familiar with the matter say. Also this weekend, Mr. McCain's second-quarter financial report is expected to show a debt of about $1.8 million, including $750,000 that Mr. Nelson had withheld from a Web company in which longtime McCain adviser, lobbyist and campaign Chief Executive Rick Davis has a financial interest. Messrs. Nelson and Weaver, among others, felt the contract smacked of inappropriate self-dealing. Mr. Davis couldn't be reached to comment.
Sen. McCain has made Mr. Davis his new campaign manager; his initial proposal to promote Mr. Davis Monday led Mr. Nelson and then Mr. Weaver to resign Tuesday, followed by several others. Now, the longstanding tensions between the two camps are erupting just as onetime front-runner Mr. McCain is fighting to survive.
Of all the departures, none has the poignancy of Mr. Weaver's. The 47-year-old Texan belongs to a small, distinctly American political class that includes George W. Bush's Karl Rove and Bill Clinton's James Carville: advisers who hitch themselves to a politician's star and rise or fall with it. He is widely viewed in political circles as the 70-year-old senator's more emotional and self-effacing alter ego.
His fall, Republicans say, is a measure of the trouble Mr. McCain now finds himself in. More broadly, Mr. Weaver's rocky history with the Republican Party -- in recent years he went from Republican to independent to Democrat and back -- reflects Mr. McCain's own continuing struggle among conservatives suspicious of his independent streak.
Mr. McCain accepted Mr. Weaver's and Mr. Nelson's resignations a week after the two men had laid off 80 staffers to hold down spending. "I cried," Mr. Weaver recalls of the dismissals. But his boss remained furious over the campaign's heavy spending and anemic fund raising. It has been hurt by Mr. McCain's support for the war in Iraq, which is unpopular with independents, and immigration reform, which is unpopular with Republicans. Monday, he signaled he had effectively lost confidence in the two men, and Tuesday he accepted their resignations. Even so, Mr. McCain told one associate that letting Mr. Weaver go "was one of the toughest things I've ever done."
The two have been through a lot together. The high point was Mr. McCain's near-upset of President Bush in the 2000 Republican primaries; the lows included the senator's ultimate loss and both his and Mr. Weaver's subsequent life-threatening illnesses. While Mr. Weaver endured two "blur" years of chemotherapy for leukemia from 2002 to 2004, he also went through a divorce and custody fight, and was nearly broke, he says. Mr. McCain, recovered from his own malignant facial melanoma, checked on Mr. Weaver's medical care and flew him and daughter Jordan to the McCain ranch in Arizona for a respite.
For years after 2000, neither man expected Mr. McCain would have another shot at the party's nomination. That was clear from Mr. Weaver's political wanderings.
The senator had emerged from his 2000 loss as the nation's most popular politician, admired especially among independents as a straight-talking reformer who bridged the polarized parties. But while the avowed Ronald Reagan-Theodore Roosevelt Republican only toyed with becoming an independent, Mr. Weaver made the switch.
Embittered by what he saw as the shabby treatment of Mr. McCain by the pro-Bush Republican establishment, Mr. Weaver became an independent in 2001, and then a Democrat. He advised congressional Democrats and the trial lawyers' lobby. Mr. McCain said Mr. Weaver had no choice, having been effectively blackballed from Republican work by the Bush White House -- something that Mr. Rove, Mr. Bush's political adviser and Mr. Weaver's ally-turned-rival in Texas Republican politics, denies.
Mr. Weaver was raised in tiny Kermit, Texas, when Texas was said to have two parties -- liberal and conservative Democrats. Both parents died when he was a teen. Mr. Weaver's bigger influence, he says, was his maternal grandparents. Grandfather L.J. "Ham" Hamilton, an Indiana native, was a rare Republican in Texas, who shared magazines from the conservative National Review to the leftist Mother Jones. From grandmother Mabel, half Native American, Mr. Weaver says he got his well-known temper. When enraged, he says, she would throw dishes at her husband, who would "smile and walk off." Years later, McCain staffers would refer to "WOW moments" -- for Wrath of Weaver.
Ronald Reagan's 1980 election spurred Texas' shift to Republicanism. One of Mr. Weaver's first jobs was as an aide in the successful 1984 Senate race of Democrat-turned-Republican Phil Gramm. He and Mr. Rove emerged as top party operatives in Texas, working and socializing together. But they increasingly clashed and ultimately broke. It was on Sen. Gramm's 1996 presidential campaign that Mr. Weaver got to know Mr. McCain. The following year, he was part of a kitchen cabinet weighing Mr. McCain's White House run. Mr. Rove was doing the same for then-Gov. George Bush.
Their showdown came in early 2000. Mr. McCain's 19-point victory in the first primary in New Hampshire was followed by Mr. Bush's South Carolina comeback. The enmity lingers, especially for Mr. Weaver. McCain supporters didn't buy the Bush camp's denials of complicity with a South Carolina whisper campaign suggesting that Mr. McCain was treasonous as a Vietnamese prisoner of war, and had a child by a black prostitute.
As 2004 approached, every major Democrat considering a presidential bid contacted Mr. Weaver about a top job. After Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry had effectively won the nomination, campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill one day came to his home and found him with Mr. Weaver. The two were discussing a Kerry-McCain "unity ticket," Kerry aides say. Mr. Weaver initiated the idea, the aides say; he says Mr. Kerry did. By all accounts Mr. Kerry became obsessed with the prospect. But his staff was opposed, and so was Mr. McCain. Yet, Mr. McCain "always left the door open a little," a Kerry strategist says.
By August, Mr. McCain was campaigning for Mr. Bush. Their rapprochement was the result of their strategists' own. Mr. Weaver knew detente was in his boss's interest. Just as Mr. Bush needed Mr. McCain's pull with independents in the election ahead, Mr. McCain needed to persuade Republicans of his loyalty.
Given Mr. McCain's age, and many conservatives' undying opposition, some confidants thought he shouldn't run, and he demurred. But last year, as Mr. McCain was in demand among Republican candidates for campaign appearances, and led in polls, he authorized Mr. Weaver to start building a campaign. Now, for Mr. Weaver at least, it's over: "It all happened so fast," he says, "it was like a car wreck."
Write to Jackie Calmes at email@example.com