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Published: 3/12/2000

Thanks for the memories, John McCain

WILMINGTON, O. - For those who love George W. Bush and hate the press, the following tale may sound like hell has arrived on Earth.

But don't be scared. Read on, for as you know, it has a happy ending for Bush backers.

Last Sunday, after speaking to a rally in the Cleveland suburb of Broadview Heights, U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona and the media horde rushed to Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland.

When the line was too long at the front of the chartered Pan Am 727, several of the reporters ran to the back and boarded a flight unlike any other I have seen.

There were about 90 people on the plane, and it appeared that about 80 of them were journalists. Some of the national press had staked out seats by using masking tape. As reporters and photographers maneuvered for seats near Mr. McCain, turf battles usually associated with vicious animals, gangstas, and Third World dictators erupted.

"Hey, the L.A. Times has this seat; it's ours," one scribe snorted furiously.

Sharing my elite colleagues' fine grasp of the obvious, I spotted Mr. McCain's white head and found the closest seat a few rows up. Having seen The Manchurian Candidate, I made sure I still had the Queen of Hearts in my pocket.

"Who are you?" a well-scrubbed McCain campaign aide asked me as I plopped down.

"I'm a reporter with The Toledo Blade."

"I'm sorry," the staffer replied. "The Ohio reporters have reserved seats up front, and we will be bringing the senator up for an interview."

At first, I suspected this was a sleight-of-hand. I had been told that traveling with Mr. McCain was like playing rugby. The candidate talked, and a scrum broke out as reporters used all of the enterprise they learned in journalism school to hear his words.

But I took my seat and as a harried flight attendant offered meatballs-on-sticks to the unwashed, Mr. McCain crashed. I peeked at his wife, Cindy, to see if she was real, but soon gave up.

"Hopefully, he'll wake up," an aide said. "We don't wake him up."

Half an hour later, Mr. McCain headed up the aisle. Three seats were collapsed so we could face Mr. McCain and there I was with my colleagues from Columbus, Dayton, and Canton - hurtling through the air above central Ohio on a rumble seat - as Mr. McCain introduced himself by saying, "Trotskyist, socialist, communist reporters; the fall of the Berlin Wall didn't mean anything to the press."

I knew this was his way to amuse us, but the irony was too sweet. At the rally in Broadview Heights, several McCain backers smiled when I asked them if the national press had promoted their man to inject some interest in the presidential race.

Most nodded with guilty pleasure. A newly married couple urged me to read a John Grisham book about the CIA pulling all sorts of strings for a presidential candidate.

"It has a lot of similarities to what is going on here," one Republican told me.

Mr. McCain answered questions for about 20 minutes, and then the plane landed like a big rock.

The reporters cheered. The candidate and the press spilled onto the tarmac, and we entered "The Matrix."

As we walked into an air freight hangar, the crowd erupted. Imagine a huge hangar divided into four sections. Three of them are filled by large Airborne Express planes undergoing maintenance. The final quadrant is a political rally.

And this is not your typical rally. The booming soundtrack was imported from a sports arena - hip-hop ( "Y'all ready for this?" ) with a smattering of rap.

There was a light show - various designs and symbols flashing off the walls of the hangar. There also were a lot of very frenetic young people, juxtaposed with somber veterans waving POW-MIA flags. Mr. McCain talked about the "Iron Triangle" of big money, lobbyists, and special-interest legislation; hawked his book, and railed against Texas billionaires bankrolling TV ads for Mr. Bush.

The following day, a McCain aide, who had traveled across the country with him, asked me: "Did you like the show?"

"It's a good show," the aide continued. "I've seen the show a hundred times, but it's still a good show."

Last Tuesday, as Mr. Bush swept to victory in "Super Tuesday," the show ended.

It's time to find a new one. Thanks for everything, Mr. McCain.

Jim Drew is chief of The Blade's Columbus bureau.



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