McCain embraces laid-back approach to office

Arizona senator sees accessible presidency

Email|Print| Text size + By Sasha Issenberg
Globe Staff / December 20, 2007

KEENE, N.H. - Asked on a visit to a corporate headquarters which president best represented the United States, John McCain whisked through the pantheon of Republican heroes - Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan - before settling on a Democrat he saluted for being a "gutsy old guy."

Yet, the aspect of Harry Truman's presidency that McCain recalled most vividly was not his handling of the Berlin airlift or the Korean War, but his laid back ways.

"He could walk out of the White House and take a walk with one Secret Service agent. One Secret Service agent!" McCain said. "My, how times have changed."

McCain is not much of a sentimentalist, but over a series of scattered remarks in recent speeches and informal interviews he has begun to lay out a vision for a presidency that would feature the trappings of a much simpler time. Besides cutting back his Secret Service coverage so he could move around Washington in a single car instead of a full motorcade, the Republican presidential hopeful says he would like to host weekly press conferences and even subject himself to a congressional version of the rhetorical brawl that Britons know as Prime Minister's Question Time.

To undo what he calls the "lack of credibility in government official statements" on Iraq, McCain says he would hold a separate weekly war briefing to delve into military and political specifics. "I don't know if a lot of Americans want to pay close attention, but at least you're giving them an opportunity to get details," he said in an interview.

The McCain administration he describes would stand as a stylistic riposte to the modern imperial presidency, and especially to President Bush, whose White House is described by specialists as one of the least accessible in recent history.

The first press conferences were off-the-record sessions held by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913, according to Martha Joynt Kumar, a political scientist who specializes in White House communication at Towson University near Baltimore. They gradually became formalized as events: Dwight Eisenhower invited TV cameras, John F. Kennedy allowed them to broadcast live, and Reagan mastered the format as a prime-time pageant.

"It's an opportunity to demonstrate the degree to which he is knowledgeable, that he is a leader who makes decisions based on well-tested information," said Kumar.

Bush and President Clinton held fewer press conferences than their predecessors, not only to avoid the political risks of facing questions on camera, Kumar said, but also because a president's words - or silence - could interfere with ongoing foreign-policy crises or delicate negotiations.

"Almost every president talks about making the White House more accessible than in the past," said Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution specialist on the presidency. "The question was how long it took them to be as closed as their predecessors."

Yet for McCain, there is a clear precedent for a more casual presidency - his own campaigning style. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama already travel with Secret Service protection, and Republicans Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani have hired private security - keeping not only potential threats at a distance, but often voters and reporters, as well.

McCain's retinue, on the other hand, at times includes only one member of his national staff and no security.

While other candidates have suggested new methods of presidential communication - Obama has proposed webcasting all executive-branch meetings, for example - none appears to embrace accessibility and conversational skill as core character values, as does the man who in 1999 christened his campaign vehicle the Straight Talk Express.

"I think most politicians are headed, because of the chaos of the press, towards trying to control that chaos," said Mark McKinnon, a Bush media strategist now advising McCain. "McCain likes to jump into the chaos."

McCain proposes no greater leap into chaos than the notion of a congressional question time modeled on the free-for-all sessions used in parliamentary systems. McCain says he is still trying to adjust the logistics for Capitol Hill: how to whittle the number of legislators to a manageable crowd and involve members of his own Cabinet in their areas of expertise.

"I think it would be fun, and anything that makes people pay attention to their government is probably a good idea," he said.

But in a parliamentary system the right of ridiculing the head of government is a constitutional entitlement of legislators who pick one of their own for the job. The American system is set up precisely to ensure that one branch never has to face directly the cheeky assaults of another.

Indeed, given McCain's penchant for adversarial encounters - at his town hall meetings, he often invites "any questions, comments, or insults you may have" - he could find himself joyfully lured into a dangerous level of overexposure, Kumar cautioned.

"One of the things staff in the White House worry about is that the president is going to wear out his welcome with the public by appearing too frequently," she said. "People will stop tuning in."

Sasha Issenberg can be reached at

  • Email
  • Email
  • Print
  • Print
  • Single page
  • Single page
  • Reprints
  • Reprints
  • Share
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Comment
  • Share on DiggShare on Digg
  • Tag with Save this article
  • powered by
Your Name Your e-mail address (for return address purposes) E-mail address of recipients (separate multiple addresses with commas) Name and both e-mail fields are required.
Message (optional)
Disclaimer: does not share this information or keep it permanently, as it is for the sole purpose of sending this one time e-mail.