By Nick Bayless/Staff Photographer
As a kid, I loved boats. And planes. I mean, I was into this stuff. And the bigger the boats and planes, the better. I didn’t really realize it, but unlike the Power Rangers fixation, this fascination stuck with me. You can only imagine my excitement when we hopped out of the Crazy Carl cab in the parking lot of the U.S.S. Yorktown, site of the John McCain rally in Charleston, S.C. As boats go, this one’s wicked cool.
It was also the ideal site for a rally with a theme like McCain’s. With his POW background, militant political views, and reliance on the veteran vote in South Carolina, this rally couldn’t have been staged more appropriately. With Boy Scouts on one side, a contingent of Veterans on the other, and a really, really big helicopter behind the stage, McCain was about as military as can be.
While waiting for the crowd to assemble, I spoke to several interesting people in the audience, including a very shy elderly lady who only piped up when I mentioned to someone my excitement about being on the Yorktown. Apparently, her husband had brought the Yorktown into its dock in the ’70s, and she had opened the first gift shop at Patriot Point. She had mostly come just to see the festivities, and wasn’t terribly interested in what the speakers had to say.
I also spoke to a pair of middle-aged ladies, one of whom was a McCain supporter and the other undecided. We talked about a few issues, how they thought the race was going, why they supported the candidates, and eventually whether they planned to vote in their primary when it came around (they’re from Maryland, and so not voting in this weekend’s election). At this point, the undecided lady said she did, but couldn’t vote for McCain, as she was a registered Democrat and couldn’t support him in Maryland’s closed primary system. None of this seemed to be a big deal, and I was nodding politely along, until right after her comment about her party affiliation, her Republican friend exclaimed, “What?!” Apparently, in their 10-year friendship, the lady had never admitted to her Republican friend that she was a Democrat. I quickly apologized for “outing” her and made a journalistic excuse to scurry off into the crowd and leave them to their awkward explanations.
When the event got started, we heard from several dignitaries, including Senator Lindsey Graham, who spent a fairly sizable amount of time looking squeamish under McCain’s comments about him supporting Bush in 2000. During Graham’s introductory speech, an aide came to his side and whispered to him, at which point the senator introduced a last minute addition: Pete Hegseth from Vets for Freedom, an organization founded by veterans of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This group’s main focus is to promote policy that supports the war, and in September 2007 came in front of Congress to beg them to support General Petraeus and the war effort. He spoke passionately about the need to elect John McCain, nodding often to the bleachers packed with veterans on the side of the stage.
After a short break (and some overplayed patriotic tunes), McCain and his entourage arrived, referred to as the “Straight Talk Express” by the organizers. The senator came in at a snail’s pace, shaking every hand extended to him and lapping up the cheers and applause from the crowd. When he made it to the stage, the captive audience was all but silent while he spoke and burst into chants of “John McCain! John McCain!” and “Mac is back! Mac is back!” whenever he stopped to breathe. He was accompanied by his wife, Cindy and his 23-year-old daughter, Meghan, a recent Columbia graduate.
He spoke in his typically blunt manner about issues ranging from VA health care to the war, seeming to tailor the issues he chose to his audience. He didn’t change his stance on issues, but he seemed to emphasize certain issues much more than he would when speaking in a different geographic and demographic area.
When he finished, he made his way over to the Boy Scouts and posed for a picture with them, then slowly made his way back out, shaking hands and posing for pictures as he went.
We managed to catch up with him as he was getting back on the Straight Talk Express, where he gave us about 4 seconds each. After watching him blow off questions from members of the press that were way more prominent than we were, we decided that we’d rather skip the long shot of throwing a question his way, hoping for a response, and went instead for the handshake. I guess politicians shake enough hands that they know how to do it right. A firm grip, a couple pumps, a smile that says “Thanks for coming,” and even though I was his focus for 4 seconds, he made those 4 seconds seem like I was the only person that had come to see him.
Until the fifth second when he strode off, I stood there looking like I’d just been hit by the Straight Talk Express.