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New York, New York

My Man Mac

When the talking heads won’t stop drubbing McCain for his supposed crimes against conservative principles, what’s a supporter supposed to do?

Conservative media outlets have had a lot to say about John McCain during his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, and nearly all of it has been bad. It was downright nasty during the early primaries, but now that McCain has the nomination all but wrapped up, the criticism involves less open hostility and a fraction of the name-calling. It’s the sort of uneasy truce during which you still hear gunshots at night. As Philip Klein of The American Spectator wrote, “Few Republicans are as reviled by elite conservatives as McCain.”

True dat. Those “elite conservatives” have been tearing into the senior senator from Arizona for months. McCain considers himself a conservative and has a lifetime rating of 82.3 from the American Conservative Union (Newt Gingrich has a 90, Hillary Clinton a 9), but you don’t get to label yourself in Washington, and McCain has broken ranks with the right on a long list of issues, including immigration and global warming.

Conservative bloggers, radio hosts, and talking heads have been reliving the battles, rereading the transcripts, and re-airing the grievances. The kid gloves came off early at the National Review Online, where McCain’s “straight talk” slogan became a popular punchline. Andrew C. McCarthy says: “Obviously, McCain is all for ‘straight talk’ as long as it is he—or the New York Times—doing the talking.” Oh, snap! The anti-McCain drumbeat grew so loud that it caused conservative author Jonah Goldberg to post an entry objecting to the “tone, tenor, and substance” of the criticism.

The Clintonites made a push up the middle, but it was thwarted. They didn’t even attempt to sneak up along the sides in a pincer maneuver.I objected, too. The harshest of the conservative critics seemed to be both scratching at scars and digging for dirt. Secondhand accounts of McCainian misdeeds spread unchecked and unconfirmed from web to radio and vice versa. Unlike Goldberg, however, I was unable to post my disapproval anywhere other than MySpace, so I did the next best thing: I volunteered for McCain’s New York campaign. It wasn’t the first time. Before the Republican primary in 2000, when the state G.O.P. lined up behind George W. Bush and attempted to keep McCain off the ballot, I collected signatures door-to-door to help make sure McCain was on the rolls. I root for underdogs, in general, and was rooting for McCain, in particular. At the time, I had just read Faith of My Fathers, his moving account of his years as a P.O.W., and as a lifelong Republican, I was appalled by the way the party was treating him.

This time around, it didn’t seem like my services were all that necessary. By February 2008, the state’s G.O.P. establishment was behind him and Rudy Giuliani was beside him. I hadn’t planned on volunteering again, but I found myself increasingly annoyed by the vitriol directed at McCain by conservative media figures. On Fox News, Sean Hannity was openly derisive and Ann Coulter announced that she’d rather vote for Hillary Clinton.

When a few conservative bloggers resorted to criticizing McCain for the number of jets he lost in Vietnam (four, including one shot out from under him on the deck of the U.S.S. Forrestal and the one shot down over Hanoi that resulted in his capture), I had read about enough. It was like watching a media mugging. I wanted to do something. I didn’t know what that something might be, but I figured his campaign might, if I asked them.

And so I found myself at Grand Central Terminal the day before Super Tuesday, waving a sign that read “John McCain Is the Next President.” I’d picked it out of a small pile of pasteboard placards provided by the campaign. It wasn’t the best sign I’d ever seen (it had, I sincerely hope, been painted by a child), but I picked it because of the two little American flags painted on the front. None of the other signs had them. I felt like I’d gotten the slice of cake with the last frosting flower.

I was standing behind a row of movable metal fences in a long line of volunteers. A small platoon of politicians was in front of us, ranging in wattage from Giuliani to Staten Island Rep. Vito Fossella, and a wall of cameras faced our way. We held our signs high, attempting to block the signs of the Hillary supporters in the back of the crowd. The Clintonites made a push up the middle, but it was thwarted. They didn’t even attempt to sneak up along the sides in a pincer maneuver—as if we needed more proof that the Clinton campaign lacks credibility on military issues.

George Pataki and Rudy spoke first. When they delivered their applause lines, we waved our signs around, cheered, and thumped our free hand on the back of the pasteboard. Or maybe I was the only hand thumper, but what was I supposed to do? You can’t clap while holding a sign over your head.

Finally, our man Mac spoke. Even the Clintonites fell into respectful silence. I was maybe 15 feet away, off to the left. He hit all the right themes and we waved our signs and whooped at all the right times. National defense: Yeah! Fiscal responsibility: Woo, woo, woo! It was exciting.

Afterwards, I handed in my sign and waited to see if anyone else wanted to talk to me. I was ready to offer the counterargument to what I’d been reading, to say that I agreed with McCain on many issues, disagreed on others, but thought he had the strength and character to be president. I was ready to be non-vitriolic and object to various tones and tenors. And I was already warmed up. There’d been a minor media feeding frenzy before the event, and I’d been interviewed by camera crews from Houston and, I’m reasonably sure, Taiwan.

The reporter from Taiwan asked me what I thought of McCain’s integrity, and I took a strong pro-integrity position. Just down the line from me, a female volunteer was interviewed in Spanish. (Sound of Rush Limbaugh’s head exploding.) The guy to my left, an Independent named Justin, was interviewed by reporters from Toronto and Brazil.

It had a distinctly international feel, which is not ideal for a domestic political campaign. These interviews were not going to help much in the primaries, but, we joked, at least we weren’t going to cost McCain any votes.

But the event had started late and run long. Once it was over, the remaining reporters encircled the remaining politicians, and, despite being a newly minted Taiwanese TV personality, I was no longer of interest. I filed out past a completely chillaxed golden lab, a bomb-sniffing dog that had done its job and was now lying on the Grand Central tile, tongue out, nose on break.

“Even if you can only slip out of the office for 10 minutes,” the email from McCain’s New York campaign had read, “it’s important that we all try to show the flag.” I returned to my office two hours and 20 minutes later, but damned if I hadn’t shown the flag. Heck, I’d shown two of them.

Writer Michael Northrop is an editor at Time Inc and the author of Gentlemen, a novel for young adults/teens forthcoming from Scholastic. In addition to being a Republican in New York City, he is also a Red Sox fan. He is just like that. More by Michael Northrop