The conventional wisdom among pooh-bahs inside the Beltway is that it is now too late for George W. Bush to select Sen. John McCain as his running mate. This tired consensus is based on the calculation that McCain has repeatedly said—or seemed to say—that he is not interested, capped by the observation that Bush has already chosen someone else.
But that is a naive view. This column has learned that McCain is more willing than previously reported to consider the possibility of becoming the Republican vice-presidential nominee. In an exclusive interview with this column, McCain signaled his continuing interest in the No. 2 slot. McCain is a sophisticated politician whose words must be interpreted with care. But the message he was sending in the following exchange, while subtle, could not be clearer:
THIS COLUMN: Do you rule out any possibility that you might be willing to accept the Republican vice-presidential nomination?
McCAIN: Where have you been? He's already picked someone else.
THIS COLUMN: OK, but suppose he hadn't. Or suppose Bush changes his mind. Or suppose this other guy gets run over by a truck. Yeah, a truck. Would you be willing in that case?
McCAIN: Let me spell it out for you. I would rather spend the next four years back in the Hanoi Hilton than as vice president of the United States.
THIS COLUMN: Does that mean no?
THIS COLUMN: Yes? Yes, you would be willing?
McCAIN: No. Yes, that means no.
THIS COLUMN: No?
THIS COLUMN: OK, OK, but suppose this. Suppose this other guy comes down with a horrible fatal disease, and suppose Gov. Bush comes to you on his knees and begs you to run with him for the good of the party and the country? And suppose that a crazed scientist gets hold of a terrible poison, three drops of which are enough to kill millions of people, and suppose he threatens to put it in the water supply of a major city unless you agree to run for vice president. In that case, would you accept the nomination?
McCAIN: Well, in that case I suppose I would have to consider it.
THIS COLUMN: So, in other words, you don't rule out the possibility of running for vice president?
McCAIN: Excuse me, I have another exclusive interview on the other line.
McCain's renewed interest in the No. 2 slot clearly complicates Gov. Bush's decision, which was complicated enough by the fact that he's already made it. Adding further complication is the sudden availability of Gen. Colin Powell. Powell has long indicated—by such statements as "no" and "absolutely not" and "look, can't you get it through your thick skull?"—that he was inclined against running for vice president. But in an exclusive interview with this column, he reopened the door. (The interview was conducted before Bush announced his choice of someone else.)
THIS COLUMN: Will you run for vice president if George W. Bush asks you to?
POWELL: No. Not a chance.
THIS COLUMN: Oh please? Please, please, please?
POWELL: N-O spells no!
THIS COLUMN: Pretty please with sugar on top?
POWELL: Who let you in my house anyway? Get out of here before I call the cops.
It is noteworthy that Powell, a man who chooses his words with care, did not say that he would not run for vice president if George W. Bush did not ask him to. Bush's announcement this week that he has, in fact, asked someone else makes this scenario all the more likely.
Like his decision to call off the Gulf War before reaching Baghdad, Powell's decision to cut off his interview with this column before totally clarifying his availability for the No. 2 slot is a risky strategy that may come back to haunt him during the fall election campaign. Among other difficulties, it creates an opening for Ross Perot, whose expressions of non-interest in the nomination of the Reform Party are widely interpreted as expressions of interest in the nomination of the Reform Party. The widely felt concern (though it has yet to be articulated by anybody, at least on the record) is that without Powell or McCain on the ticket, reform-minded Republicans might desert Bush for Perot.
But is Perot running? Here is what he said in an exclusive interview with this column:
PEROT: No, Larry, I'm not running this year.
THIS COLUMN: My name isn't Larry.
PEROT: Then I'm not talking to you.
The mercurial Perot has often been known to change his mind, however, and there is a widespread belief in the political community that, after taking him seriously in two relatively exciting elections, he owes us a run in this one, when we need him.
In any event, only time will tell whether these new hints of interest by McCain, Powell, and Perot are real or figments of an underactive imagination that won't release its grip on an old story line. But one thing is clear: This column, and the rest of the media, will keep asking until we get the answers we want.