At about this point in a presidential campaign, the candidates' top advisers are often reduced to cartoons, their personalities melted into caricatures, their humanity sharpened into daggers aimed at the other guy. Take Steve Schmidt, John McCain's latest political guru--a big, bald, barrel-chested stack of a man nicknamed "the Bullet" for his shiny scalp and steely focus. He's been painted as a bruiser who single-handedly trained McCain in the ruthless ways of general-election politics, in which the press is an adversary and any candor is punished. He's the one who always said Barack Obama was a bundle of hype, easier to beat than Hillary Clinton, less tested than anybody knew. Schmidt is so easy to reduce to a cartoon character that Doonesbury actually gave him a bit part.
And if Schmidt is the candidate's drill sergeant, Mark Salter is his purported soul. A brooding writer who wears a goatee, faded Levis and a cigarette on his lips, Salter is known as the author of the McCain myth, the pen behind five of the Senator's books, the chief deacon in the Church of John. His soaring sentences are said to have been forged from experience, from a youth that had him pounding Iowa railroad ties and dating Miss USA. But neither man has too much patience for his own reputation. Salter, the writer, knows how the game works. "You guys have to write in greater arcs than exist in reality," he says of the press. "Any storyteller does."
The truth about both men is, of course, more complex, unfit to be folded into a few dozen sentences. Salter and Schmidt are among the closest advisers and friends to McCain, but neither is his captain nor his conscience. At times, they serve as his protectors and his soldiers, often spewing negative invective that can border on name-calling. But politics is not their first love or final destination. Unlike Karl Rove, neither man has grand plans to transform Republican politics or the country. They rose to the top of the Washington rock pile by happenstance as much as by design--Salter because of his close friendship with McCain, and Schmidt because most of McCain's other advisers resigned last year. Together, they have edged him toward a new type of campaign, more aggressive in general and less friendly with the press. They are sure to take much of the blame or a considerable amount of the adulation, depending on the election's outcome.
For a politician known to keep the same staff for years, Schmidt, 37, is the newcomer. He grew up in New Jersey, a fan of Ronald Reagan's, though he never fully signed on to the hard right's views on social issues. He attended but left the University of Delaware and gradually worked his way up through small political campaigns, landing in 1998 as a press secretary for the underfunded California Senate campaign of Matt Fong, who lost to Barbara Boxer. At one point, to drum up press coverage about Fong's contention that Boxer did not take terrorism seriously, Schmidt arranged for a man in work clothes to disrupt one of Fong's own press conferences by lighting a Sterno candle to symbolize a chemical attack. "Schmidt always was thinking outside the box," says Fong.
Assignments followed at the Bush campaign in 2004, for Vice President Dick Cheney and then for Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2005 re-election campaign. His current role in the McCain campaign occurred after the candidate realized he needed someone fearless who could ride hard on ... McCain. Salter says Schmidt runs the campaign like the high school football coach he aspires to become. "If you blow it, you are going to run wind sprints," he jokes.
But in general, Schmidt plays against type. While he can deliver a political attack on television like a sledgehammer, he is just as likely to type e-mails that seem written by a 16-year-old: "How r u." Or he will answer the phone like a surfer kid: "Hey, dude." He will talk a lot about his fascination with sharks and his fear of rattlesnakes, the pests that surround his California home and once bit his dog. No single quote has upset him more over the years than the claim that he shouted "Kill! Kill! Kill!" as he worked in the war room of the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign. An absolute falsehood, he maintains, along with the claim that he sometimes gets nosebleeds when he gets angry, like stigmata of his temper. The nosebleeds, he says, just happen sometimes, as they would for anybody else. When McCain calls him "Sergeant Schmidt," the candidate is making a joke on a couple of different levels.
Salter, 53, goes back with McCain longer, and the ties between the two are deeper. Raised in Davenport, Iowa, and schooled at Georgetown, he fell into a freelance speech-writing job for McCain in 1988. Before long, he had become McCain's chief of staff and one of his closest friends. Salter married a former McCain aide. His house in Maine was purchased with the proceeds from the books he wrote for McCain. Mark McKinnon, a veteran of the Bush campaigns who worked closely with McCain and Salter during the primaries, describes Salter's role as that of three staffers in any other campaign: he is chief speechwriter, an encyclopedia of McCain's personal history and the man who can tell McCain anything. "We became close friends," Salter explains of his mentor. McCain calls him "my guy."
There is a widespread assumption that if Salter didn't create the persona that is the modern McCain, he certainly gave it an airbrushing in the books he wrote with the Senator. Salter disputes this. "McCain was a fully formed human being when I met him," Salter explains. "It's his story. It's not some story that I gave him." It is, however, a story Salter passionately defends, endlessly firing off e-mails from his BlackBerry and penning letters to the editors of major publications. But the two men aren't always of one mind. Salter objected strongly to McCain's split from longtime adviser John Weaver last year and even told friends that he might leave the campaign. "Obviously, my first loyalty was to him," he says now of McCain.
Vital as they have been to reviving McCain's chances, both Schmidt and Salter claim little aspiration to power. Win or lose, Salter plans to take months off at his Maine cabin next year. Schmidt has vowed not to serve in a McCain White House, saying he wants to return to California, where he hopes one day to finish college so he can teach high school history and coach teenagers. Like nearly everyone else on McCain's virtually all-male senior staff, the two men have fashioned themselves as ragtag outsiders, buddies and true believers in McCain who will play hard and play to win. Then after hours, instead of sipping martinis, they seek out beer to drink like college kids. Like nearly everything else in McCain's life, Salter and Schmidt are a team that can seem haphazard, a tad risky, even a little unlikely. But McCain wouldn't have it any other way.