In August 1996, Kevin McCarthy invited me to accompany him on an Amtrak ride from Los Angeles to San Diego. It was a party train, in more ways than one: Thirty people from Kern County, happily sequestered in the far-rear car, were heading south for the Republican National Convention. McCarthy knew I had a responsibility to report what I'd see but he saved me a seat anyway.
McCarthy was the most popular guy on the train, and not because people felt the need to schmooze him. He was still four years away from holding his first elective office as a Kern Community College District trustee; at this time he was just an engaging 31-year-old aide to Rep. Bill Thomas. But he laughed a lot, made others feel good about themselves and people seemed drawn to him.
The nomination of Bob Dole and Jack Kemp was a foregone conclusion, so McCarthy and the local Republican delegation had relatively little to do that week in San Diego: Mostly just network, celebrate and compare McCarthy's perfect JFK hair to that of Kemp, Dole's vice presidential nominee.
Two days into the convention, McCarthy invited me to have lunch with his boss. He and I shared a cab to Old Town San Diego, a historic section of the city lined with restaurants and T-shirt shops just north of Mission Hills.
We walked into a place called Casa de Reyes and there, at a big, round table near the back, was Rep. William M. Thomas, chairman of the House Committee on Administration and the future chairman, five years later, of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
As we waited for our Mexican platters to arrive I must have said something about ideology, because Bill Thomas the Bakersfield College political science professor suddenly emerged. Thomas took out a pen and, drawing on a white paper placemat, illustrated how my horizontal-line, two-dimensional understanding of liberal vs. conservative economics was all wrong. Ideology, he said, is like a wheel: Go too far to the extreme right and you have essentially joined the extreme left, and vice versa. And he explained why. I was fascinated.
So was McCarthy, even though he had probably heard all of it from the congressman before. He was so animated in his enthusiasm he practically wiggled out of his chair.
Kevin, I thought, was born to this. He sat at the right hand of the smartest man in Washington, had a feel for people, and relished the idea of making policy and winning elections.
So it was no shock to me or anyone else when, in a rout, he was elected to the California State Assembly, where he served from 2002 to 2006, the last two years of that time as minority leader. When Thomas retired from the House in 2006, McCarthy ran to succeed him and again won easily. By 2014, he was the House majority leader.
But McCarthy was never the policy guy his mentor was. He was the caucus builder, the vote-counter, the fundraiser, the fund dispenser and one of the party's chief spokesmen.
His endorsement meant something. And when Donald Trump, almost out of nowhere, won the 2016 Republican nomination for president, McCarthy — despite having joked to colleagues earlier that year that, "swear to God," Vladimir Putin had Trump on his payroll — jumped aboard the Orange Bluster Special.
The connection has not served him well. Trump's demand for loyalty — not just of McCarthy, but of everyone in his orbit — has compelled the Bakersfield native to at times speak nonsense.
Two examples among many, one six weeks into Trump's presidency, the other just last Sunday.
In March 2017, in an appearance on MSNBC, McCarthy declared, “I think, (for) the trust of the American people," Attorney General Jeff Sessions should recuse himself from the just-developing Russia inquiry.
Two hours later, perhaps after taking an important phone call, McCarthy appeared on Fox News to claim he’d suggested no such thing. “It’s amazing how people spin things so quickly,” he said. Indeed it is.
But McCarthy's Sept. 29 interview with Scott Pelley of "60 Minutes" easily topped the recusal flip-flop in terms of smoldering disasters.
McCarthy accused Pelley of inserting a consequential "though" into the transcript of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, then seemed surprised to learn he was mistaken. Then, asked about Trump's alleged quid pro quo with Ukraine, he filibustered shamelessly. When Pelley noted that McCarthy's "nothing to see here" defense hewed closely to the White House's Ukraine talking points, which had been inadvertently shared with Democrats and thus the world, McCarthy replied: "I've never seen one talking point from the White House."
He had, in fact, helped write them. McCarthy was among the few GOP legislators invited to "get an early look at the readout and coordinate their talking points" at a White House meeting prior to the release of the transcript, according to The New York Times and Politico. All of which Pelley helpfully pointed out.
McCarthy's loyalty to Trump won't cost him in Bakersfield, where the Democratic Party knows better than to bother funding a 23rd Congressional District opponent, but it may well cost him in an area that many politicians do and should care about: their legacies. McCarthy's conscious decision to attach his political fortunes to Trump's are the chief reason he should worry about that.
This will never happen, but I am compelled to suggest it anyway: It is well past time for McCarthy to cautiously extricate himself from the circle of support around this president, toward whom I believe history will not be kind. I understand attempting such a maneuver is fraught with challenge, but lingering near this looming implosion will be further detrimental to McCarthy's career and, yes, his legacy.
What Trump has done, first soliciting Ukraine, then China, to produce incriminating or damaging evidence on a likely 2020 opponent is, according to Federal Election Commission Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub, patently illegal.
But what kind of good Republican calls out his own president for soliciting political help from a foreign government? Good Republicans like Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., who on Thursday told the Omaha World-Herald: “Hold up: Americans don’t look to Chinese commies for the truth. If the Biden kid broke laws by selling his name to Beijing, that’s a matter for American courts, not communist tyrants running torture camps.”
If other Republicans can back away from this mess without damaging their credentials, McCarthy can, too.
He need not be loud about it. No press releases, no speeches. Silence will suffice, for now, while the Democrats' impeachment inquiry, and migrating national polls, play out. But McCarthy ought to leave himself a place to pivot.
I get it: For Trump's closest ally in the House to abandon him now seems politically implausible. My point, that history judges harshly, may produce eye rolls, snark and little else. McCarthy is more likely to respond to this: His top priority as minority leader is to become majority leader. Restoring some stability at the top of the ticket might be his best strategy.
From my vantage point, the Republican bench looks every bit as strong as the Democrats' — and I'm not referring to Mark Sanford or any of the handful of declared intraparty challengers. Several — Mitt Romney, anyone? Marco Rubio? John Kasich? — might stand a better chance than any current option among the Democrats, whose three front-runners are in their 70s — late 70s in two cases — and whose fresher faces may be too far left for Middle America's tastes.
The Republicans may yet pluck victory from this mounting disaster, but it will take some hard decisions.
For starters, Kevin McCarthy needs to think about catching a different train.