The Backstory: Sarah Blustain

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain projected an image as a maverick, even on the issue of reproductive choice. Sarah Blustain shares how she trekked through the backroads of Arizona in search of his true colors.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain projected an image as a maverick, even on the issue of reproductive choice. Polling showed that even pro-choice women were confused about his stance. So Sarah Blustain trekked through the backroads of Arizona in search of his true colors and found out that it was his statements in 2000 that were the aberrations. Here, Investigative Fund web editor Jayati Vora speaks with Blustain about how she got McCain’s old familiars in Arizona to open up. —Eds.

Jayati Vora: What made you decide to tackle John McCain’s views on abortion?

Sarah Blustain: Well it was really the brainchild of The Nation Institute’s Joe Conason, who was picking up on a lot of confusion at the time, which he and I considered purposeful confusion on the part of McCain about his record on abortion and his views on abortion. He obviously had been cozying up to the Right but the last time he ran for president he had hewed to the center a lot more. So it seemed really important to figure out where exactly he stood. The other part of it that was important was that voters did not know and they thought he actually might be pro-choice and women voters in particular, when they found out that he wasn’t pro-choice, were inclined to change their vote. So it seemed like something that was important to make clear.

Vora: So what difficulties did you face in getting the story? Did you find that people were reluctant to talk to you?

Blustain: The first problem was that inside Washington nobody really had anything to say, they all just said, ‘Look at his record. His record is perfectly clear.’ There’s nothing there that would indicate to you that he’s anything other than solidly pro-life. I called advocates and advisors and whoever and they all said, ‘Well, we never even went to John McCain’s office; there’s nothing to say.’ So after really calling all around Washington and advocacy communities I decide to go to Phoenix next because it seemed like at least there, there would be people who knew about his history before it became the Washington fishbowl.

Vora: A lot of the fascinating material from your article stems from Arizona and McCain’s early political history. How did you get his friends or his former colleagues to talk to you?

Blustain: One thing I’ll say is that when you leave the East Coast, and specifically when you leave Washington, people do talk to you [laughs]. I went out, I think I was there for four days and did my research, but called up everybody and said, would you meet with me? And almost universally, they said yes. The ones who didn’t were people inside the Arizona legislature who were pro-choice Republicans, who could not afford to go out on a limb and talk about any of this. A lot of the people I talked to, I probably talked to 20 people out there, had a similar response to the Washington response, which was, ‘What are you talking about? He’s always been pro-life.’ So then I started just saying to them, you know I’m going to ask you really boring questions about what’s John McCain’s view on abortion. But there were people who remembered back, like Grant Wood, who was one of his advisors, who basically had some memory of his really being firm on this from the very beginning. There was also Deb Gullett who was a powerful person in the state and a longtime advisor of his, talked to me as a pro-choice advisor of his, and I think for her it was probably a way of pushing him, because she doesn’t do interviews about him. But on this, I think, because her views were different from his, she was willing to come out.

Vora: Was it a historical sorting through the inconsistencies in his position? Was that how you rooted out his true feelings about abortion?

Blustain: I think what really became clear was that what happened in 2000, and his statements in 2000, were the aberration. Everything from his first arrival in the state, and I talked to pro-life leaders there, one of the founders of the National Right to Life committee is out there, she’s in her 80s and a doctor, there’s another guy who I think is the head of the chapter now. And they all welcomed me into their offices and talked and, from the very beginning of his presence there he was putting advertisements in the Right to Life dinner advertising guides. And so I think it was very clear from the beginning that he was not being political and when you talk to people about what he said privately, it was clear that he wasn’t being political. What happened in 2000 as a result, my interpretation of it, was really his desperate attempt to find a political niche for himself and in the end it didn’t work.

Vora: So what do you think the public perception of McCain’s stance on abortion was before your article appeared and do you think it changed at all afterwards? I know your article got a lot of press and attention from especially women’s groups, and journalists, it won a journalism award from Planned Parenthood recently (congratulations, by the way).

Blustain: Thank you. Well the surprising thing for me was, not long after it came out I heard the Obama campaign was emailing it around, which is always a funny situation to be in as a journalist. You know, I wasn’t doing it particularly for Obama or whatever, I was doing it for journalistic reasons. Just to back up, I think there was a ton of confusion about where he stood, and in the article I had spoken to Cecile Richards, who is the head of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and she said that even well into the campaign, donors — well educated, well informed donors to Planned Parenthood — did not know what his position on abortion was. And it’s not just abortion, of course, it’s the whole basket of pro-life things that he would support. And they thought he might be pro-choice. So the idea that he actually had this voting record that the people in Washington knew about so well had not penetrated into the country at all. Obviously, my article did not do him in, but I think that for people who care about this issue, it got circulated widely enough that more people did know. Nobody does polling on my articles [laughs].

Vora: Where do you think that confusion stemmed from, was it just his 2000 position?

Blustain: It wasn’t just 2000. I mean, 2000 was very stark, because he would go around saying maybe he’d take a pro-choice running mate, and maybe this and maybe that. He was really trying to muddy the waters. But of course McCain had positioned himself as a maverick all along, so he had really pissed people off on stem cell, Republicans on the right, really pissed them off on campaign finances, so for ordinary voters, who were not reading so carefully, he did seem like a maverick. I mean there was no one who would challenge the Republican establishment that much. And so when he started being mushy about his pro-life credentials, it probably seemed consistent with the maverick image. So it was that package. To be honest, the pro-life people that I spoke to in Arizona did not seem to hold 2000 against him, but of course, he was their only option at that point, so they had kind of buried the hatchet on that one.

Vora: Was there a startling or unexpected episode that you uncovered during the course of your reporting?

Blustain: Well, I spoke to a lot of very nice women in Arizona who have been working for decades not just to push McCain, but to push the state in a more centrist direction, I mean no one would even say a left direction, just a centrist. They’re very, very enthusiastic about what they’re doing, even though it’s a real uphill battle. So among those that I spoke to, it’s sort of a small network, and one of them told me a story about being in Washington, for a lobbying day, and running into McCain on the train that runs on Capitol Hill, and they asked him, ‘Can we talk to you for a minute?’ And they wanted to talk to him about some pro-choice matter. (I say they’re all very nice, because these are not intimidating people, they’re just Arizona women who are very active in their state.) And so they started talking to him and got on the train with him and then, all of a sudden, they tell this story that he turned around and started banging one of the ladies in the chest with his finger and saying, ‘How dare you try to intimidate me on this!’ It was such a strange reaction for somebody who was a powerful man in Washington at that time, to say to someone, I mean she was one of his constituents on top of everything else, for asking a question in a public place. It really was one of those examples where you could see that when McCain got uncomfortable he did really poorly in public. Obviously there were more during the campaign, but I think that it spoke to his discomfort with the issue.

Vora: Do you have any advice for young investigative journalists?

Blustain: I have lots, but we’d then have to sit down and talk. Honestly, it’s a big undertaking; you should find an outlet that values you, that supports you and that works with you. The value of news and new information over anything else will never be trumped, no matter what happens in print journalism or online journalism or whatever. So getting something that nobody else has is always the highest priority in journalism, and I think that’s really the prize.

Vora: Thank you so much, Sarah.

About the reporter

Jayati Vora

Jayati Vora

Jayati Vora is managing editor at The Investigative Fund. Previously, she was features editor for Al Jazeera America, and during her time there led numerous longform and investigative projects.