According to McCain aides, the crucial moment came in the planning for the 2008 convention. I was told that Manafort lobbied desperately to become manager of the Republican National Convention, to take on the role of orchestrating the show. This was the sort of job that he held several times before. It represented the sort of behind-the-scenes power that he sought his entire career. Because of his relationship with Davis, and because of his resume, he thought of the job as something close to his birthright. But McCain didn’t want any further association with Manafort, so he denied him the job, a rejection that sent Manafort into a fit of rage and depression. All the evidence for rejecting Paul Manafort as a man of dubious character was amply available in 2008—and McCain acted upon it.
During the approximate time that McCain was mulling these decisions, I remember watching him at a town hall meeting in Northern Virginia. I remember crowding into a sweaty gymnasium—and listening to him discourse on the history of political reform and the legacy of the McCain-Feingold legislation. What he described was a cycle: In a moment of fervor, responding to instances of malfeasance, the country would enanct new, stricter limits on acceptable political behavior. But, after a time, complacency would set in. The forces of corruption would discover the loopholes in the new limits and find novel methods for feasting on the system. Eventually, the public would reawaken to the problem and a sense of fervor would descend again, creating the conditions for a new set of reforms to impose even more stringent limits. There was no escaping this cycle, he said, no alternative to imperfect reforms. In a way, he was describing his own history on the subject—how he sometimes failed, but ultimately recovered and then spoiled for a fight.