Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
For 50 years, Howard Wilkinson has been covering the campaigns, personalities, scandals, and business of politics on a local, state and national level. He's interviewed mayors, council members, county commissioners, governors, senators, and representatives. With so many years covering so many politicians, there must be stories to tell, right?

The Day John McCain Filleted Bill Cunningham

john mccain
Gage Skidmore
Flickr Creative Commons
Senator John McCain speaking at a 2013 town hall in Phoenix, Ariz.

Here's another story that ought to convince you that John McCain is not your typical politician.

Over the past 44 years or so, I've been to far more political rallies than any one human being should be forced to endure.

And, with those involving Secret Service protection of the candidate, I've had to show up way early, often hours before the candidate was scheduled to speak.

Sometimes, I was traveling with the candidate's press entourage, which meant that I usually arrived at the event just moments before the candidate took the stage.

But, most of the time, I was already on the ground at the event and had to wait for the stampede of traveling media to race into the media pen like a herd of buffalo. When that happened, it was the sure sign that the candidate was about to speak.

The hours standing around waiting for the candidate's appearance was usually taken up by music blaring over the loudspeakers. (At Donald Trump's rallies, that usually mean a continuous loop of country music, heavy metal and frequent playings of Luciano Pavarotti's rendition of Nessum dorma.)

Also, there is usually a period of time-killing by one of the local political party officials, who burns up the clock by introducing every elected official in attendance, along with every candidate for public office and, if really desperate, everyone who has even thought about becoming a candidate.

Then, there is usually a local celebrity there to warm up the crowd with a red-meat speech aimed at firing up the party faithful, in an attempt to raise the excitement level for the candidate.

On that day in southwest Ohio, that task had often fallen to WLW's conservative talk show king Bill Cunningham, who specializes in fanning the flames on the right and hurling insults at anyone with whom he disagrees (read: liberals, Democrats, and do-gooders in general).

Well, on February 27, 2008, at Memorial Hall in Over-the-Rhine, Cunningham did his fire-up-the-crowd routine and did it well.

A little too well for the candidate Cunningham was warming up the crowd for: Sen. John McCain, who had, by then, just about wrapped up the Republican presidential nomination.

That day, I saw something I had never seen before and probably never will see again – a candidate, after his rally was over, ask the media to stay in place while he came out and lambasted his warm-up speaker. He absolutely filleted Cunningham. Took him apart up one side and down the other.

And McCain did it because he had been told that, before McCain came on stage, Cunningham was roaming the stage with a microphone, shouting out insults aimed at Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton (who were battling for the Democratic presidential nomination), the news media (imagine that!) and even 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.

Four times, Cunningham referred to Obama as "Barack Hussein Obama,'' using his middle name, as he often did on the air, in an obvious attempt to suggest that Obama was a Muslim.

Here's a sampling of "Willie" at Memorial Hall:

Obama, he said, is a "hack Dailey-style Chicago politician who is picturing himself as change. When he gets done with you, all you are going to have in your pocket is change.

"At some point in the near future, the stooges in the media – the New York Times, CBS, NBC , the Nobody But Clinton network, the All-Bill Clinton channel, ABC – at some point is going to peel the bark off of Barack Hussein Obama,'' Cunningham said to a full-house audience, made up mostly of the employees of Republican officeholders who had emptied out from their offices.

"That day will come,'' prophesied The Great American, as he refers to himself and just about everybody else. Even me, one time.

Then he started going on about Obama and his relationship with Chicago campaign fundraiser Tony Rezko, accusing Obama of taking "illegal loans" from Rezko. Rezko did time in prison on corruption charges, but the charges had absolutely nothing to do with Obama.

Then there was more stuff about the "Democrat stooges and sycophants in the media." Then, for some reason, he started going on about "Michael Du-Cockeye" having a large lead over George H.W. coming out of the Democratic convention in 1988 and how he blew that lead. Apparently, the point was that the Democratic candidate – Obama or Clinton – would lose his or her lead, too.

Ordinarily, the traveling press would hear none – or very little – of this warm-up stuff; they'd be rushing into the press area as the candidate was entering the building.

But, on this day, there was some sort of private event that McCain had scheduled in Cincinnati before the Memorial Hall rally – a fundraiser, a private meeting with Bigfoot Cincinnati Republicans. I'm not sure. But it meant that the traveling press was dumped off in Memorial Hall just as Cunningham was getting warmed up.

The local media wasn't paying much attention to Cunningham; after all, they had heard it all a thousand times before.

But the national media was dumbstruck. They couldn't believe what they were hearing. All of them fired up their video cameras, began scribbling notes and banging away on their laptops.

They all had this stunned look on their faces: Who is this guy?

I knew a lot of them and they started coming to me asking me who this guy was and what was with him? I even had to spell his name for some of them; and gave them the call letters of WLW, The Big One.

Suddenly, anything McCain would have to say to the crowd was secondary. The story the national media was jumping on was Cunningham. And, yes, I jumped on too.

There were some McCain press aides out in the media pen and they couldn't help but hear the buzz about Cunningham. They ran backstage and presumably told McCain what was going on in the media pen and on stage.

McCain, I'm told, was hotter than a firecracker when he heard about Cunningham's performance.

After Cunningham was finished filling the room with gas, then-congressman and now senator Rob Portman came on stage to introduce McCain to the audience.

"Willie, you're out of control again,'' Portman said to Cunningham. "So what else is new? But we love him. But I've got to tell you – Bill Cunningham lending his voice to this campaign is extremely important."

McCain did his speech for the assembled Republicans and it was well received.

As the hall was clearing out, Mark Salter, McCain's longtime friend and aide, came out to the media pen and asked us to stay for a while.

"The senator wants to talk to you for a minute,'' Salter said.

Of course, everyone stayed. The traveling press had nowhere else to go and the locals knew there was a good story coming down the pike.

McCain strode out to the perimeter of the media pen, with then-Sen. Mike DeWine and Portman on each side of him.

McCain, as usual, was blunt.

"That person who was on the program before I spoke made some disparaging remarks about my colleagues in the Senate, Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton,'' McCain said, clearly agitated. "I have repeatedly stated my respect for Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton and I will treat them with respect.

"I will call them 'senator' and have a respectful debate, as I have said on a hundred occasions," McCain said. "I regret any comments that may be made about these two individuals, who are honorable Americans.

"I absolutely repudiate such comments and, again, I will take responsibility. It will never happen again."

He repeated himself, red in the face:

It will never happen again!

Cunningham, who had left the building before McCain, spent a few days defending himself, saying on his show that he was "angry at McCain. Why would he repudiate me? I've been able to unite McCain and Obama against me. I might become a supporter of Ralph Nader."

And he said on NPR that he used the middle name "Hussein" because that's common with presidents – Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dwight David Eisenhower, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Well, nice try, Willie.

The bottom line was that Cunningham, who demanded the media "peel the bark" off Barack Obama, had the bark peeled off him by Sen. John McCain.

tftt bio

Read more here.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.