Commentary: Hernandez could not get McCain to be McCain
SAN DIEGO -- Members of the cultural right have called Juan Hernandez a "border obliteration activist," an "American traitor," and an "agent of the Mexican government."
John McCain's presidential campaign called him something different: director of Hispanic outreach. For 14 months leading up to the election, the Fort Worth, Texas, native was a high-level volunteer at McCain '08 headquarters, where he attended daily senior staff meetings and advised the Arizona senator and his top lieutenants about how to appeal to Hispanic voters.
Part of that strategy was highlighting McCain's record of championing comprehensive immigration reform. Meanwhile, down the hall, another portion of the campaign was hard at work trying to make McCain more palatable to the Republican mainstream by de-emphasizing his record of championing comprehensive immigration reform.
"I remember a conference call with GOP leaders from Nevada, after McCain had become the nominee," Hernandez told me recently. "I heard them telling McCain on the conference call, 'Well, we still need some reassurance that you are conservative enough.' I mean, he's already the candidate, and they still want assurances? What are they going to do?"
Hernandez recalled that there were "hundreds of calls" during the primary campaign from local GOP officials asking that McCain come out and state that he was against immigration reform.
This isn't the kind of environment where you would expect to find someone like Hernandez. Or would you? A former professor of U.S.-Mexico studies at the University of Texas, Dallas, he's a guy who always seems to be in the right place at the right time, rubbing elbows with the right people. In the late 1990s, Hernandez crossed paths with both George W. Bush, then the governor of Texas, and Vicente Fox, then the governor of the Mexican state of Guanajuato. He thought the rancher-politicians would hit it off, so he introduced them. Later, Hernandez, who holds dual citizenship, served in Fox's Cabinet as the director of the Office of Mexicans Abroad, a sort of ambassador to Mexican expatriates in the United States.
Not surprisingly, Hernandez has sharp insights into the complex relationship between the two countries. It doesn't hurt that, with a father who was born in Mexico and a mother who was born in the United States, Hernandez has affection for both sides of the border.
For what some see as his divided loyalties, he has taken his share of criticism. Personally, I think this is one of the things that drew McCain to him. As with Sen. Joe Lieberman or Sen. Lindsey Graham, McCain finds kinship with those who have weathered the storm and still stick to their principles.
Hernandez said he met McCain through Fox in 2001, and that their paths kept crossing. After leaving the Mexican government, Hernandez was a senior fellow at the Reform Institute, a think tank that McCain helped start to find middle-ground solutions to pressing issues including immigration.
In August 2007, Hernandez accompanied a friend to McCain's campaign headquarters where he was roped into a staff meeting and asked how the candidate could take the support he had always enjoyed with Hispanics and extend it nationwide. Within hours, Hernandez was invited to join the campaign.
That was the easy part. Things didn't always go as planned. At times, Hernandez said, McCain or some senior staff member would give an order to reach out to Hispanics, only to have it fall through the cracks and never happen. Not everyone, it seems, bought into the importance of Hispanic outreach. At one point, in the spring, Hernandez went to see McCain and tried to quit.
"I was very frustrated," he said. "So I went up to him and told him, 'Thank you very much for allowing me to participate. It's been a great honor. But I can't go on.'
"And to my surprise, he embraced me. And he wouldn't stop embracing me. He said, 'Juan, you have no idea how important it is to me for you to be on this campaign. They keep doing this to me in so many areas.'"
Then, Hernandez said, someone came along and swept McCain away to another meeting. Hernandez decided to stay with the campaign until the final curtain.
What did McCain mean, "They keep doing this to me"? I think it's obvious. He was talking about how some Republicans wanted to make him into something he wasn't. They should have let McCain be McCain. Which is what Juan Hernandez spent months trying to get them to do.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is email@example.com.