EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appeared in the May 1, 2000, issue of National Review.
One of the first things people notice about Connie Mack is the hole in his smile. At 13, the future Republican senator from Florida dove into a swimming pool and chipped his front tooth. The dentist told him he was too young to have it capped because the root might die. A few years later, the question came up again. “I decided never to do anything about it,” says Mack. “It had become a part of who I am.”
That’s another thing about Mack: He may be more comfortable with who he is than any other politician in Washing ton. He plans to retire from the Senate next January-a decision he announced more than a year ago, to complete surprise in a city of climbers. Mack leaves behind a safe seat and a career still on the rise. In his 1994 reelection campaign (against Hillary Clinton’s brother), he won 71 percent of the vote-more than any other GOP Senate candidate that year. In 1996, Bob Dole very nearly chose him as his running mate. Today Mack says 18 years in Congress is enough, and that if he had to live his life over again, maybe he’d go into genetics research or biotechnology. “I don’t want to give the impression that I’m tired of politics, because I’m not,” he says. “But I’ll be 60 in October. If I’m going to do something different with my life, the time is now, not when I’m 66.”
Mack may be asked to do something different with his life even before October. In a conversation with National Review in March, George W. Bush mentioned Mack as a potential vice-presidential pick. No surprise: As a popular pol from a state the Republicans lost four years ago for the first time in 20 years, he makes sense geographically. As an Irish Catholic, he makes sense demographically. And as a pro-life supply-sider, he makes sense ideologically. There’s only one problem: “I’m not looking to do it,” says Mack. But would he? “The answer is no.” Bush has until the end of July, when the GOP convention begins, to get to yes.
If Bush taps Mack, pundits will immediately accuse Bush of weakness- having to protect a state that ought to be firmly in the GOP column. But there’s reason to believe Florida is worth defending aggressively. In supporting legal residency for Elian Gonzalez, the vice president bucked his party’s Castro philes to please Miami voters. And Gore advisers talk constantly about putting Florida’s other senator, Bob Graham, on the ticket. “Gore might be competitive here even without Graham,” says Herb Harmon, former executive director of the state GOP. Most polls show Bush ahead in Florida, but a recent one actually had him 6 percentage points down. Although Bush might win Florida without Mack, selecting him would lock up the state-and liberate time and money for battles to the north.
Mack would be useful there, too. His name has a unique resonance in Philadelphia, where his grandfather, also called Connie Mack, was the longtime owner and manager of baseball’s Philadelphia Athletics (since relocated to Oakland, via Kansas City). Old Connie Mack, a Hall of Famer, is perhaps the most storied name in the city’s history. Sen. Mack was born in Philadelphia, but his family moved to Florida when he was a boy. (Spring-training weather is hard to resist.) A lot of Pennsylvania voters from a certain generation-and perhaps a few old-timers living in Philadelphia’s New Jersey suburbs-would smile if they saw Mack’s name on the ballot. And what a great story for the local media during the GOP convention in the City of Brotherly Love: Connie Mack comes home.
One of the things they’ll talk about is how Connie Mack got his name. Like his grandfather, Sen. Mack is legally named Cornelius McGillicuddy. That’s what it says on his driver’s license. Legend has it that Philly sportswriters found the name too unwieldy for headlines and scorecards, so they shortened it, and the nickname caught on. Florida law permits candidates to put any name they want on the ballot, as long as they’re not defrauding the public. So Cornelius McGillicuddy III became Connie Mack.
The Bush campaign might actually want him to change his name back, at least for the purpose of bumper stickers. Is there a more quintessentially Irish name than McGillicuddy? Mack, a former altar boy who attends weekly Mass, would go a long way toward countering the anti- Catholic image Republicans have in the wake of the Bob Jones and House- chaplain controversies. That would be a big plus in the Northeast and Midwest, and perhaps among Hispanics as well.
Mack himself embodies the political migration of many Catholic voters from staunch Democrat to occasional Re publican. He was a registered Democrat until the late 1970s, but not active in politics. “I became frustrated with Jimmy Carter,” he says. Mack was president of a small bank in Cape Coral and remembers receiving a letter from the federal government telling him at what temperature he could set his thermostat. “It seemed like the government was forcing its way into everything,” he recalls. The night Ronald Reagan was elected president, Mack watched the results on television and turned to his wife. “I told her, ‘The decision that was made tonight is so important, I have to get involved in it somehow.’” Two years later, he ran for Congress and won-as a Republican.
In Congress, he has been a solid conservative. He is currently head of the Joint Economic Committee, a sort of economic idea factory that issues policy papers instead of writing legislation. He’s also a supply-sider who has never met a tax cut he didn’t like: His PAC is named after Adam Smith.
Social issues initially took a back seat to Mack’s focus on economics. He compiled a near-perfect pro-life voting record in the House, but was perceived by some as pro-choice because he refused to support a federal law to ban abortion outright. He also voted for the ERA. A few years later, however, he changed his mind on both counts.
In 1987, Mack announced for the Senate. It looked like political suicide, because Lawton Chiles, chairman of the powerful Senate Budget Committee, held the seat. But two months later, Chiles said he was quitting. Mack instead faced Buddy MacKay and nicked him by less than a percentage point in a race that featured the immortal line: “Hey, Buddy, you’re a liberal!” During the campaign, Bob Graham famously labeled Mack “an ideological wacko.” Today, however, the two men are friends: “Most people in politics have some words they’d like to pull out of the ether,” says Graham, referring to that old comment. “I think Connie would be a good running mate for Bush.”
Indeed, everybody loves Connie. He does a great Nixon impression and enjoys showing off the baseball memorabilia in his office. He’s one of the most popular members of the Senate. Mack is a rare creature in Washington: a conviction politician who has no enemies. “He is at once extremely aggressive and has no rough edge,” says Mitch Bainwol, Mack’s former chief of staff.
And he has an interesting personal story: His family has been cursed by cancer. Both of his parents had it, his younger brother died from it, and he, his wife, and his daughter have all survived it. Last August, Mack had two small carcinomas removed from his back-a minor procedure, and nothing compared with the full-blown melanoma he survived in 1989.
The experience has made Mack and his wife, Priscilla, champions of increased funding for medical research. How could it not? Yet Mack’s insistent advocacy-he wants to double the budget of the National Institutes of Health over five years-has caused many conservatives in Congress to grumble that their friend is willing to write a blank check to a federal agency with skewed priorities. (In 1997, NIH spent $70,000 per AIDS death, compared with $5,000 for cancer and $2,000 for heart disease.) It has also caused Mack to part ways with many pro-lifers on embryo research, which depends on cells and tissues obtained from abortions.
Bush and Mack do not have a strong personal relationship. They became familiar with each other in the early 1990s when Mack was calling baseball teams to encourage the sport’s expansion into Florida, and Bush was head of the Texas Rangers club. Bush also has said he was impressed with a prayer-breakfast speech Mack gave on the morning of Jeb Bush’s inauguration as governor of Florida.
Yet it’s obvious the men complement each other well. Mack’s D.C. resume adds experience to the ticket. His health-care expertise would allow Bush to focus on education, the other social issue sure to dominate the election. And what Democrat will have the gall to demonize a GOP health- care plan outlined by Connie Mack, cancer survivor?
The only real question is whether Mack would run. Perhaps there’s a clue in Mack’s own political history. In 1987, when he had done everything but formally announce his Senate campaign, he got cold feet. He didn’t feel, in his gut, the need to run; so he pulled out. But then Chiles started talking about raising taxes. A few months later, Mack was back. A few months after that, he was a senator.