Posted: May 21, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Seaford had such an aura to it on Saturday, maybe it was not so strange that even someone who could be the next president of the United States turned up here.

It was a day for good-byes in this little city in western Sussex County, its 6,000 or so residents knitted together by patriotism as tightly as the DuPont Nylon that made it famous.

There was a joyful sendoff for state Rep. Tina Fallon, an 88-year-old Republican and Seaford's best-known retired school teacher who is making her 14th legislative term her last.

There was a solemn farewell for Cory Palmer and Rick James, Marines barely in their 20s, killed in Iraq a week apart. The viewing for Palmer was Saturday, with his funeral scheduled on Sunday and the one for James on Wednesday.

U.S. flags fastened to porches and lowered to half-staff in front of public places were as plentiful as they were after Sept. 11, a Gold Star city spontaneously forming itself into an honor guard for its lost Marines.

In an accident of timing, John McCain came to Seaford, a visit from a Republican presidential prospect and one of the country's most famed war heroes who knows firsthand the sacrifice that William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet, once called "a terrible beauty."

McCain has the bearing of a military man, although he is nowhere near as tall as he stands in political lore, and there is an imperfection to it, a marked rigidity to his shoulders that comes from two broken arms (and a knee) that were left untreated when his Navy aircraft was hit over Vietnam in 1967 and he spent more than five years as a prisoner of war.

McCain was supposed to be in Delaware on Saturday only for a fund-raiser in Dewey Beach for U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, a fellow Republican maverick, but Castle became determined to get McCain across Sussex County to Seaford, too, and Castle does not lose many of those.

The timing was tight -- McCain was coming in from New York and had to be back in Washington for an appearance the next morning on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace -- but they did it.

McCain and Castle strolled into the Seaford Fire Hall precisely on time for Castle to give his tribute to Fallon in front of about 350 people, who were not as surprised as they might have been because of speculation all week long that McCain might show.

Trim and turned-out as ever, the tiny Fallon sat on a makeshift throne with red cushioning and a high wooden back, and she wore a dress of deep turquoise with swirls of royal purple. With Castle at the microphone, she was flanked by McCain and U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, a Democrat, in an unforgettable tableau that could have happened only in Delaware.

McCain spoke for about three minutes, but he said everything he needed to say, both about Fallon and the fallen Marines.

At 69, McCain said his age would be a question if he runs for president, so he quipped it would help "if Tina would consider being my running mate," and then he got serious and offered condolences for "two brave young men."

It was short, but it was memorable. As former Mayor Daniel B. Short, the master of ceremonies who is also the Republican candidate running for Fallon's seat, said afterwards, "We're getting to see the spectrum of emotion here in Seaford. His remarks were right on the money."

An hour or so earlier in Dewey Beach at Castle's fund-raiser, McCain had talked about the war he supports in Iraq and its effects, not only its frustrations but its promise if the government there is stabilized, the economy improved, oil production restored and U.S. casualties stanched.

"Americans are very unhappy because we have not completed the mission. We have made many mistakes, but mistakes are made in every war," he said. "Insurgencies are always slowly won. . . . Democracy is contagious. If it works in Iraq, it'll spread throughout the Middle East."

McCain's sober assessment seemed extra-stark because of the surroundings. It was otherwise a light-hearted spring day at the beach with about 100 of the beautiful people gathered at an oceanfront property, which once belonged to a du Pont, for an event expected to ladle another $25,000 or $30,000 into Castle's campaign treasury -- already plump at more than $1 million, in contrast to Democrat Dennis Spivack, running in the red.

For the most part, McCain was light-hearted, too, after Castle introduced him in the spirit of the day as "almost always right in what he is doing -- a little further right than I am."

McCain joked about his presidential ambitions as the senator from a state that failed to launch Barry Goldwater, Mo Udall, and Bruce Babbitt -- "Arizona may be the only state in American where mothers don't tell their children they can grow up to be president" -- and about the appalling poll numbers for Republicans on Capitol Hill -- "The approval rating of Congress is 22 percent, you get down to paid staff and blood relatives."

McCain said he has not decided whether he will run for president in 2008 and was traveling throughout the country simply to help Republican candidates for the Congress in 2006, but nobody was buying that. Here he was in an early primary state with a seven-term congressman who does not so much run for re-election as cake-walk to it.

"I can't remember a situation where the nominee was so clear this far out, other than re-election," said Glenn C. Kenton, a former secretary of state for Gov. Pierre S. du Pont from 1977 to 1985 and chief adviser for du Pont's 1988 presidential campaign. "I think it's a lay-down. Who's going to beat him?"

Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman, had similar thoughts. "He's the front-runner. Everybody points to him, not just for the Republican nomination but for president. It's almost as if he's a rock star. I'm impressed enough to say to him, Senator, let's talk," she said.

McCain got a kick out of being in Dewey Beach when he was told he was next to a multi-million dollar house that once belonged to Michael Scanlon, the local ex-lifeguard and Washington lobbyist who teamed up with Jack Abramoff to bilk Indian tribes and influence members of Congress.

McCain, as the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, investigated Scanlon's dealings and was as captivated as everyone else in official Washington by the testimony from a lifeguard enticed for $2,500 to be a front man for a phony think tank. The duped lifeguard was happy to expose all -- down to a bogus board meeting that lasted 15 minutes.

"The lifeguard looked a lot like Kato Kaelin to me," McCain said. "It was a remarkable hearing. It was one of those times you say, you can't make it up."

It was very funny, and it helped to make Dewey Beach feel like an oasis. Not long after, McCain was on his way across the county to Seaford, where as the poet says, a terrible beauty was born.