Focus on McCain

We now know what the Republican strategy will be against Barack Obama. He will be tarred as an unpahttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.giftriotic man tied to terrorists (Ayers, Hamas), an Angry Black Man (Rev. Wright), and a liberal taxoholoic (Charlie Gibson’s capital gainst taxes, beware.) But how should the Democrats define John McCain?

My take is that McCain should be lashed to George W. Bush. An apt slogan might be “four more years.” But John McCain also has a temperament problem, as outlined in the Washington Post this weekend:

McCain: A Question of Temperament

By Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 20, 2008; A01

John McCain cupped a fist and began pumping it, up and down, along the side of his body. It was a gesture familiar to a participant in the closed-door meeting of the Senate committee who hoped that it merely signaled, as it sometimes had in the past, McCain’s mounting frustration with one of his colleagues.

But when McCain leaned toward Charles E. Grassley and slowly said, “My friend . . .” it seemed clear that ugliness was looming: While the plural “my friends” was usually a warm salutation from McCain, “my friend” was often a prelude to his most caustic attacks. Grassley, an Iowa Republican with a reputation as an unwavering legislator, calmly held his ground. McCain became angrier, his fist pumping even faster.

It was early 1992, and the occasion was an informal gathering of a select committee investigating lingering issues about Vietnam War prisoners and those missing in action, most notably whether any American servicemen were still being held by the Vietnamese. It is unclear precisely what issue set off McCain that day. But at some point, he mocked Grassley to his face and used a profanity to describe him. Grassley stood and, according to two participants at the meeting, told McCain, “I don’t have to take this. I think you should apologize.”

McCain refused and stood to face Grassley. “There was some shouting and shoving between them, but no punches,” recalls a spectator, who said that Nebraska Democrat Bob Kerrey helped break up the altercation.

Grassley said recently that “it was a very long period of time” before he and McCain spoke to each other again, though he declined, through a spokesman, to discuss the specifics of the incident.

Since the beginning of McCain’s public life, the many witnesses to his temper have had strikingly different reactions to it. Some depict McCain, now the presumptive Republican nominee for president, as an erratic hothead incapable of staying cool in the face of what he views as either disloyalty to him or irrational opposition to his ideas. Others praise a firebrand who is resolute against the forces of greed and gutlessness.

That was the opener. A bit later on:

Part of the paradox of McCain is that many of the old targets of his volcanic temper are now his campaign contributors. Former Phoenix mayor Paul Johnson is one example. In 1992, during a private meeting of Arizona officials over a federal land issue that affected the state, a furious McCain openly questioned Johnson’s honesty. “Start a tape recorder — it’s best when you get a liar on tape,” McCain said to others in the meeting, according to an account of their “nose-to-nose, testosterone-filled” argument that Johnson later provided to reporters.

But Johnson, who once was quoted as saying that he thought McCain was “in the area of being unstable,” today says that he has mellowed, citing a 2006 face-to-face apology that he said he received from his old adversary. “He’s not the same guy, as far as I’m concerned,” Johnson said. “And nothing has happened during the course of this year’s campaign.”

Cornyn is now a McCain supporter, as is Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, himself a past target of McCain’s sharp tongue, especially over what McCain regarded as Cochran’s hunger for pork-barrel projects in his state. Cochran landed in newspapers early during the campaign after declaring that the thought of McCain in the Oval Office “sends a cold chill down my spine.”

Indeed, aside from a single testy exchange in March with New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller over whether he had had a conversation in 2004 with Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry about being his running mate — a tape of which appeared immediately on YouTube — McCain has been noticeably unflappable throughout the primaries. Advisers posit that his temperament ought to be a dead issue. …

…”I heard about his temper more from others,” said Grant Woods, McCain’s first congressional chief of staff, who is generally regarded as McCain’s closest confidant in his early political years. “According to them, he really unleashed on some of them, and they couldn’t figure out why. . . . It happened enough that it was affecting his credibility with some people. If you wanted a programmed, subdued, always-on-message politician, he wasn’t and will never be your guy.”

Woods helped orchestrate McCain’s first House campaign in 1982 and worked to get him elected to the Senate in 1986. That year the Arizona Republican Party held its Election Night celebration for all its candidates at a Phoenix hotel, where the triumphant basked in the cheers of their supporters and delivered victory statements on television.

After McCain finished his speech, he returned to a suite in the hotel, sat down in front of a TV and viewed a replay of his remarks, angry to discover that the speaking platform had not been erected high enough for television cameras to capture all of his face — he seemed to have been cut off somewhere between his nose and mouth.

A platform that had been adequate for taller candidates had not taken into account the needs of the 5-foot-9 McCain, who left the suite and went looking for a man in his early 20s named Robert Wexler, the head of Arizona’s Young Republicans, which had helped make arrangements for the evening’s celebration. Confronting Wexler in a hotel ballroom, McCain exploded, according to witnesses who included Jon Hinz, then executive director of the Arizona Republican Party. McCain jabbed an index finger in Wexler’s chest.

“I told you we needed a stage,” he screamed, according to Hinz. “You incompetent little [expletive]. When I tell you to do something, you do it.”

Hinz recalls intervening, placing his 6-foot-6 frame between the senator-elect and the young volunteer. “John, this is not the time or place for this,” Hinz remembers saying to McCain, who fumed that he hadn’t been seen clearly by television viewers. Hinz recollects finally telling McCain: “John, look, I’ll follow you out on stage myself next time. I’ll make sure everywhere you go there is a milk crate for you to stand on. But this is enough.”

McCain spun around on his heels and left. He did not talk to Hinz again for several years. In 2000, as Hinz recalls, he appeared briefly on the Christian Broadcasting Network to voice his worries about McCain’s temperament on televangelist Pat Robertson’s show, “The 700 Club.” Hinz’s concerns have since grown with reports of incidents in and out of Arizona.

In 1994, McCain tried to stop a primary challenge to the state’s Republican governor, J. Fife Symington III, by telephoning his opponent, Barbara Barrett, the well-heeled spouse of a telecommunications executive, and warning of unspecified “consequences” should she reject his advice to drop out of the race. Barrett stayed in. At that year’s state Republican convention, McCain confronted Sandra Dowling, the Maricopa County school superintendent and, according to witnesses, angrily accused her of helping to persuade Barrett to enter the race.

“You better get [Barrett] out or I’ll destroy you,” a witness claims that McCain shouted at her. Dowling responded that if McCain couldn’t respect her right to support whomever she chose, that he “should get the hell out of the Senate.” McCain shouted an obscenity at her, and Dowling howled one back.

Woods raced over, according to a witness, and pulled Dowling away. Woods said he has “no memory” of being involved, “though I heard something about an argument.”

“What happens if he gets angry in crisis” in the presidency?” Hinz asked. “It’s difficult enough to be a negotiator, but it’s almost impossible when you’re the type of guy who’s so angry at anybody who doesn’t do what he wants. It’s the president’s job to negotiate and stay calm. I don’t see that he has that quality.”

Having reunited with his old boss after a falling out in the ’90s, Woods is back on board. Barbara Barrett, too. Other Arizona Republicans, once spurned or alienated from McCain, have accepted invitations to rejoin him, though not Sandra Dowling or Jon Hinz, who said, “I’ve just seen too much. That temper, the intolerance: It worries me.”

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