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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

In this corner...

The feisty McCain has been accused of losing control. But it's more complicated than that

By John F. Dickerson

TIME magazine

November 8, 1999
Web posted at: 1:21 p.m. EST (1821 GMT)

The fix was in. John McCain's Republican opponents had been waiting for months to take him down a peg. His issue, campaign-finance reform, was up for debate in the Senate. One after another, Senators from his own party baited him, hoping to bring out his famous temper. "They tried to get him to explode on the floor," says McCain's ally, Democrat Russ Feingold. "They tried as hard as they could." McCain rocked in his shoes; he folded and then unfolded his arms; he fidgeted with the papers on his lectern. But the man once crowned Senator Hothead did not blow. As he remembers, "I had to say to myself, 'Look, John, you're not going to gain anything by displaying anger here.'"

When voters put their presidential candidates on the examining table, the first test is whether they have enough "fire in the belly" for the job. Americans like to see whether their future President can make it through a tough campaign. When he gets to the Oval Office, the theory goes, that fire will get him through the even tougher days and nights. For McCain, the challenge is not to prove he has the fire, but the opposite: that if he carries the McCain flame into the White House, it won't set the mansion ablaze.

Of course, President John McCain would not be the first Commander in Chief to snap his pencils out of pique. Bill Clinton is famous for his purple rages, usually directed at his staff. Eisenhower's fits were volatile but short. Kennedy said anger was a luxury, but his 1962 negotiations with steel companies over price controls were set back when he quipped that his father was right to have called steel executives "s.o.b.s." Nixon's anger was more corrosive. He expelled pure poison on the White House tapes and had particular enemies chased by the irs. L.B.J.'s long-standing feud with Bobby Kennedy caused Johnson to descend into paranoia at times.

McCain's fire has been on display for a while, and it has often served a useful purpose. It kept him going for 5 1/2 years as a POW. It sustained him through withering opposition to his attempts to overhaul campaign finance and regulate tobacco. Precisely because he is willing to rip up the rule book and stomp around a little bit, McCain has won the hearts of those who recognize that if Washington is going to be changed, it requires wrinkling a few ties.

But as the long-shot candidate's campaign starts to look more plausible--especially in New Hampshire, where one poll shows him only 8 points behind Texas Governor George W. Bush--the other side of his muscular personal biography is being examined. The largest newspaper in McCain's home state, the Arizona Republic, wrote a highly unusual editorial last week in which it declared, "There is also reason to seriously question whether McCain has the temperament and the political approach and skills we want in the next President of the United States." The editorial was the latest volley in a rocky relationship between the candidate and the paper. McCain refused to speak to the Republic for a year after it published, in 1994, an editorial cartoon lampooning McCain's wife Cindy, who had admitted stealing painkilling drugs from the charitable group she was associated with. In the cartoon the candidate's wife is holding up an emaciated black child and saying, "Quit your crying and give me the drugs." Arizona Governor Jane Hull has gone public with her experiences of holding the phone away from her ear when McCain called, but Hull has always had a bumpy relationship with McCain, beginning with his hesitation in endorsing her candidacy for Governor.

So there is a back story to the criticism coming at McCain from parts of Arizona. But in New Hampshire, where voters are less familiar with it, he was asked by reporters at almost every stop last week to address the issue of his temper. Was it so big that it clouded his judgment? Underneath that question has lurked another one, that other campaigns and McCain's enemies in the Senate dare only whisper: Did his time as a prisoner loosen a bolt on his self-control?

McCain says he has had trouble his whole life keeping his throttle shut. The son of a line of Scottish warriors who turned up in the American Revolution, he emerges from a culture of men who can decant a string of salty oaths one minute and offer compassion the next. When he was a child, McCain writes in his autobiography, his tantrums caused him to "go off in a mad frenzy and then, suddenly, crash to the floor unconscious." At the U.S. Naval Academy, he accumulated so many demerits for insubordination and other offenses that he was almost dismissed.

McCain insists he has mellowed with age. "There was a time early in my [Senate experience] when I became so angry that I would say things I didn't mean," he told TIME in a recent interview. "And that would hurt people, and I always regretted it. Now I don't do that." But the membership in the McCain-abuse support group is not small. Fellow Senators and even some voters have been on the melting end of one of his Tagamet moments.

After Richard Shelby voted against the nomination of John Tower for Secretary of Defense, McCain lashed out at the Alabama Senator, saying Shelby would "pay for it." McCain says he'd do it again today, charging that Shelby lied to him about supporting the former Texas Senator for the post. McCain clashed with former Navy Secretary John Dalton when Dalton held up for review the promotion of Commander Bob Stumpf, a former leader of the Blue Angels and decorated Gulf War pilot who played a minor role in the Tailhook scandal and whom McCain supported. When Stumpf withdrew his name, McCain called the Secretary at his office and screamed, "You are finished!" McCain and Dalton have barely spoken since. During a closed-door meeting of G.O.P. Senators to discuss the tobacco legislation that he was championing, McCain barked that New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici, who had prepared a chart outlining the costs of McCain's proposal, was a "chickens___." Other colleagues are the subject of his barracks humor when they are not around. In June 1998 the Arizonan got up at a Washington G.O.P. fund raiser and told a profoundly demeaning joke about Chelsea Clinton. McCain, who has three daughters, later wrote a letter of apology to the President.

McCain seems to generally reserve his wrath for people his own size. He almost never unleashes on his staff, which is why his office is known for its low turnover. (Two of his top aides have been with him 15 years.) But behind McCain's outbursts is perhaps a more troubling tendency to see the world in stark good-vs.-evil terms, even when the issue is more complicated than that. "I have always had this acute sense of right and wrong," McCain told TIME. "All my life I have been offended by hypocrisy." His approach to many legislative issues can sometimes resemble the way he boxed while at the Naval Academy. "McCain would charge to the center of the ring and throw punches until someone went down," writes Robert Timberg in his account of McCain and four other notable academy grads of the Vietnam era. McCain's Manichaean take on the world may be effective in war, but it doesn't always work well on subtle issues like health care or tax cuts. "If you are against him, he sees you as evil or paid for or corrupt," says a colleague who has tangled with McCain but nevertheless admires him.

That tendency explains why McCain is not well loved in the Republican cloakroom, where after-class feelings matter. "If he would just count to five sometimes," says a G.O.P. Senate veteran, "he would probably get a lot more done." Detractors say that's why he is never able to corral the votes to pass campaign-finance reform and why his tobacco legislation, which his committee passed by a vote of 19 to 1, never saw the President's desk. Hogwash, say allies like Feingold, who argue that without McCain, some legislation would never get as far as it does. "He is an incredible ally because of his energy, passion and willingness to take heat," says Feingold.

And there is evidence that McCain is able to build bipartisan coalitions on occasion. He has successfully pushed for passage of the lobbying-gift ban, the line-item veto and the repeal of the catastrophic- health-care surtax, an unfair tax on seniors. As Commerce Committee chairman, McCain has shown the ability to navigate difficult issues like Y2K liability and whether to tax goods sold over the Internet, trimming his opinions to bang out a consensus. On the ill-fated campaign-finance reform, he has shaved away so many key elements to pick up support that some zealous supporters think he has ruined the bill.

In contrast to the volcanic picture some Senators paint of their relations with McCain, his connections are good with Fritz Hollings, the ranking Democrat on the Commerce Committee. "They have had a lot of tough fights, but McCain never says Hollings is evil," says a Democratic committee staff member. "In fact, he says Hollings is an honorable debater." McCain always shows deference to the longer-serving Hollings by going to his office for meetings. On occasions when McCain leaves committee hearings, he breaks Senate protocol and hands his gavel to his Democratic counterpart rather than the Republican next in line.

On Vietnam War issues, where McCain has reason to harbor anger, he has displayed a surprising ability to let it go. He befriended David Ifshin, the war protester whose speeches were piped into his cell, and he led the charge to forgive the country that held him for so long. The effort took a tremendous toll on McCain, says Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, also a decorated Vietnam War hero, who watched the Navy pilot under siege by members of his own party and some veterans' groups. "I saw him suffer a lot of outrageous, outlandish accusations about his character and patriotism," says Democrat Kerry, "and I saw him weather it steadfastly to accomplish his goal. It was a strong display of self-control and confidence." Kerry and others who returned to visit McCain's prison cell with him in 1993 say the former captain has a remarkable inner peace about the episode. "He was tempered by that time," says a Senator of McCain's war experience. "He walked out taller."

Over the years, McCain has gone to great lengths after disputes to mend fences with flowers, hand-delivered notes and face-to-face apologies. "I am a man of many faults," he told TIME, "but I think that you learn, you grow, and you focus." This kind of rationalization sounds like the remarks made by another promising candidate in 1992, an Arkansas Governor who pledged to voters that he had put his past behind him. That is the kind of comparison sure to make John McCain angry. These days, however, he can't afford to show it.

--With reporting by Ann Blackman

MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: November 15, 1999

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