September 7, 2008, Washington, DC – John McCain made a quick stop at the Capitol one day last spring to sit in on Senate negotiations on the big immigration bill, and John Cornyn was not pleased.
Cornyn, a mild-mannered Texas Republican, saw a loophole in the bill that he thought would allow felons to pursue a path to citizenship.
McCain called Cornyn’s claim “chicken-s—,” according to people familiar with the meeting, and charged that the Texan was looking for an excuse to scuttle the bill. Cornyn grimly told McCain he had a lot of nerve to suddenly show up and inject himself into the sensitive negotiations.
“F— you,” McCain told Cornyn, in front of about 40 witnesses.
It was another instance of the Republican presidential candidate losing his temper, another instance where, as POW-MIA activist Carol Hrdlicka put it, “It’s his way or no way.”
There’s a lengthy list of similar outbursts through the years: McCain pushing a woman in a wheelchair, trying to get an Arizona Republican aide fired from three different jobs, berating a young GOP activist on the night of his own 1986 Senate election and many more.
McCain observers say the incidents have been blown out of proportion.
“I’ve never seen anything in the way of an outburst of temper that struck me as anything out of the ordinary,” said McCain biographer Robert Timberg.
“Those reports are overstated,” said Rives Richey, who attended Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va., with McCain in the early 1950s.
Historians point out that it’s not unusual for a president to have a fierce temper, but most knew how to keep it under control.
“Harry Truman wrote scathing letters, but he almost never sent them,” said author Robert Dallek.
“George Washington spent a lifetime trying to control his temper,” added historian Richard Norton Smith.
But Washington didn’t have YouTube replaying videos of his tantrums, nor did he have to make decisions about nuclear weapons.
HE WAS FEISTY
At age 2, McCain’s tantrums were so intense that he’d hold his breath for a few minutes and pass out. His parents would dunk him in cold water to “cure” him, he wrote in his memoir, “Faith of My Fathers.”
“I have spent much of my life choosing my own attitude, often carelessly, often for no better reason than to indulge a conceit,” he wrote. He conceded that some of his actions have been embarrassing, and “others I deeply regret.”
He was a tough little guy. At Episcopal High, he was a 114-pound wrestler classmates called “Punk” and “McNasty.”
Richey, though, noted that such monikers weren’t unusual in those days. “There was a tremendous amount of sarcasm in the way we talked to each other at Episcopal,” he recalled. “That’s the way we all talked to each other.”
McCain, Richey said, “was not looking for a fight. He was feisty.”
McCain entered the Naval Academy in 1954, and he was popular, the leader of a group that Timberg described as the Bad Bunch, known largely for its ability to have a good time.
Malcolm Matheson, who knew McCain at Episcopal High and stayed friendly with him in college, said his buddy had no trouble controlling his temper in those days.
“He was a little guy, but he was tough, and no bully ever got in his face,” Matheson said.
But as McCain ascended in politics, he began to acquire a reputation for hotheadedness. On election night 1986, then-Arizona Republican Party executive director Jon Hinz recalled, McCain was unhappy, even angry, even though he’d just won a U.S. Senate seat and his party had just made a virtually unprecedented sweep of state offices.
McCain had hoped that night would help launch him as a national figure. Instead, when the 5-foot-9 senator-elect spoke at the Phoenix victory party, the podium was too tall.
“You couldn’t see his mouth,” Hinz said.
A furious McCain sought out Robert Wexler, the Young Republican head in charge of arrangements.
“McCain kept pointing his finger in Wexler’s chest, berating him,” Hinz recalled. The 6-foot-6 Hinz stepped between them and told McCain to cut it out. “I told him I’ll make sure there’s an egg crate around next time,” he said. McCain walked away angrily.
About a year later, McCain reportedly erupted again, this time at a meeting with Arizona’s then-Gov. Evan Mecham, who was about to be impeached after being indicted on felony charges.
Karen Johnson, then Mecham’s secretary and now an Arizona state senator, recalled how McCain told Mecham that he was “causing the party a lot of problems” and was an embarrassment to the party.
“Sen. McCain got very angry,” Johnson recalled, “and I said, ‘Why are you talking to the governor like this? You’re causing problems yourself. You’re an embarrassment.’ “
Johnson would go on to work at three different jobs over the next five years, and she said that each time, McCain would contact her boss and try to get her removed.
The McCain campaign didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.
LOSING HIS COOL
When John McCain came to the Senate in 1987, he quickly got two reputations: a Republican who’d do business with Democrats on tough issues and an impatient senator who was often gruff and temperamental.
In January, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., told The Boston Globe that, “the thought of (McCain) being president sends a cold chill down my spine. He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me.” (Cochran has since endorsed McCain.)
Added Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., who has a long list of vociferous, sometimes personal disagreements with McCain, “His charm takes a little getting used to.” (Bond, too, supports him.)
Democrats are less guarded.
“There have been times when he’s just exploded, ” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.
“Look, around here, people lose their tempers once in a while. But it doesn’t happen very often, and it usually happens in some contextual framework. A lot of times there’s just not much of a contextual framework for his blowing up.”
John Raidt worked for McCain more than 15 years. “Yeah, he could get prickly,” he said. “Sometimes that’s exactly what’s needed to move an issue or get attention. I think he uses it as a tool.”
Stories abound on Capitol Hill: How McCain told Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., how “only an a-hole” would craft a budget like he did. Or the time in 1989 when he confronted Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, then a Democrat and now a Republican, because Shelby had promised to vote for McCain friend John Tower as secretary of defense, and then Shelby voted against Tower.
McCain later wrote how, after the vote, he approached Shelby “to bring my nose within an inch of his as I screamed out my intense displeasure over his deceit … the incident is one of the occasions when my temper lived up to its exaggerated legend.”
Cochran recalled earlier this summer that he saw McCain manhandle a Sandinista official during a 1987 diplomatic mission in Nicaragua.
Cochran told the Biloxi Sun-Herald that McCain was talking, and, “I saw some kind of quick movement at the bottom of the table and I looked down there and John had reached over and grabbed this guy by the shirt collar and had snatched him up like he was throwing him up out of the chair to tell him what he thought about him or whatever.”
McCain said the incident never took place. “I must say, I did not admire the Sandinistas much,” he told a news conference. “But there was never anything of that nature. It just didn’t happen.”
Former Sen. Robert Dole, who led the mission, couldn’t be reached to comment.
Back in Washington, families of POW_MIAs said they have seen McCain’s wrath repeatedly. Some families charged that McCain hadn’t been aggressive enough about pursuing their lost relatives and has been reluctant to release relevant documents. McCain himself was a prisoner of war for five-and-a-half years during the Vietnam War.
In 1992, McCain sparred with Dolores Alfond, the chairwoman of the National Alliance of Families for the Return of America’s Missing Servicemen and Women, at a Senate hearing. McCain’s prosecutor-like questioning of Alfond — available on YouTube — left her in tears.
Four years later, at her group’s Washington conference, about 25 members went to a Senate office building, hoping to meet with McCain. As they stood in the hall, McCain and an aide walked by.
Six people present have written statements describing what they saw. According to the accounts, McCain waved his hand to shoo away Jeannette Jenkins, whose cousin was last seen in South Vietnam in 1970, causing her to hit a wall.
As McCain continued walking, Jane Duke Gaylor, the mother of another missing serviceman, approached the senator. Gaylor, in a wheelchair equipped with portable oxygen, stretched her arms toward McCain.
“McCain stopped, glared at her, raised his left arm ready to strike her, composed himself and pushed the wheelchair away from him,” according to Eleanor Apodaca, the sister of an Air Force captain missing since 1967.
McCain’s staff wouldn’t respond to requests for comment about specific incidents.
But Mark Salter, a longtime McCain aide who functions as the senator’s alter ego and the co-author of his books, said that, “McCain gets intense, and intent on his argument.”
His blowups with senators often result from colleagues being accustomed to deference, he said.
“A lot of these guys aren’t used to that,” Salter said, so they get annoyed when a peer gets emotional.
McCain’s presidential campaign has tried to use his reputation to its advantage; in an early television ad, McCain said: “I didn’t go to Washington to win the Mr. Congeniality award … I love America. I love her enough to make some people angry.”
CAN HE CONTROL IT?
There’s no easy way to judge whether McCain’s temper would make him a risky president.
“Yeah, he has a temper,” said Democratic vice-presidential nominee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden of Delaware. “It’s obvious. You’ve seen it.
“But is John whatever his opposition painted him to be, this unstable guy who came out of a prisoner or war camp not capable of (acting rationally)? I don’t buy that at all.”
Independent experts have some concerns about McCain’s irascibility.
“Diplomacy is not often dealing with reasonable people,” said Steve Clemons, an analyst at the New America Foundation, a centrist public policy group.
“In the nuclear age, you don’t want someone flying off the handle, so it’s a critical question: Can McCain control his temper?” asked Thomas De Luca, professor of political science at Fordham University in New York.
History is an inexact guide, because little evidence is available tying temper to action.
Richard Norton Smith has found that according to Tobias Lear, George Washington’s secretary, “few sounds on earth could compare with that of George Washington swearing a blue streak.”
On the other hand, said Smith, Washington could control himself. “One reason George Washington is this cold-blooded marble figure is that he became expert in controlling his temper,” he said.
Other presidents have similar histories. Thomas Jefferson, Smith said, could be a “red-faced chief executive throwing his hat on the floor before stomping on it.”
Truman had his angry letters, and one that got out showed quite a temper.
“It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful,” Truman wrote Washington Post music critic Paul Hume in 1950, after Hume had panned first daughter Margaret Truman’s singing performance.
Added the angry father, “Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes and perhaps a supporter below!”
Bill Clinton’s infamous red-faced tirades tended to be endured by staffers in the privacy of the White House rather than public displays.
The important question, said Dallek, is whether and how McCain controls his outbursts. Though his aides insist that his temper is simply a way of expressing passion — and that he sometimes uses it for effect — some observers remain concerned.
“It seems the only way to deal with John McCain is to think the way he does,” said Hinz, the former Arizona GOP official who now runs an insurance reform advocacy group in Phoenix. “If he gets more power, what’s going to make him suddenly become a fuzzy, nice guy?”