Monday, March 10, 2008

The McCain scrutiny II

The presidential campaign of John McCain, flush with victories in Ohio and Texas and a lock for the Republican nomination, has won itself some time and breathing space, as the news focus stays on the “Ben-Hur” chariot race to the death going on between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, a battle maybe seven weeks from the finish line.

But a relatively quiet seven weeks on the GOP campaign trail shouldn’t be seen as a cakewalk for McCain’s crew. The senator’s confrontation March 7 with New York Times correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller, and concerns raised by others in a position to know, suggest that going forward, personal temperament will be as much an identifier for McCain as the national security credentials he brandishes.

McCain has had a turbulent relationship with the press, stemming from his associations with journalists in his home state of Arizona. Despite more recent efforts to calm the waters, the reported today, “[r]eporters who actually live in Arizona … say the tense back-and-forth with Bumiller is much closer to the John McCain they know — a sometimes pugnacious politician whose media strategy is a far cry from joking asides and backslaps around the barbecue pit.”

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It goes back years. The Politico said that reporters trace the first clash between McCain and the state’s leading paper, the Arizona Republic, back to 1989, when McCain was embroiled in the Keating Five savings-and-loan scandal.

“The Republic, which had previously backed McCain in his congressional elections, published an editorial in October 1999 that questioned his fitness for the Oval Office. McCain called it further evidence that the paper had a ‘vendetta’ against him,” the Politico said.

"’If McCain is truly a serious contender for the presidency, it is time the rest of the nation learned about the John McCain we know in Arizona,’ the editorial stated. ‘There is also reason to seriously question whether he has the temperament and the political approach and skills we want in the next president of the United States.’"

The situation’s changed markedly since then. This year the Republic editorialized that “[a]nyone surprised to learn that the Arizona Republic judges U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona the best Republican choice for president in 2008 simply hasn't been paying attention.”

Maybe it’s his status as inevitable GOP nominee that the Republic’s reacting to. Everyone, it seems, wants to hook up with a winner.

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But the Bumiller incident shows that McCain’s temper is hardly a dead issue. According to one of McCain’s Senate colleagues, it’s a big problem.

Recently, five-term Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who endorsed Mitt Romney for president, told the Boston Globe’s Michael Kramish that “[t]he thought of [McCain] being president sends a cold chill down my spine. …”

“He is erratic,” Cochran said. “He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me.”

The Globe said Cochran “has known the McCain family from the days when they lived in Mississippi and got to know McCain well in the 1970s when Cochran served in the U.S. House and McCain served as a naval liaison in Congress. He said he has seen McCain's temper fly too often in committee hearings or on the Senate floor, although he said he hasn't seen an example in the last several years.”

McCain has had dustups with others on his side of the aisle, including Sen. Charles Grassley, Sen. Richard Shelby and — in a celebrated scrap when McCain used the F-word — with Texas Senator John Cornyn.

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Cochran confirms something generally observed in McCain's interviews and debate performances, something apparently reflective of his foundational aspect. When he’s confronted on some issues, especially matters related to the war in Iraq, McCain seems to exhibit the latent, barely submersible rage of a man counting to ten before he explodes.

Passporthandle, blogging on YouTube, observed: "This man is still fighting the Vietnam War in his head. He is a very disturbed and troubled man. Consequently, he is extremely dangerous. To put him in the Oval Office would be worse than Bush. Bush is driven by greed. McCain is driven by rage. Pure rage."

Cochran’s concerns about McCain’s temperament open the window to dire possibilities if McCain were to win the nomination and the White House. The most potentially troubling? McCain as domestic steward of the nation's laws and values, governing by deleted expletive; McCain as global representative of the United States with a martial agenda not unlike his predecessor, a commander-in-chief with a short fuse and a petulant bullheadedness that could make George Bush seem like a statesman by comparison.

These concerns, though, didn’t stop Cochran from endorsing McCain on Feb. 8, after Romney dropped out of the contest. Something about that frontrunner status again.

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McCain’s temper has been enough of an issue for him to even write about it. In his memoir, "Worth the Fighting For," McCain understands that he’s got some ‘splainin’ to do.

"My temper has often been both a matter of public speculation and personal concern," the senator wrote. "I have a temper, to state the obvious, which I have tried to control with varying degrees of success because it does not always serve my interest or the public's. I have regretted losing my temper on many occasions. But there are things worth getting angry about in politics, and I have at times tried to use my anger to incite public outrage. I make no apologies for that.”

But in some ways, what’s more worrying than his temper is this way of rationalizing it, of articulating anger as just another basic weapon in his political arsenal.

McCain writes in his book: “When public servants lose their capacity for outrage over practices injurious to the national interest, they have outlived their usefulness to the country."

Maybe. But when public servants lose their capacity for self-control in deciding what is and is not injurious to that national interest, when they lose their ability to prudently react, they may well have outlived that same usefulness — to the nation and the world.

That loss of self-control reared its head in McCain's previous presidential run, in 2000, when the candidate uttered — and defended — his use of a slur against Asians, one that generated considerable reaction from Asian Americans.

The question of temperament — it’s certain to be raised by the American press as something every bit as important as experience. It’s one likely to be raised by the American electorate well before November, maybe like this:

"If it’s 3 a.m. and the hypothetical red phone rings at the White House, do we want an angry man answering that call?"

If the following video is any indication of what Americans are thinking, John McCain's got as much work to do for the next seven weeks as the Democrats. And maybe more:

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