An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of former Arizona governor Evan Mecham (R).
McCain: A Question of Temperament
Sunday, April 20, 2008
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.
"Does he get angry? Yes," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who supports McCain's presidential bid. "But it's never been enough to blur his judgment. . . . If anything, his passion and occasional bursts of anger have made him more effective."
Former senator Bob Smith, a New Hampshire Republican, expresses worries about McCain: "His temper would place this country at risk in international affairs, and the world perhaps in danger. In my mind, it should disqualify him."
A spokesman for McCain's campaign said he would be unavailable for an interview on the subject of his temper. But over the years, no one has written more intimately about McCain's outbursts than McCain himself. "My temper has often been both a matter of public speculation and personal concern," he wrote in a 2002 memoir. "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."
That temper has followed him throughout his life, McCain acknowledges. He recalls in his writings how, as a toddler, he sometimes held his breath and fainted during moments of fury. As the son of a naval officer who was on his way to becoming a four-star admiral, McCain found himself frequently uprooted and enrolled in new schools, where, as an underappreciated outsider, he developed "a little bit of a chip on my shoulder," as he recalled this month.
During a campaign stop at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, the most famous graduate of the Class of 1954 opened a window on what swirled inside him during his school years. "I was always the new kid and was accustomed to proving myself quickly at each new school as someone not to be challenged lightly," he told students.
"As a young man, I would respond aggressively and sometimes irresponsibly to anyone who I perceived to have questioned my sense of honor and self-respect. Those responses often got me in a fair amount of trouble earlier in life."