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McCain: A Question of Temperament

(By Scott Anderson -- Associated Press)
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He defied authority, ridiculed other students, sometimes fought. The nicknames hung on him at Episcopal mocked his hair-trigger feistiness: "Punk" and "McNasty." Hoping to emulate his father and grandfather, also an admiral, he went on to the Naval Academy, where his pattern of unruliness and defiance continued, landing him near the bottom of his class. "I acted like a jerk," McCain wrote of the period before he righted himself to become a naval aviator, a Vietnam POW and eventually a career politician.

The trajectory of his temper, studied ever more intently as his White House ambitions took shape, includes incidents from his years in the House and in the Senate, leading up to the early days of his current presidential campaign. In 2007, during a heated closed-door discussion with Senate colleagues about the contentious immigration issue, he angrily shouted a profanity at a fellow Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, an incident that quickly found its way into headlines.

Reports recently surfaced of Rep. Rick Renzi, an Arizona Republican, taking offense when McCain called him "boy" once too often during a 2006 meeting, a story that McCain aides confirm while playing down its importance. "Renzi flared and he was prickly," McCain strategist Mark Salter said. "But there were no punches thrown or anything."

'Everyone Has a Temper'

According to aides, McCain's frequent comments about his temperament reflect a recognition that the issue persists for some voters and the media. At times he expresses regret about his temper, often tracing it to the same resentments that ignited him as a boy: "In all candor, as an adult I've been known to forget occasionally the discretion expected of a person of my many years and station when I believe I've been accorded a lack of respect I did not deserve," he said at Episcopal.

On other occasions, he has contended that his blowups have served a purpose. In a recent interview with CNN, while referring to his temper as "a very minor thing," McCain declared that voters occasionally want him to vent: "When I see corruption, . . . when I see people misbehaving badly, they expect me to" be angry.

Salter, who has co-written five books with McCain that, among other things, explore the origins of his feistiness, said he thinks McCain's temper first became an issue after an incident in 1989, during McCain's first term in the Senate.

The nomination of a beleaguered John Tower to become defense secretary was already in trouble when Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, a conservative Democrat who later became a Republican, helped doom it by voting against Tower. A furious McCain, believing that Shelby had reneged on a commitment of support, accosted him, got within an inch of his nose and screamed at him. News of the incident swiftly spread around the Capitol.

"I think it started there," Salter said, though by 1989, many of McCain's colleagues had already heard stories about other eruptions during his two terms in the House.

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.

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