An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of former Arizona governor Evan Mecham (R).
|Page 5 of 5 <|
McCain: A Question of Temperament
Woods helped orchestrate McCain's first House campaign in 1982 and worked to get him elected to the Senate in 1986. That year the Arizona Republican Party held its Election Night celebration for all its candidates at a Phoenix hotel, where the triumphant basked in the cheers of their supporters and delivered victory statements on television.
After McCain finished his speech, he returned to a suite in the hotel, sat down in front of a TV and viewed a replay of his remarks, angry to discover that the speaking platform had not been erected high enough for television cameras to capture all of his face -- he seemed to have been cut off somewhere between his nose and mouth.
A platform that had been adequate for taller candidates had not taken into account the needs of the 5-foot-9 McCain, who left the suite and went looking for a man in his early 20s named Robert Wexler, the head of Arizona's Young Republicans, which had helped make arrangements for the evening's celebration. Confronting Wexler in a hotel ballroom, McCain exploded, according to witnesses who included Jon Hinz, then executive director of the Arizona Republican Party. McCain jabbed an index finger in Wexler's chest.
"I told you we needed a stage," he screamed, according to Hinz. "You incompetent little [expletive]. When I tell you to do something, you do it."
Hinz recalls intervening, placing his 6-foot-6 frame between the senator-elect and the young volunteer. "John, this is not the time or place for this," Hinz remembers saying to McCain, who fumed that he hadn't been seen clearly by television viewers. Hinz recollects finally telling McCain: "John, look, I'll follow you out on stage myself next time. I'll make sure everywhere you go there is a milk crate for you to stand on. But this is enough."
McCain spun around on his heels and left. He did not talk to Hinz again for several years. In 2000, as Hinz recalls, he appeared briefly on the Christian Broadcasting Network to voice his worries about McCain's temperament on televangelist Pat Robertson's show, "The 700 Club." Hinz's concerns have since grown with reports of incidents in and out of Arizona.
In 1994, McCain tried to stop a primary challenge to the state's Republican governor, J. Fife Symington III, by telephoning his opponent, Barbara Barrett, the well-heeled spouse of a telecommunications executive, and warning of unspecified "consequences" should she reject his advice to drop out of the race. Barrett stayed in. At that year's state Republican convention, McCain confronted Sandra Dowling, the Maricopa County school superintendent and, according to witnesses, angrily accused her of helping to persuade Barrett to enter the race.
"You better get [Barrett] out or I'll destroy you," a witness claims that McCain shouted at her. Dowling responded that if McCain couldn't respect her right to support whomever she chose, that he "should get the hell out of the Senate." McCain shouted an obscenity at her, and Dowling howled one back.
Woods raced over, according to a witness, and pulled Dowling away. Woods said he has "no memory" of being involved, "though I heard something about an argument."
"What happens if he gets angry in crisis" in the presidency?" Hinz asked. "It's difficult enough to be a negotiator, but it's almost impossible when you're the type of guy who's so angry at anybody who doesn't do what he wants. It's the president's job to negotiate and stay calm. I don't see that he has that quality."
Having reunited with his old boss after a falling out in the '90s, Woods is back on board. Barbara Barrett, too. Other Arizona Republicans, once spurned or alienated from McCain, have accepted invitations to rejoin him, though not Sandra Dowling or Jon Hinz, who said, "I've just seen too much. That temper, the intolerance: It worries me."
How Big a Factor?
Historians are generally ambivalent over whether hot-tempered leaders have fared any worse than the placid. Harry S. Truman once threatened bodily harm in a letter to a reviewer who wrote disparagingly about the musical talents of his daughter. Richard M. Nixon ranted, and so did Bill Clinton. George Stephanopoulos once described Clinton's "purple rages," which left Stephanopoulos, often the subject of Clinton's private lashings, so shaken that he broke out in hives, sunk into depression and began taking an antidepressant.
"Clinton could flare up," remembers John D. Podesta, a former Clinton chief of staff. "You might have to endure five minutes of him yelling. But you could challenge him. . . . He would sometimes get mad when [aides] pushed back -- but it was a passing moment; tomorrow would be fine. You didn't get in the doghouse for pushing back."
"Temper can sometimes be a political instrument," said James A. Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. "There are sometimes calculated displays of temper, which is what Lyndon Johnson used to persuade people. . . .
"But sometimes somebody's temperament can get in the way of aides telling him the truth, which happened [during the Vietnam War] with LBJ. His temper scared some [aides] away, which was not good for anyone. . . . That's always part of the risk with a strong temper . . . and so it's always relevant."
After his failed 2000 presidential campaign against George W. Bush, McCain sensed the political cost of his temperament. During a debate, he had snapped at Bush: "You should be ashamed. . . . You should be ashamed." In May 2006, he told CNN: "My anger didn't help my campaign. It didn't help. People don't like angry candidates very much."
McCain's defenders today include an old nemesis -- Grassley.
"It doesn't mean I'm buddy-buddy with McCain," the senator said recently. "He may have a short fuse. . . . But I've come to the conclusion that his strong principles, sometimes backed up by considerable" -- Grassley paused -- "not temper, but considerable conviction, is what a president ought to have."
One man's bulldozer is another's bully. "I don't think that he forgets anyone who ever opposed him, that he can ever really respect or trust them again," said Karen Johnson, the targeted secretary-turned-state senator. "That goes for people here and overseas."