MOMENTS OF TRUTH | McCain and the Keating Five

Senator's Image as Reformer Born in Crisis

Career Eventually Thrived in Aftermath

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 23, 2008; Page A01

Facing the biggest crisis of his political career in late 1989, John McCain telephoned Jay Smith, an old friend and strategist, and asked him to come to a damage-control session in McCain's Washington office.

McCain was under investigation for his connection to a pushy savings-and-loan operator named Charles H. Keating Jr., and Smith worried that the senator had created an appearance of impropriety because of his uncharacteristically guarded response to the accusations and his stubborn refusal to talk to reporters about them. The solution, he told McCain and his aides, was to hold a news conference. Take every question, Smith said. Say nothing is off limits. Let McCain be McCain.

Others in the room remember press secretary Victoria Clarke arguing against Smith's recommendation. "I don't think he can pull it off," she said of McCain, and then, with the senator just a few feet away, she raised a disastrous possibility: "I think he will lose his temper."

"I don't think that's true, " Smith said, turning in his chair toward McCain. "What do you think?"

"I can do it," McCain said.

Smith wasn't surprised -- he knew he had been appealing to McCain's instinct to get on the offensive. As much as he loathed the media now for what he regarded as their unfairness, McCain liked the idea of walking into the lions' den and taking on the enemy.

Some of his advisers thought his vacillation over what to do about the Keating controversy reflected an internal conflict of their boss -- between his philosophical preference for public openness and his private fury anytime he felt his dignity trampled, an anger that sometimes revealed itself in his walling himself off from anyone who crossed him. But as the Keating crisis played out, they concluded that to frame the shifting tides of his nature this way was to miss the real point about McCain: that, at his best and worst, he was driven mostly by defiance in the face of pressure.

"If people tell him he can't do something, John's instinct often is to do it and prove them wrong," Smith says.

If anything at all was slowly changing in McCain, it was the new priority he assigned to pragmatism, accommodation and self-preservation, a trio of concepts that his once-rebellious father had tried to instill in him during McCain's Naval Academy days, and that the son had scorned. Under the stress of his political nightmare now, he exhibited the first signs of a self-reevaluation.

The means and manner of McCain's political resuscitation during the weeks that followed provided a window to his emerging style amid controversy -- his zest for the big gamble, the aggressive push-back while his similarly beleaguered Keating Five colleagues took refuge behind closed doors, his deftness in recasting himself as a chastened reformer and his skill in turning a potentially disastrous setback to his advantage.

Oddly, the crisis some thought would destroy him proved to be fortuitous. While the Keating episode was the most searing moment of his career, his response to it launched him into the national spotlight. Ever since, he has been on the long, if bumpy, ascension that led him to the Republican presidential nomination.

Later those same instincts helped make his recovery possible in the wake of his crushing loss to George W. Bush for the 2000 presidential nomination. In both crises, he proved himself to be a resilient and resourceful fighter, a dangerous politician to underestimate.

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