WAMU report on McCain's relationship with congressional colleagues ignored his reputed "volcanic temper"
Research ››› ››› ANDREW IRONSIDE
On Capitol News Connection, reporter Jodi Breisler stated that Sen. John "McCain's beliefs and behaviors can get him in trouble with other members of Congress," before playing a clip of American University professor James Thurber saying: "Senator McCain can be a little prickly because sometimes he has truth, and when you have truth, you push something very hard until your colleagues get a little tired of hearing it and you don't have the votes." In fact, McCain reportedly has a long history of outbursts and confrontations with his Senate colleagues.
On the January 30 broadcast of WAMU's Capitol News Connection, reporter Jodi Breisler aired a clip of Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) asserting in a recent advertisement that he "angered the big spenders in Congress by opposing their pork projects and calling for ethics reform." Breisler then asked: "But how would a President McCain work with those people Senator McCain angered?" She then aired clips of Washington Post reporter Sally Quinn describing McCain as "an extremely likable person" and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) saying, "He'll just call everybody into a room, a lot of Democrats, Republicans, House, Senate, and say, 'OK. Let's cut the politics. We all want to do something. Our constituents want us to do it. Let's do it.' " Breisler further reported that "McCain's beliefs and behaviors can get him in trouble with other members of Congress," before playing a clip of American University professor James Thurber saying: "Senator McCain can be a little prickly because sometimes he has truth, and when you have truth, you push something very hard until your colleagues get a little tired of hearing it and you don't have the votes." But beyond Thurber's description of McCain as "a little prickly because sometimes he has truth," Breisler offered no further detail regarding the reported "behaviors" that "can get him in trouble." In fact, McCain reportedly has a long history of outbursts and confrontations with his Senate colleagues. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) reportedly called him "erratic" and "hotheaded," and the New York Post referred to his "volcanic temper."
A January 27 Boston Globe article reported that Cochran said his decision to endorse former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) for president "was prompted partly by his fear of how McCain might behave in the Oval Office":
Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who has known Senator John McCain for more than three decades, on Wednesday endorsed Mitt Romney for president.
Cochran said his choice was prompted partly by his fear of how McCain might behave in the Oval Office.
"The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine," Cochran said about McCain by phone. "He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me."
McCain's run-ins with other Republican senators are legendary. Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa said in an interview that he was so upset by a McCain tirade that he didn't speak to him for two years. Grassley, who said he will make no endorsement, nonetheless says McCain is the most qualified among the five GOP candidates to be president.
The Globe went on to provide more detail on McCain's confrontation with Grassley and described a similar incident involving Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL). (Shelby was a Democrat at the time of the incident the article recounts; he switched parties in 1994, according to CNN, one day after Democrats lost control of Congress in the midterm election.):
Grassley, the Iowa Republican, has often tangled with McCain over ethanol subsidies, which Grassley views as crucial and McCain has said he sees as wasteful. But the hottest disagreement took place when the two got into a heated argument in 1992 over McCain's contention that a former prisoner of war in Vietnam had been a traitor. McCain peered closely into Grassley's face as he shouted an obscenity at his Iowa colleague, according to reports published over the years.
Grassley, asked whether the reports were accurate, acknowledged the feud and said: "We didn't speak for a couple of years. Then, one time, he came up to me and said, 'Chuck, we need to talk,' and we have had friendly conversations ever since."
Despite the past tensions and the disagreement over ethanol, Grassley said he has deep respect for McCain's military background.
"I might have concerns [about McCain] but as I look at five [Republicans] still running for president, even though McCain and I have disagreements ... McCain is the most qualified to be president," Grassley said, while stressing he was not making an endorsement. "I say that because I know him."
McCain's feuds with other senators have surfaced regularly. McCain has written about how he screamed at Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama an inch away from his face after Shelby voted against the 1989 nomination of John Tower as defense secretary. "I was madder than hell when I accosted him ... and the incident is one of the occasions when my temper lived up to its much exaggerated legend."
Presidential hopeful John McCain - who has been dogged for years by questions about his volcanic temper - erupted in an angry, profanity-laced tirade at a fellow Republican senator, sources told The Post yesterday.
In a heated dispute over immigration-law overhaul, McCain screamed, "F- - - you!" at Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who had been raising concerns about the legislation.
"This is chickens- - - stuff," McCain snapped at Cornyn, according to several people in the room off the Senate floor Thursday. "You've always been against this bill, and you're just trying to derail it."
Surprised by McCain's foul-mouthed broadside, Cornyn told him he was "out of line."
Cornyn said McCain couldn't "just parachute in at the last minute and begin making all these demands" - a not-so-subtle shot at the Arizona Republican's recent AWOL status in the Senate while campaigning around the country for the White House.
McCain blew his top after Cornyn brought up his worsening Senate attendance record.
He shouted at Cornyn in front of a bipartisan group of senators and aides who had gathered in ornate meeting room, according to several people who were present.
"I know more about this stuff than anybody in this room," McCain added.
The blowup is likely to further revive questions about McCain's "anger-management problem."
Brian Jones, a spokesman for the McCain campaign, acknowledged that a "spirited exchange" did occur, though he took exception to a few details.
Jones said that the "chickens- - -" phrase was offered by a McCain ally in the room and that McCain never told Cornyn he knew more about the legislation than anyone else in the room.
"Negotiating such a large and important piece of legislation can be intense, and a spirited exchange did occur," Jones said. "[McCain] is somebody who feels very passionate about his work and about solving the problems facing the country."
As Think Progress also documented, a February 21, 2000, Newsweek article -- headlined "Senator Hothead" -- included an account from an unnamed GOP senator of an altercation between McCain and Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM):
Of the 55 Republicans in the U.S. Senate, only four support John McCain for president. Most of the rest -- 39 in all, with two more signing on last week -- back George W. Bush. Why can't McCain win the votes of his own colleagues? To explain, a Republican senator tells this story: at a GOP meeting last fall, McCain erupted out of the blue at the respected Budget Committee chairman, Pete Domenici, saying, "Only an a--hole would put together a budget like this." Offended, Domenici stood up and gave a dignified, restrained speech about how in all his years in the Senate, through many heated debates, no one had ever called him that. Another senator might have taken the moment to check his temper. But McCain went on: "I wouldn't call you an a--hole unless you really were an a--hole." The Republican senator witnessing the scene had considered supporting McCain for president, but changed his mind. "I decided," the senator told NEWSWEEK, "I didn't want this guy anywhere near a trigger."
Domenici softened the story, denying that McCain had used the word "a--hole." But one of McCain's own aides ruefully said with a laugh, "He may have used stronger language." McCain's reputation as a hothead in the Senate is well established. Last week GOP senators were furiously spinning to reporters -- off the record, as usual -- that their colleague from Arizona is too impatient and impetuous to be president. They argued that he would divide the Republican Party and, if elected, fail to motivate lawmakers to enact his agenda. McCain's loyal band of congressional defenders scoffed at this line of argument. "He's not running for Senate majority leader, he's running for president as a reformer," said Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat and fellow Vietnam veteran. "Lots of presidents have a temper. Sometimes Congress needs a swift kick."
Further, a November 5, 1999, Arizona Republic article reported several other accounts of McCain's temper:
It was election night 1986, and John McCain had just been elected to the U.S. Senate for the first time. Even so, he was not in a good mood.
McCain was yelling at the top of his lungs and poking the chest of a young Republican volunteer who had set up a lectern that was too tall for the 5-foot-9 politician to be seen to advantage, according to a witness to the outburst.
"Here this poor guy is thinking he has done a good job, and he gets a new butt ripped because McCain didn't look good on television," Jon Hinz told a reporter Thursday. At the time, Hinz was executive director of the Arizona Republican Party.
McCain's temper has been quietly discussed among political insiders in Arizona since he first ran for Congress in 1982. But with the recent national focus on his temperament, more people are going public with their McCain experiences.
Hinz said McCain's treatment of the young campaign worker in 1986 troubled him for years.
"There were an awful lot of people in the room," Hinz recalled. "You'd have to stick cotton in your ears not to hear it. He (McCain) was screaming at him, and he was red in the face.
Still, Arizonans of McCain's own political party describe senatorial outbursts that had nothing to do with public policy.
Carl Kunasek, now a member of the Arizona Corporation Commission, was blasted by McCain in 1985, when Kunasek refused to endorse McCain during his first run for the U.S. Senate.
The incident "included him (McCain) standing on his feet and leaning over and telling me what would happen to me," Kunasek said Thursday.
Kunasek declined to say what McCain threatened, but added that the threat, political in nature, was never acted on.
The incident, Kunasek said, "was not pleasant, and I was surprised."
One who is willing to describe McCain's choler is former Phoenix City Councilwoman Kathy Dubs.
In 1993, Dubs, a Republican, was singed by McCain during a presentation about a proposed regional airport that was to be located between Phoenix and Tucson.
Phoenix wasn't happy about an airport that would compete with Sky Harbor International, recalled Dubs, then on the City Council.
"I was a newcomer in politics, and maybe not having as much finesse as the old-timers had, I said, 'You know, the question that comes to my mind, that my constituents would ask me, is, 'How much property do your relatives own in Casa Grande?' " Dubs said.
That's when McCain grew angry.
"He slammed his fist to the table and stood up and said this meeting is over," she said. "Then he pointed his finger at me and started calling me names. His staff was pulling him back, trying to get him to sit down."
After McCain's outburst, Dubs said she left.
From the January 30 edition of WAMU's Capitol News Connection:
BREISLER: John McCain is a maverick. So goes conventional wisdom, as does one of McCain's ads. His campaign calls it "American Reformer."
McCAIN: I angered the big spenders in Congress by opposing their pork projects and calling for ethics reform. I don't like the business-as-usual crowd in Washington, but I love America. I love her enough to make some people angry.
BREISLER: But how would a President McCain work with those people Senator McCain angered? Washington insider and author Sally Quinn says McCain has a multifaceted personality. He can anger some people one day and work with them the next.
QUINN: Most people really like John McCain. I mean, he's an extremely likable person, and he's very admirable in many ways. One is that he says what he believes and he will cross the party line whenever he thinks that the Republicans are not on the right track.
BREISLER: That has won McCain the endorsement of former presidential candidate Joe Lieberman. They've served in the Senate together for 20 years.
LIEBERMAN: He'll just call everybody into a room, a lot of Democrats, Republicans, House, Senate, and say, "OK. Let's cut the politics. We all want to do something. Our constituents want us to do it. Let's do it."
BREISLER: But McCain's beliefs and behaviors can get him in trouble with other members of Congress. James Thurber has been a professor of political science at American University for over 30 years.
THURBER: Senator McCain can be a little prickly because sometimes he has truth, and when you have truth, you push something very hard until your colleagues get a little tired of hearing it and you don't have the votes.
BREISLER: Colleagues fear he won't be a conservative enough president. McCain has stood apart from conservative Republicans, most notably in ethics reform and immigration legislation. Elder statesman Orrin Hatch [R] has been Utah's senator since 1976.
HATCH: Well, John is very good on national security and foreign policy areas. He has a lot of problems in the domestic area. A lot of Republicans are still very upset with some of his domestic approaches.
BREISLER: In response, McCain has also been advertising his conservative credentials. At the last Republican debate, he highlighted his support of Supreme Court justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito.
McCAIN: I will continue to work in every way to show people that I have a very, very conservative record. I'm proud to be a conservative. But there are times like when the Rumsfeld strategy was going wrong, I was criticized for -- by Republicans.
BREISLER: Yet, McCain has aligned himself since then with the Bush administration on the Iraq war as well as permanent tax cuts. Ohio State University professor Paul Allen Beck says President McCain's policies might surprise people who think of Sen. McCain as a maverick moderate.
BECK: He, in a variety of areas, is probably the most conservative of the current candidates; maybe not in terms of social conservatism, although he's pretty close there. I think that gets hidden because of his style.
BREISLER: Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings, comes from the opposite end of the political spectrum. Yet, he's impressed by McCain's political style.
CUMMINGS: You look at a guy like McCain, you would say, "Well, wait a minute. You know, he's a Republican; for the surge; for the war; for comprehensive immigration" -- but yet, he's still -- he's got a good chance of being the nominee. Why? Because people believe that he believes and that's what leadership is all about.
BREISLER: And that's from a hard-core Obama supporter. McCain the candidate is hoping voters will see him as a president who can work successfully with Congress members like Cummings.
From Capitol News Connection, Jodi Breisler, WAMU 88.5 News.
- 2008 Elections