Arizona Sen. John McCain pauses during a news conference in New York on Friday.
Sen. John McCain's in-your-face attitude makes him popular with voters, but it has made him a pariah among many leaders in his party and his home state.
By SARA FRITZ
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 13, 2000
WASHINGTON -- It was a moment of reckoning for Sen. John McCain.
Standing on the Senate floor last Oct. 14, McCain, the Republican presidential contender known for a hair-trigger temper, was being pummeled with hostile questions by his longtime nemesis, Sen. Mitch McConnell. Everyone in the chamber knew McConnell was trying to goad McCain into losing his temper.
McConnell started by reading verbatim quotes from McCain's campaign appearances in which the Arizona senator alleged that members of Congress were being corrupted by large, unregulated campaign contributions. He then called on McCain to name some members who had been corrupted.
"I am not in the business of identifying individuals or attacking individuals," McCain sputtered, as he strained to maintain his composure. "I am attacking a system that has to be fixed. . . "
McConnell would not let up.
"I ask the senator from Arizona, how can it be corruption if no one is corrupt? That is like saying the gang is corrupt, but none of the gangsters are."
Again, he demanded: "Who is corrupt?"
Suddenly, McCain turned on McConnell, although he did not lose his temper. Instead, he calmly resurrected an incident from the past that was designed to portray his opponent as a lackey of the tobacco industry.
He recalled a speech the Republican senator from Kentucky had made in the privacy of a GOP caucus meeting last year. McConnell had assured senators that the tobacco industry would help them in future re-election campaigns if they voted against a popular $1.10-a-pack tobacco tax proposed by McCain.
"A certain senator stood up and said it was okay for you not to vote for the tobacco bill because the tobacco companies will run ads in our favor," McCain said.
To this day, many senators, lobbyists and journalists remember that as one of the nastiest exchanges witnessed on the Senate floor. And as McCain's bid for the presidency gains momentum, it is being cited by his opponents as a striking demonstration of the hostility that prevails between the Arizona senator and many other Republicans -- both in the Senate and back in his home state.
The list of McCain's political enemies is long. It includes not only McConnell, but Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, Majority Whip Don Nickles of Oklahoma, Arizona Republican Gov. Jane Dee Hull, former Democratic Sen. Dennis DeConcini of Arizona and even his hometown newspaper, the Arizona Republic.
In fact, McCain is so unpopular among GOP senators that at least 39 of them have endorsed the presidential candidacy of Texas Gov. George Bush. Only four Republican senators support McCain.
As Jon Kyl, the junior senator from Arizona, notes, it is McCain's willingness to attack the integrity and credibility of his critics, including other politicians, that makes him so appealing to voters. But it is precisely that trait, Kyl says, that makes him so unpopular with his colleagues.
"If John disagrees with you, he's willing to be in your face about it," Kyl, a fellow Republican, says. "John evokes strong emotions -- and that's the point. He's used that to his advantage in the presidential race."
If McCain proves to be popular with the voters, perhaps it does not matter that many politicians dislike him. But James Thurber, director of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, says McCain's in-your-face style has often sapped his effectiveness as a legislator and does not bode well for his success as president.
"We know he doesn't build coalitions very well, he has had many legislative proposals that have gone nowhere, and even though he is the chairman of a major committee he is not a legislative baron," Thurber says. "We need a president who knows how to bring people together, and there's no indication that McCain knows how to do that."
McCain's feud with McConnell is indicative of the way his policy disagreements with colleagues often become personal quarrels.
McCain and McConnell were once good enough friends that they fielded a joint softball team to compete in one of Capitol Hill's amateur leagues. But the two men have clashed repeatedly in recent years on a variety of policy issues from campaign finance reform to tobacco legislation, and their personal relationship has soured.
In many ways, the two senators are exact opposites. Their different attitudes toward authority and tradition would make them natural opponents.
McCain, the anti-politician, came to the Congress after a hell-raising career in the Navy, including six years as a POW in Vietnam. McConnell, defender of the status quo, is a career politician with an appreciation of the perks and prerogatives of a senator.
Yet McCain and McConnell do share one attribute: an instinct for the jugular. Although McConnell does not have McCain's temper, he revealed his own brand of chutzpah in 1995 when, as Ethics Committee chairman, he threatened to expose the private foibles of some Democrats if they insisted on public hearings in the sexual misconduct case against Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore.
By and large, McCain's Senate opponents are men, such as McConnell, whose ego and determination are every bit as strong as his. Even though the Senate prides itself on being a gentlemen's club, it has many members who can be every bit as combative as McCain.
McCain's clashes with most other senators have not played out as publicly as his long-running feud with McConnell. But many current and former senators recount -- usually off-the-record -- vivid tales of private incidents where an angry McCain undermined his support among his colleagues by growling and shaking his fist at them.
Because McCain has always chafed against authority, even when he was a student at the Naval Academy, it is not surprising that he has such a poor relationship with his party leaders, Lott and Nickles. Lott exacerbated the situation by working against McCain on the tobacco bill after asking him to manage it.
Lott and Nickles attribute McCain's popularity on the stump to his cozy relationship with the news media -- not his anti-establishment message.
Nor is it surprising that McCain would have offended Democrats as well as Republicans. Sen. Bob Graham first felt the sting of McCain's temper more than a decade ago when the Floridian was delaying adjournment of the Senate before the Thanksgiving recess in an effort to get more highway money for Florida and other Sunbelt states. McCain's temper flared as he complained that Graham was preventing him from joining his family.
During the eight years that McCain and DeConcini served together in the Senate representing Arizona, the two men and their staffs were frequently at odds. DeConcini once boasted to another senator that he had discovered how to make McCain back off whenever he was angry. DeConcini said he could prevail if he stood real close, with his face within 4 inches of McCain's.
The event that destroyed the McCain-DeConcini relationship was the Keating Five scandal in which both men were implicated. Both were among five senators accused of taking large campaign contributions from savings and loan owner Charles Keating and then intervening on Keating's behalf with federal regulators.
When special counsel Robert Bennett recommended that McCain be severed from the case because there was no proof he assisted Keating, DeConcini balked. He thought the two of them were in it together, and he saw to it that the Senate Ethics Committee continued to investigate McCain along with the other four. McCain never forgave him for it.
Although many senators do not try to hide their dislike of McCain's approach, it has won him some strong admirers on both sides of the aisle. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., says he prefers McCain's approach to back-stabbing common among other senators.
In Arizona, McCain's enemies still remember how he showed up as a newcomer to the state in the early 1980s and muscled his way onto the Republican congressional ballot ahead of many native Arizonans who had been waiting for their chance to run. When he first ran for Senate in 1985, some Republicans such as then-Sen. Barry Goldwater, leader of the state GOP, felt the honor rightfully belonged to Rep. Bob Stump, who had served longer in the House.
Republican Mayor Neil Giuliano of Tempe, Ariz., said McCain's detractors in Arizona, particularly Gov. Hull, have never forgiven the senator for his brashness in the early '80s. He said the men who were brushed aside when McCain won his first nomination to Congress were friends of Hull.
Today, Hull supports Bush. It is highly unusual for a presidential candidate to not have the support of the governor of his home state.
Since the start of his presidential campaign, McCain's feud with the Arizona Republic newspaper also has resurfaced. Until recently, McCain, who has many admirers in the Washington press corps, even barred the Republic reporter from riding on his campaign bus.
But many Arizona politicians -- even many who do not support McCain -- side with him in his distrust of the newspaper. Giuliano said the paper has been unusually aggressive in attacking McCain.
Kyl, who, like Giuliano, is supporting McCain's presidential bid, said his fellow Arizona senator was justified in being upset about the way the paper handled a story in 1994 revealing that McCain's wife, Cindy, an admitted drug abuser, used prescription medicines belonging to a charity she headed. A cartoon in the newspaper depicted Cindy McCain stealing pills from needy poor children.
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