Washington Bureau

Part 3: Congressional colleagues were frequent targets of McCain outbursts

By BILLY HOUSE/Media General News Service
February 15 2008 | text size: small medium large
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Part three of a three-part series

WASHINGTON -- In his 2002 memoir, Worth the Fighting For, John McCain defends outrage as important for public officials.

"I believe that when public servants lose their capacity for outrage over practices injurious to the national interest, they have outlived their usefulness to the country,” McCain wrote.

But he recollects incidents where his outrage may have gone too far – including a shoving episode when he was in the U.S. House in the 1980s.

During a squabble between House leaders off the floor over a vote count, McCain wrote that he jumped right in, used some strong words, and that then-Rep. Marty Russo, D-Ill., “rushed to me, and grabbed me by the throat, and we exchanged profanities and a few shoves, before I suggested we take it outside.”

Russo ignored the challenge, and the men returned to their offices.

“It was hardly seemly conduct for two adults, even less so for two members of Congress,” McCain recalled.

McCain also writes about becoming upset at Alabama GOP Sen. Richard Shelby during the failed 1989 confirmation of former GOP Texas Sen. John Tower, as defense secretary.

McCain wrote that he thought he, himself, would erupt in full view of the press and public when the then-Democrat Shelby voted against the confirmation, despite what he and Tower had thought had been a pledge by Shelby to support Tower.

"But I managed to exercise a little self-restraint and waited until after the vote, when only a few senators would be present as witnesses, to bring my nose to within an inch of his as I screamed out my intense displeasure over his deceit and my general frustration with the injustice that was being done to my friend," McCain wrote.

McCain also wrote that he exchanged harsh words with the now-deceased Nebraska Democratic Sen. Jim Exon, when Exon tried to explain his opposition to Tower to McCain.

"What you know is a lie," McCain says he replied, "and you're a god**mn liar."

None of McCain’s rivals for the Republican nomination have attacked McCain on his age or temperament directly, but aides to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney were not shy about highlighting McCain's temper.

“Choosing to ignore substance and relevant issues, the McCain way has always been to attack opponents in a personal manner,” read a Jan. 5 e-mail from Romney press secretary Kevin Madden.

Topping the list was an episode last year. A number of media outlets reported that McCain had lost his temper in a closed-door meeting with GOP Sen. John Cornyn, which included other senators.

According to published reports, Cornyn had been asking questions about immigration-reform legislation that the Arizona senator was helping to craft, when McCain accused him of making a “chickensh**” argument to derail it.

McCain also reportedly dropped the F Bomb at one point, yelling "[Expletive] you!" at the Texas senator. “I know more about this than anyone else in the room!” McCain reportedly declared.

The Romney news release listed nine other episodes of McCain’s attacking opponents.

Since dropping out of the race for the GOP nomination, Romney has endorsed McCain.

Another highly publicized run-in involved Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who could be McCain’s general election opponent.

In 2006, McCain wrote a snarky letter to Obama, accusing Obama of "self-interested partisan posturing" in lobbying for ethics reform and suggesting that the Illinois senator had as much as lied to him in private talks about working closely together on lobbying ethics reform.

"The tone of the letter, I think, was a little over the top," Obama was quoted as saying at the time. "But John McCain's been an American hero and has served here in Washington for 20 years, so if he wants to get cranky once in a while, that's his prerogative."

Their letters to each other can be viewed here.

McCain’s humor can be mean-spirited, including an episode with Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., McCain’s other possible Democratic presidential rival.

The Associated Press reported in 1998 that McCain told this joke at a GOP fundraiser in Washington: “Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because Janet Reno is her father.”

McCain’s backers, including Republican Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, downplay the issue of unbecoming conduct, saying depictions of McCain as a hothead or mean are overblown.

Rather, they say his anger reflects a lawmaker passionately fighting for what he believes in.

Martinez said he personally has not had any run-ins with McCain.

“But who doesn’t have from time to time a little flare up? I mean, I have. We all get cranky at times,” said Martinez.

Martinez added: “Senator Cochran and Senator McCain have had very different points of view on the issue of earmarks and all, and I have no doubt that from time to time they may have clashed.”

“Everybody has had a few dust-ups with Sen. McCain,” said Shelby. But he added, “I think we need to get behind the nominee. I certainly will.”

“The sooner we get behind him, get past our grievances with each other … I think it will strengthen his hand in November,” added Shelby.

Cornyn jokes about being the target of a McCain flare-up. At an annual congressional dinner with reporters in Washington Wednesday, Cornyn noted that President Bush has a penchant for nicknames, calling him “Corndog.”

“Admittedly, it’s not my favorite nickname … but it sure beats the heck out of what Senator McCain calls me,” Cornyn joked.

Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report, said that while McCain has had highly publicized episodes of anger in the past, “it doesn’t strike me as something that is a contemporary problem.”

“I don’t doubt it was a problem. But if watching his campaign melt down last summer didn’t trigger an episode, then it looks like it’s (a problem) he pretty much has a handle on,” said Cook. “Unless McCain starts to have some public outbursts, it’s kind of a non-issue.”

Former Republic national editor Tina May disagrees: “I keep wondering when the real McCain will surface. But I fear he’ll fool voters all the way to the White House.”

Reporter Billy House can be reached at bhouse@mediageneral.com or at 1 (202) 662-7673.

Read part 1 | Read part 2
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