An angry, profane exchange between Sen. John McCain and another Republican senator last week prompted a new round of questions Monday about whether McCain’s legendary temper is becoming a liability to his campaign for the presidency.
In a private meeting just off the Senate floor, McCain (R-Ariz.) got into a shouting match Thursday with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) over details of a compromise on immigration legislation. Cornyn accused McCain of being too busy with his campaign to take part in the negotiations, prompting McCain to utter “F... you.”
McCain spokesman Danny Diaz acknowledged Monday that a “spirited exchange” had taken place, but said news reports had exaggerated its intensity.
McCain’s political handlers have plenty of experience in explaining his salty language and strident attacks. His temper has ranged far and wide, directed at other members of the Senate, congressional staffers, government agency chiefs, corporate chieftains, military officers and teenage campaign volunteers.
McCain has shouted at people for any number of reasons, including errors of judgment, disagreements on public policy and even how to set up a podium.
“In McCain’s world, there aren’t legitimate differences of opinions,” said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which differs with McCain on some issues. “There is his way and there is evil. That is how he approaches issues. That is one of the reasons for conservative nervousness about him.”
His temper has been an issue for years.
In the 2000 presidential bid, McCain was dubbed “Senator Hothead” by Newsweek. That year, he won endorsement from only a few Senate colleagues. His frequent attacks and volatile personality were most likely to blame. “McCain notes,” which offer apologies after heated words, are held by many members of Congress.
McCain has written about what he describes as his impatience. “Although I try to refrain from being intentionally discourteous, I am demonstrative in showing my displeasure. I am often impatient and can speak and act abruptly,” he wrote in “Why Courage Matters” in 2004.
In a 1999 interview with The Times, McCain said: “I do everything I can to keep my anger under control. I wake up daily and tell myself, ‘You must do everything possible to stay cool, calm and collected today.’ ”
One bureaucrat who felt McCain’s wrath was former NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin, who was summoned by McCain in 1999, not long after a $125-million probe crashed on Mars because of confusion over the use of English and metric units. McCain’s Senate Commerce Committee had oversight over NASA.
“McCain went ballistic the moment Goldin walked into McCain’s office,” said a participant in the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity because he still worked in the government arena. “He was shouting and using profanity, saying he was sick of NASA’s screw-ups. It went on for a few minutes, and then he kicked Goldin out of the office.”
Goldin started walking down the hallway but was called back to the senator’s office by a McCain aide. “When he came back in, McCain started yelling at Goldin all over again. And then McCain kicked Goldin out a second time before he ever said a word,” the source said.
Julian Zelizer, a history and politics professor at Boston University, said the spectacle of a senator getting into “yelling matches with his colleague” undermines the leadership image that McCain has sought to project.
“It is an issue he needs to be cautious with,” Zelizer said.
Until the latest flap, McCain had managed in the last six months to quell the image that he is easily angered. On Monday, his campaign took sharp exception to the entire matter, characterizing it as political theater.
“If something is written every time members of Congress and leading politicians, behind closed doors, try to get the other’s attention, and tempers flare, you’d run out of ink,” said John Weaver, McCain’s chief campaign strategist.
Nonetheless, the issue was used effectively in the 2000 primaries by opponents who planted rumors that McCain was unstable because of his years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Although some former POWs have had psychological problems, McCain came through the experience in good psychological shape, Navy doctors say.
As for his temper, “John McCain is John McCain,” said Dr. Bob Hain, director of the Navy’s Robert E. Mitchell Center for Prisoner of War Studies.
Democrats said McCain was in deep trouble on the matter.
“Apparently, John McCain’s do-anything-to-win campaign strategy doesn’t include anger management classes,” quipped Damien LaVera, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.
“We have had eight years of cowboy diplomacy, and McCain is even more of a cowboy than the current president,” said Roger Salazar, a Democratic political consultant who worked for John Edwards in 2004. “The public wants somebody who is strong but can sit across from allies and adversaries without lunging at them.”
Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this report.