If anyone is wondering why John McCain is not holding a commanding lead over Barack Obama in his own state, all you have to do is listen to the people of Arizona. Many of the people I have spoken with shared their concerns that McCain has a nasty temper when people disagree with him, does not make sound economic policy choices and fails to show true leadership.
Joan Wendel shared a story with me over lunch. A retired lawyer who earned her law degree at 49 after raising five children, Wendel's been volunteering for the Obama campaign because she thinks he will make an excellent, informed president. But there's another reason she's active, and it has to do with Obama's opponent. In 1984, she recalled, the U.S. was considering entering into a treaty with England to return political refugees, mostly Irish, who had fled to this country. Wendel had just completed a term at Trinity College in Dublin, where her studies included international law. When she learned of the treaty under consideration, Wendel wrote Arizona representatives urging them to vote against it, based on her expertise as a lawyer as well as her recent experience living and studying in Ireland. In response to the letter she received a phone call from then Congressman John McCain.
At first, Wendel recalled, she was delighted, thinking she'd have an opportunity to share her expertise on treaties and international law with the congressman. But Wendel never got that opportunity. It soon became clear that the purpose of the call was not to discuss but to lecture; McCain had called to tell Joan Wendel why she was wrong. McCain, she said, kept telling her in a patronizing way, "You just don't understand the I.R.A." Wendel explained to McCain that having lived in Ireland she well understood the I.R.A.; she reiterated that she'd written to discuss the treaty under consideration and whether it violated international law. When it became clear to McCain that Wendel was not going to agree with him, McCain started getting angry. "He began to yell loudly at me but would not discuss treaties and international law, no matter how I tried to get him on that subject," Wendel recalled. "He became very angry. He was shouting at me." Wendell said McCain yelled so loudly he could be heard across the room by her elderly mother, who mouthed 'what's going on?' to her adult daughter. "At one point he asked if I didn't know he had just been elected by 80% of his constituents. I told him that was nice but I wanted to talk about treaties." Wendel finally came to the conclusion that McCain couldn't be reasoned with. "Eventually I told him if he was going to continue to yell there was no point in continuing our conversation. He shouted, 'You're absolutely right' and slammed the phone down on me. I've never forgotten this conversation and I have never had any respect for him since."
Another story came from Ken Jacobs, Executive Director of the Pima County Democratic Party. In the early 1990's, Jacobs took an active part in the debate over the Clinton administration's 'don't ask, don't tell' policy concerning gays in the military. Members of Arizona's gay, lesbian and bisexual community were granted a meeting with Senator McCain to explain their position; Jacobs was one of five community members who met with McCain.
But to understand what happened at the meeting, Jacobs said, he had to first relate what happened before the meeting. "When word got out we were meeting with McCain, I received phone calls from people who had met with the Senator over the years, for different reasons and under varying circumstances. They wanted to warn me, literally warn me, what was going to happen. They not only told me he was going to lose his temper, they wanted me to be aware of the warning signs that would lead up to it because they were concerned for me."
Armed with this information and seated closest to McCain, Jacobs observed him during the meeting quite closely , looking for the physical cues he'd been warned about. Right from the start, Jacobs said McCain refused to make eye contact with him or any of the community members seated with him. "When I watched the way McCain refused to make eye contact with Barack Obama in the first debate, I recognized that immediately. That's how he treated us. He wouldn't look at any of us who had come to talk to; he gestured toward me occasionally but that was about it."
John McCain, Jacobs continued, has only one reaction to people who don't agree with him: "Anyone presenting factual information that runs contrary to his position is held in disdain. Pure disdain." As the meeting went on, Jacobs started seeing the cues he'd been warned about. "I had been told that when McCain is about to lose his temper he gives certain physical cues. First, he starts to move his feet under the table while seated. Second, he adjusts and re-adjusts his jacket. Third, he starts moving his forearms on and off the table in a nervous way." And then, he had been warned, "he starts getting heated and the blood starts flowing and his neck turns very red. And when the redness spreads to his face and white blotches start appearing, watch out."
After a few minutes of discussion, Jacobs said McCain exhibited each of those physical cues, in order, and "when McCain's face turned red and the white blotches appeared, his aides suddenly cut the meeting short and hustled the Senator out of the room." So ended the meeting. "In all my years of politics," Jacobs added, "in all my dealings with people on all sides, it was the strangest meeting with a public official I've ever had."
Jacobs cited another reason why he could never vote for his own senator for president. Jacobs recalled that McCain headed up Phil Gramm's brief presidential bid in the 1990's, and in support of it McCain flew to Oregon for a fundraiser with the Oregon Citizens Alliance, an anti-gay conservative Christian political group which had launched a ballot measure to amend the state constitution. According to civil rights experts who monitored the measure, it would not only have prevented special rights for the gay, lesbian and bisexual community, it would have mandated state discrimination against sexual minorities.
Jacobs said, "McCain refused to make the results of that meeting public, to his own constituents. I called friends in Oregon and found out about it and we were the ones who brought it to the public's attention." There was a lot of ugliness surrounding this group's initiative, which reached a violent culmination when a woman with a "No on Ballot Measure 9" sign in her front yard was killed by a firebomb. Jacobs said even though McCain likes to profess that he has a hands-off, live and let live approach to those of different sexual orientations, he felt McCain's real character was revealed by the fact that "he would fly 1,500 miles to break bread with a group like that."
Mike and Chris Dayton
Not all these stories concern McCain's temper. Mike and Chris Dayton are retired public school teachers; McCain won't get their vote because they feel he doesn't represent them. Dayton says a McCain presidency would be a continuation of the Bush presidency, and these two retirees say their wallets cannot afford four more years of George W. Bush.
"When we first retired we felt comfortable with our savings and we were looking forward to traveling, enjoying our hobbies, remodeling our home and investing in our health. And look what's happened. Gas was $1.25 when Bush took office and now it's well over $3.00 and the oil companies have made record profits. Health insurance has gone up over 100%, college tuition has skyrocketed, and basic necessities are too high."
They've always lived responsibly but now have to be very careful, shopping sales to make ends meet. During the current economic crisis, Mike said he was disgusted by the lack of leadership shown by his senator: "McCain wasn't leading, he was grandstanding, running to Washington to save the economy and claim it as his plan but it backfired. And then he blamed Obama. PATHETIC." Mike and Chris agree that in contrast, "Obama has shown leadership and intelligence."
For those still undecided about this presidency, Ken Jacobs had a message, based on his own experience with the Arizona senator. "When considering McCain, remember this. "said Jacobs. "There's never been a political movement where John McCain's principles could not be sacrificed."