Right at the outset of his political career, John McCain's hostile and explosive temperament was evident, according to a Sept. 8 article in Time cover-lined "Honor Bound." Writers James Carney and Michael Grunwald report that in his first race for the House, McCain threatened to beat up a primary opponent (the opponent had called his ex-wife looking for dirt on him). Then, in his first run for the Senate, McCain vilified his adversary in that race after he accused McCain of selling out to special interests (NB: McCain was already close friends with savings and loan king Charles Keating by this point). Not for nothing did McCain carry the moniker "McNasty" during his prep school years.
McCain's struggle with a volcanic and unstable temper has apparently been life-long, and a fair amount of information has accumulated relating to his problem in this regard. The most comprehensive secondary sources I have found on the subject are the section called "Senator Hothead" in David Brock and Paul Waldman's book Free Ride: John McCain and the Media, the article "McCain: A Question of Temperament" in the April 20, 2008 issue of the Washington Post, and the recent piece in Rolling Stone by Tim Dickinson called "Make-Believe Maverick" (there are also sources online too numerous to mention here).
McCain's relations with colleagues in the Senate, including, or especially, fellow Republican senators, have often been marked by unpleasant confrontations. He once said to Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), then chairman of the Senate Budget Committee: "Only an asshole would put together a budget like this." McCain added: "I wouldn't call you an asshole unless you really were an asshole." When Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) inquired of him during an exchange: "Are you calling me stupid?" he received the reply: "No, I'm calling you a fucking jerk." Reportedly, during a Senate Republican luncheon, when a colleague demanded an apology because McCain had called him a "shithead," McCain responded: "I apologize, but you're still a shithead."
In the midst of Senate debate on the immigration bill McCain was supporting at the time (he later repudiated this legislation in the Republican primaries, though it was essentially his bill), McCain said to John Cornyn (R-TX), "Fuck you! I know more about this than anyone in the room." McCain screamed at Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), after Shelby voted against confirmation for Secretary of Defense of McCain's friend and mentor John Tower, that he was going to "pay for" his vote. In 1995, while McCain was making a long-winded statement before Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC) asked McCain politely "Is the Senator about through?" Reportedly McCain then engaged the 92-year-old legislator in a scuffle on the Senate floor. Former Sen. Bob Smith (R-NH) has said of McCain--perhaps understatedly--that he has "very few friends" in the Senate.
McCain's threat to Richard Shelby is not an isolated occurrence; he is well known to have a thoroughgoing vindictive streak. The most widely told story in this regard involves Sandra Dowling, former superintendent of schools in Maricopa County, Arizona, where McCain's home city of Phoenix is situated. When Barbara Barrett, wife of then-Intel chief executive officer Craig Barrett, was running against McCain buddy Gov. Fife Symington (a corrupt politician who subsequently did jail time), McCain demanded that Dowling withdraw her endorsement of Barrett. When Dowling refused, McCain threatened to destroy her. Dowling's son soon lost his appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy.
Nor are mere voters exempt from the wrath of McCain. In 1991, during the perfervid controversy over the nomination of pornography-loving, middle-of-his-law-school-class Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court, Phoenix resident Diane Smith composed a letter to McCain complaining about what she saw as his unfairness to Anita Hill. United States Senator John McCain called the sixty-three-year-old woman up and berated her over the telephone. McCain "ranted on and on about what nerve I had to question his integrity," Smith has recounted. "He was shouting. I was absolutely taken aback." When McCain finished the tirade, he slammed the phone down without waiting for a response from his constituent.
Early in his political career, McCain was close to Pat Murphy, former editor and publisher of the conservative Arizona Republic. When in 1989 the newspaper ran a story critical of McCain's sandbagging of Arizona Democratic Governor Rose Mofford when she testified before the Senate Interior Committee about their state's crucial Central Arizona Project, McCain telephoned Murphy and screamed at him, "I know you're out to get me!" McCain wouldn't speak to Murphy or any of his reporters again. Eleven years later, during the 2000 presidential primaries, the McCain campaign refused an Arizona Republic political correspondent a seat on the so-called "Straight Talk Express."
Pat Murphy wrote in an editorial in March of that year: "If McCain were to become president, Americans would wake up to more than a commander-in-chief with a prickly temperament and a low-boiling point. McCain is a man who carries get-even grudges. He cannot endure criticism. He controls by fear. He's consumed with self-importance. He shifts blame." Murphy had written in an editorial the previous year: "There is also reason to question whether McCain has the temperament, and the political approach and skills, we want in the next president of the United States."
Three Republican senators who experienced McCain's volatility firsthand have spoken more pointedly. "McCain's ire is all too real. This has prompted questions about whether his temperament is suited to the office of commander-in-chief," Pete Domenici has said. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), whom McCain terrified when he physically roughed up a Sandanista official in his presence during their visit to Nicaragua in the 1980's, has said, "The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine. He is erratic. He is hot-headed. He loses his temper and he worries me." And Bob Smith said, "McCain's temper would place this country at risk in international affairs, and the world perhaps in danger."
And retired Navy pilot Phillip Butler, who in addition to being a classmate of John McCain at Annapolis was a fellow POW at the Hanoi Hilton, wrote: "I can verify that John has an infamous reputation for being a hot-head. He has a quick and explosive temper that many have experienced first hand. Folks, quite honestly that is not the finger I want next to the nuclear button."