Could short fuse blow up McCain’s candidacy?

Part one of a three-part series

WASHINGTON — Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi is among John McCain’s latest converts, and he would like to put their long-time differences behind them.

“I’ve said to reporters what I should not have said – that he is erratic, loses his temper at times, and it worries me,” said Cochran, who as recently as last month also told The Boston Globe the idea of McCain as president sends “a cold chill down my spine.”

“All of that is true,” affirmed Cochran, a Republican, in an interview with Media General News Service.

But after first endorsing Fred Thompson, then Mitt Romney, Cochran said he now accepts that “there’s no longer an alternative.”

Cochran has decided to join Republicans endorsing the Arizona senator for president.

Cochran does offer: “The fact is, he’s succeeded in dealing with it (his temper). He’s not been prone to that behavior in this campaign. I think he’s doing a better job at controlling his temper.”

A ringing endorsement? Cochran, considered one of the Senate’s most genteel members, said he’s not waiting for a thank-you call from McCain.

For many who have dealt daily with McCain, Cochran’s reluctant, lukewarm path to endorsing the man who seems to have all-but locked up the Republican nomination is understandable. 

Cochran has felt the heat of McCain’s anger, but he’s now publicly downplaying past confrontations.

That should come as no surprise, explains Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report, a non-partisan newsletter. 

“How many members of Congress don’t endorse their party’s nominee for president?” Cook asked. 

But it also raises a question of how deep such support for McCain really is, despite the sudden cascade of Republicans who are embracing him.

More than anything, Cochran’s public remarks have helped to bring renewed attention to what has been a recurring element in the 71-year-old McCain’s life and career: his short fuse and long memory for slights, real or perceived.

McCain, who has a compelling personal story as a heroic prisoner of war in Vietnam, will undoubtedly soon be the Grand Old Party’s standard-bearer. But some continue to describe him as a bully with a history of cursing colleagues, vindictiveness toward foes, intimidation, mean-spirited jokes and anger when told he must play by the same rules as everyone else.

Take it from a senator who knows McCain very well.

He recalls vividly how the Arizonan once got nose-to-nose with a fellow senator to scream at him. He tells of McCain calling another senator “a g**damn liar” to his face.

The same senator recounts another profanity-laced scuffle with a congressional colleague just off of the U.S. House floor. After exchanging a few shoves, McCain suggested the duo settle their fight outside. 

That senator is none other than McCain himself, who wrote about those and other incidents in Worth the Fighting For, his 2002 memoir that at times seems to be a self-cleansing confessional.

“I have a temper, to state the obvious, which I have tried to control with varying degrees of success because it does not always serve my interest or the public’s,” wrote McCain. 

But McCain also colors his temper as noble. “I have regretted losing my temper on many occasions. But there are things worth getting angry about in politics, and I have at times tried to use my anger to incite public outrage,” he wrote.

More recently, however, McCain referred to his own temper in his 2004 book, Why Courage Matters, writing that it is important to distinguish between outrage and anger, “a distinction I’ve often missed.”

While McCain had no problem educating readers about his hot-headedness in his books, he and his campaign aides aren’t much interested in talking about it during this, his second, bid for the presidency.

McCain’s campaign communications director, Jill Hazelbaker, declined on the senator’s behalf to answer new, specific questions on the topic. 

Those questions ranged from whether McCain has to put much effort nowadays into keeping his composure on the campaign trail, or during debates, to whether it’s fair to suggest his temper is something about which voters should concern themselves, to what McCain has done to address his anger-management problems, which he himself disclosed.

Hazelbaker did say the senator is happy to have Cochran’s support. 

But Hazelbaker cast the Mississippian’s problems with McCain as the product of battles between a big congressional spender and a heroic crusader on behalf of America’s taxpayers. 

“There’s no question that they’ve had some disagreements on issues from time to time,” Hazelbaker added. “McCain obviously is a big fighter against pork-barrel spending. And Cochran has been an (Senate) appropriator. So they’ve had some passionate disagreements.” 

McCain himself had a similar explanation during a Jan. 27 interview with NBC’s Tim Russert, at a time when Cochran was still backing Romney.

McCain told Russert: “As much as I love Thad Cochran, he’s an appropriator. And I have fought him hard time after time after time on these pork barrel projects that he has been famous for, many of which, in my view, have been harmful to our economy and our environment … so, we’ve had strong words from time to time about pork barrel spending. He’s one of the great pork barrelers, and he’s very proud of that.”

“But I think they both respect each other,” added Hazelbaker.

Beyond that, Hazelbaker had nothing to say on McCain’s temperament.

McCain’s detractors say it’s absolutely fair to raise questions about McCain’s explosiveness while he’s running for the presidency. 

“I wouldn’t think that he should be president. He’s very hot tempered,” said Dolores Alfond, chairperson for the National Alliance of Families for the Return of America’s Missing Servicemen and Women.

Alfond, the sister of an Air Force Academy graduate missing in Vietnam since 1967, recalls the rough treatment she received from McCain in 1992 during her appearance at a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs.

She eventually was driven to tears by McCain during the hearing, which can be seen on YouTube. 

McCain repeatedly interrupts her during her testimony, berates her and then suddenly storms out of the proceedings.

“He just didn’t want to listen. He continued to ask me questions, but he wouldn’t listen to my answers,” said Alfond in a telephone interview from her home in Seattle. “And he kept slamming things around. He brought me to tears because he wouldn’t listen.”

To this day, Alfond said she doesn’t understand why McCain’s anger seemed so personal toward her.

“The McCain I know is a short-tempered bully …,” Tina May, editor of the Monterey County Weekly in California, wrote in a column last week.

May was previously national editor of the largest daily paper in McCain’s state, The Arizona Republic. 

During her five years on that job, May found McCain to be someone “who would brook no criticism of his goals or means, who routinely dismissed or ignored legitimate inquiries from Republic reporters, and who felt no compunction about whining to the publisher over any perceived slight.”

In an interview, May said that when she now watches McCain on TV – such as during the testy moments between him and Romney during the Jan. 30 debate in California — “it looks like he’s working really hard to keep himself in check – like there’s an outburst waiting to happen. 

“He’s spending a lot of energy trying to control his temper,” May said.

May also said she believes McCain too often receives kid-gloves treatment by the national news media. She said they adore the access he allows them and typically describe him almost reverently as a political “maverick” for his penchant for tweaking the powers-that-be, including President Bush and other Republicans.

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

Read part 2 | Read part 3

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