News & Politics

John McCain, Senator Hothead

Want to fight? John McCain is good at it.

This article was published in February 1997 

John McCain bursts out of the cloakroom and onto the Senate floor. His face red, he rips off his glasses and gets ready to pound a table. Senator Hothead is mad. Again.

"He just comes out and blows up every once in a while," says a congressional correspondent, who didn't want to be named. "You can almost see the steam coming out of his ears."

In a Senate that still tries to present itself as a polite debating club, McCain stands out for his willingness to take on "distinguished colleagues." Sometimes his wrath reaches beyond Capitol Hill. Cross one of the lines he has drawn and he'll take you on, no matter your rank.

"McCain doesn't tolerate what he thinks is wrong," says attorney Carl Smith, who flew jets with McCain in the Navy. "He'll hammer you."

The son of a cigar-chomping admiral who preached public service and raised his son in the company of tough guys, John McCain needed all the moxie he could muster when his A-4E Skyhawk was shot down over Hanoi in 1967. He was held in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" prison compound until 1973. Nine years later the young Republican was elected to the House, and in 1986 he was elected to the Senate.

It wasn't long before he found himself accused as a member of the Keating Five of trying to block an investigation of savings-and-loan mogul Charles Keating. The accusation was loaded with politics, and to this day he still gets red-faced over what he considers the taint on his honor. But rather than lick his wounds, McCain has fired back at some of the Senate's most treasured domains — campaign cash and pork-barrel spending — and damn the party affiliation.

"Am I disappointed and embarrassed by Republicans' doing this? Hell, yes," he said last year after Congress passed another fat-laden spending bill. "And am I more angry at Republicans? Yes." The bill, he said, hurt the GOP's credibility "enormously."

McCain was mentioned in 1996 as a possible vice-presidential candidate. Will his tart tongue hurt his national aspirations? Or will the hot-blooded senator self-destruct if he ever does hit the national campaign trail?

There's no telling, but if you want to know just how mad John McCain can get, try asking these people.

STROM THURMOND In January 1995, McCain was midway through an opening statement at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing when chairman Strom Thurmond asked, "Is the senator about through?" McCain glared at Thurmond, thanked him for his "courtesy" (translation: buzz off), and continued on. McCain later confronted Thurmond on the Senate floor. A scuffle ensued, and the two didn't part friends.

SAM NUNN When John Tower's 1989 bid to become Secretary of Defense was shot down in a blaze of leaked memos about Tower's womanizing and drinking problems, McCain took his good friend's demise personally. "It should have been handled differently," he says. Looking for culprits, an irate McCain took to the Senate floor and fingered then-Senator Sam Nunn. The two would later collaborate on other projects. "I try not to make it personal," McCain says.

CHARLES KEATING While building a vast financial empire, flamboyant Arizona banker Charles Keating lavished campaign contributions on key politicians, including McCain. When federal officials launched a criminal investigation of his dealings, Keating bluntly asked McCain and four other senators to block the investigation. McCain refused, and after a testy confrontation in McCain's office, he threw Keating out.

ROBERT TORRICELLI Does a 1987 Supreme Court decision protect Indian gaming? Representative Robert Torricelli testified before a 1995 hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that he'd read the decision in question and concluded it did not. "Well, read it again," McCain said, "because you didn't understand it if you read it. You couldn't have understood it if you did read it because your interpretation of it is flat-out wrong." Torricelli got in all of eight words before the hammer came down. "I'm running this committee hearing, Congressman Torricelli," McCain said. "And I will allow you to speak when you are requested to do so."

JOHN DALTON Navy Secretary Dalton came to McCain's office one day and vowed to protect Commander Robert Stumpf. The onetime leader of the Blue Angels and a decorated pilot in the Persian Gulf War, Stumpf was under attack for a fleeting involvement in the notorious Tailhook escapade. When McCain thought Dalton had backed off by sending a Navy lawyer to interrogate Stumpf, he called the Secretary and said: "I don't believe you're standing up for the Navy. We will have nothing to do with one another anymore." And he hung up the phone.

ROSS PEROT MIA/POW groups denounced McCain when he backed President Clinton's efforts to normalize relations with Vietnam. When Ross Perot, who had financed the POW cause, joined the attack, McCain told a reporter that Perot is "nuttier than a fruitcake, and you can quote me." When Perot phoned to complain, McCain called him "nutty" again.

ROBERT BYRD The prince of pork, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, has disciplined Senate colleagues by dispensing or withholding federal largess. Not McCain. He took to the Senate floor to challenge Byrd's spending "billions of dollars" on projects "directly related to virtues other than merit" and finally beat Byrd to win the line-item veto for the President.

DAVID PRYOR The Senate's special counsel recommended in 1990 dropping charges against McCain for doing anything illegal or even unseemly to shield savings-and-loan operator Charles Keating from federal investigators. Yet Democrat David Pryor of Arkansas kept voting against freeing McCain from the Senate's Keating Five investigation. "It was purely political," says McCain, who didn't speak to Pryor for nearly six years. Alabama's Howell Heflin got the same silent treatment.

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