media love him.
By Pat Murphy
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 threatens. He controls by fear. He's consumed with self-importance. He shifts blame. McCain's thin skin and demand to have it his way have been obvious since infancy, when he held his breath until he was unconscious, and later in Washington, where he has resorted to pushing and shoving colleagues when irritated.
McCain is a man obsessed with political ambitions but plagued by self-destructive petty impulses. It was vintage McCain who exploded when the Arizona Republic questioned whether the man dubbed "Senator Hothead" in Washington is fit to be entrusted with presidential powers. Instead of conceding what's common knowledge about his volcanic personality, McCain exploded in denial, blaming a newspaper vendetta and George W. Bush for "orchestrating" the criticism. When his claims drew snickers, McCain shifted to another explanation: He explodes when he sees "injustice."
But this sort of blame-fixing works where it counts--with reporters who've come to blindly lionize McCain as a high-minded champion of political virtue fighting demons of political corruption. Perhaps McCain's master stroke in inoculating himself from serious media scrutiny was his early fusillade of confessions--his adultery ruined his first marriage, the Keating Five scandal was a blemish on his reputation, he indulged in wild and reckless misbehavior as an Annapolis midshipman. He finally endeared himself to the media with his Quixotic promise to reform campaign financing and by holding court with reporters aboard his "Straight Talk Express" bus.
The new journalism of dwelling on personalities rather than tedious investigative digging gives McCain a free ride from the national media. Swooning media ensure McCain special treatment in the right places: 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace cooed on the air that he likes McCain so much, he might leave TV to become his press secretary. Salon's Jake Tapper dubbed him "basically just a cool dude." Newsmen of another generation note that reporters covering McCain also are reluctant to seem tough on a man with McCain's painful experience as a prisoner of war.
One who hasn't been so quick to fall in line is Washington Post columnist David Broder, who warned on NBC's Meet the Press that "after the experience we all had with President Clinton [ignoring Arkansas reports of his misdeeds], I'm not inclined to discount the view of home-state reporters and journalists who have covered a candidate over the years." A few enterprising non-Arizona journalists have peeled back the McCain veneer. Boston Globe reporter Walter Robinson spent several weeks digging into McCain's Arizona behavior and reporting his dark side. Ditto Ted Rose of Brill's Content. And the acknowledged Arizona media expert on McCain, reporter Amy Silverman of the Phoenix New Times (more on her later), gave readers of Playboy a McCain portrait not found elsewhere.
ABC's Sam Donaldson came close to giving millions of viewers a clearer picture in a taped interview with Silverman for 20/20. But the segment was canceled the night before airing, fueling speculation that McCain's oversight of broadcasters as Senate Commerce Committee chairman makes the networks wary of offending him. Several years ago, when NBC refused to support his TV-rating system, McCain wrote a letter to NBC President Robert Wright, threatening to ask the FCC to review licenses of the network's locally owned stations.
I'm among the swelling ranks of onetime McCain acquaintances ostracized for not being slavishly loyal. After McCain settled in Arizona with his young second wife, a millionaire, he asked me at dinner for help with a political career. As editorial page editor (and later publisher) of the Arizona Republic, I declined to be his political coach. However, we socialized, including dinners at his home. We even discussed writing a book. The relationship ended, however, when our newspaper exposed McCain as a liar who used an underhanded political trick.
Here is what happened: McCain boasted to my wife and me over lunch in Washington that he had planted complex questions with the Senate Interior Committee chairman to sabotage the testimony of Arizona Gov. Rose Mofford, a Democrat, about the Central Arizona Project, the multibillion-dollar Colorado River water delivery system for Arizona urban areas. When I protested to McCain that the project had enjoyed bipartisan support for nearly 50 years, from conservative Barry Goldwater to liberal Morris Udall, McCain retorted: "I'm duty bound to embarrass a Democrat whenever I can."
When reporters later asked McCain about planted questions, he feigned insult and injury and denied any such ploy. Editors in Phoenix were informed of McCain's deceit. After a news story and editorial appeared, McCain went into meltdown, shrieking on the phone: "I know you're out to get me!" (Several years later, McCain admitted the dirty trick and apologized to Mofford, who was then out of office.)
When Barbara Barrett, wife of Intel CEO Craig Barrett, ran against McCain's protégé, Gov. Fife Symington, McCain offered to buy her out of the 1994 GOP primary. She refused. Furious, McCain threatened revenge. Barrett lost, but Symington later was forced out of office after being convicted of seven counts of fraud (his conviction was overturned and is under appeal). McCain's wife was a front-row regular at Symington's criminal trial in Phoenix. McCain still calls Symington "my friend."
While Barrett, a successful attorney, emerged mostly unscathed, others weren't so lucky. Maricopa County (Phoenix) schools superintendent Sandra Dowling, a Republican, refused McCain's demand to abandon support of Barrett. Dowling told Morley Safer during a 60 Minutes interview about Arizona politics (which never aired) that McCain exploded and threatened to "destroy" her. Thereafter, her son lost his appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy, where McCain sits as an ex officio member of the Board of Visitors. McCain denied any connection. Even former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, McCain's onetime senior aide who considered succeeding him in Congress, was purged from the senator's circle for investigating Symington and refusing to seek McCain's advice as a loyal understudy.
More of McCain's style:
McCain indulges in hypocrisy with a flair. He attacks tobacco but ignores alcohol. Why? His wife's millions flow from the family beer and wine distributorship, Arizona's largest.
The affable, candid, gregarious candidate, who mingles with reporters and yuks it up in the back of the bus, is no friend of free speech, and merely tolerates and uses the press as part of his political strategy. In Arizona, McCain tries to subdue reporters by threatening to have them fired when he's displeased with their pieces. Upset about critical reporting in the Phoenix New Times by Amy Silverman, McCain complained to her father, Richard, general manager of the Salt River Project, an Arizona hydroelectric utility. McCain's intent seemed clear: muscling the federally chartered SRP in hopes Silverman would pressure his daughter to back off.
One of my Arizona neighbors, Dianne Smith, wrote McCain protesting his criticism of Anita Hill in confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. A widow then in her sixties, Smith was flabbergasted when McCain telephoned her, shouting at her for "questioning my integrity."
McCain promised Arizona voters, "I've never tried to exploit my Vietnam service to my country because it would be totally inappropriate." But his presidential campaign is festooned with reminders of his POW years, from campaign videos to speeches to best-selling books, trying to capture the veterans vote.
Even as he moralizes about corrupt corporate money, McCain rakes in hundreds of thousands of dollars from Washington lobbyists and asks corporations for use of their jets for campaigning. Last year, the Washington Post documented thousands of dollars of donations to McCain's political war chest from K Street lobbyists who do business before the Senate Commerce Committee. McCain himself has acknowledged that he intervenes before regulatory agencies with letters on behalf of campaign donors, but claims he's merely performing a "constituent service"--the same explanation he used when initially defending himself in the Keating Five scandal. As a peevish lobbyist told Newsweek: "He sees no connection between twisting our arms for money and then talking about how corrupt the system is."
The John McCain glamorized by the national media is a total stranger to Arizonans who are painfully familiar with a far coarser and more foreboding man. His victory in the New Hampshire primary may bring greater scrutiny. Instead of treating him as a lovable maverick and quotable long shot, the national media that have been fawning over him are certain to begin digging seriously into the McCain background that has turned so many of his home-state Republicans against him.
Pat Murphy is the former editor and publisher of the Arizona Republic. He lives in Ketchum, Idaho.