Government: Election 2000
Searching for the Real McCain
A "what you see is what you get" maverick? Not always
It's just after dawn in Hampton, N.H., and John McCain is coming off a bruising week. His fast rise in the polls has hit a speed bump: With McCain's hometown paper questioning whether "Senator Hothead" has the right stuff to be President, the temper that has been legendary in Washington suddenly is headline news.
But McCain plays it cool. Greeting a gathering of about 150 members of the Seacoast Federation of Republican Women, McCain lays out some priorities. Among them: health care for uninsured children, higher teacher pay, safety locks to protect kids from guns, and filters to protect them from the Internet. He even wants the government to help the elderly pay for prescription drugs.
Close your eyes, and you can almost hear a bleeding-heart liberal on the hustings. Open them, and you see the staunchly conservative Senate Commerce Committee chairman who believes in deregulation, smaller government, and free markets.
He's not exactly McCain and Abel. But neither is the senior senator from Arizona the "what-you-see-is-what-you-get" maverick portrayed in much of the mainstream media. The Real McCain is much more complex. He's a prickly street fighter, but he sides with his party 81% of the time on floor votes. He's a fiscal conservative and a free-market champion, but he once sought to impose a $1.10-per-pack tax on cigarettes.
And few know that the pol who built a career in part by railing against Big Money gets a healthy financial boost from Corporate America's political action committees. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that the top donor to McCain's Presidential campaign so far is Viacom Inc., whose execs have given a total of $47,750. Not far behind is U S West Inc. at $43,725. The money comes as McCain is pushing a measure that would make it easier for Baby Bells to build broadband networks."I KNOW I'M INFLUENCED." As Senator, almost 27% of his contributions in the last election have come from corporate PACs with business before his committee. McCain is the first to concede that he's part of the problem he's trying to fix. "I'm influenced by the big donor who has access to my office," he says. "I know I'm influenced by people having access to me when average citizens do not."
That's the John McCain who resonates with voters. In New Hampshire, the image of a witty, self-deprecating war hero crusading to reform campaign-finance laws seems to be selling particularly well. A Nov. 4 Franklin Pierce College poll shows that McCain is backed by 30% of the state's Republicans, putting him within eight points of GOP front-runner George W. Bush. Even in the worst media week of his campaign so far, McCain's town-hall meetings are drawing standing-room-only crowds.
As his van bumps from Rotary Club meetings to school gyms, the cell phone rings constantly. It's always a reporter, always with the same question: "About that temper..." The story has been building steam ever since The Arizona Republic, the state's biggest newspaper, published an Oct. 31 front-page editorial criticizing McCain's temper and questioning his leadership ability.
"It's the `When and why did you stop beating your wife?' question," McCain says. He makes no apologies for blowing his top. In fact, he uses it to his advantage when he's in front of a crowd attacking billions of dollars in pork-barrel spending: McCain is mad as hell and he's not going to take it anymore. "People want me to get angry," McCain says. "I feel passionately about the difference between right and wrong."MEAN STREAK? Plenty of folks in Washington, however, have a tough time distinguishing between the passion and the poison of John McCain. Many familiar with the senator say he is a brooding, obsessed man who's known to erupt without warning.
And there is anecdotal evidence that McCain not only has a temper but also a vicious streak. Judy Leiby, a onetime aide to former Senator Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), witnessed the mean McCain soon after he joined the Senate. Leiby recalls attending a meeting at an American Legion post in Phoenix. Veterans were upset about cuts in the Veterans Administration budget, and McCain told the crowd that DeConcini had supported the VA bill. Leiby stood up to correct him. Later, "when he walked by me he said, `I'll get even with you,"' Leiby says.
McCain apparently never forgave Leiby for upstaging him. At a 1995 breakfast to honor the retiring DeConcini, McCain told Leiby he was glad she was out of a job and promised she would never get another. "There are two John McCains," says Leiby. "One in Arizona and one out there."
McCain shrugs off the vitriol. "Over a 17-year period, I'm sure there are people that you alienate, either rightly or wrongly. That's part of politics. I'm overall not concerned about people who don't like me," he says.
People who do include Clinton lawyer Robert S. Bennett. In 1987, Bennett was hired by the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate McCain and four Democrats who were charged with violating Senate ethics rules by doing favors for Lincoln Savings & Loan Chairman Charles H. Keating III. In the end, the Ethics Committee deciding the fate of the Keating Five let McCain off with a rebuke, saying he used bad judgment in meeting with Keating. "I believe Senator McCain to be a man of great integrity and honor," Bennett says. "He's taken a very courageous stand on campaign-finance reform and is invoking the wrath of many of his colleagues."
Courageous? Without a doubt. But those who know McCain say he's also crafty, embracing hopeless issues because he knows that even in losing he'll win the public's favor. And while his tenacity can pay off, his stubbornness gets in the way of his success. Take tobacco. In 1998, McCain attempted the near-impossible: to forge a consensus among lawmakers, state attorneys general, and warring public-health groups. He drew up a plan to regulate tobacco and pour billions of dollars into public-health spending in exchange for freeing the companies from liability. "He made a good-faith effort to bring people together," says Senator Kent Conrad (D-N.D.).CONVICTIONS. Tobacco industry chief executives see it differently. As McCain was hammering out a deal, he outright refused to meet with industry execs. "Should I have to meet with people who lied to Congress?" McCain says. "I don't think so." The move cost him. Tobacco waged a $40 million lobbying campaign against the bill and won.
He could use some lessons in how to play Washington's game, concedes pro-McCain lobbyist John Rafaelli, who worked on behalf of state attorneys general during the tobacco wars. "When McCain gives, [it's because] he believes it's the right thing to give. He doesn't extract a price," Rafaelli says. "He's not a finesse player. He ain't bullshitting anybody. He just don't know how."
Maybe that helps explain why, for all his use of the bully pulpit, McCain's major legislative feats are few. His Senate record reveals an ambitious reach but an inability to grasp the brass ring. His crowning achievement to date, the line-item veto, was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1998. And disgusted with the final draft of his own historic 1996 telecommunications bill, McCain was the only Republican to vote against it, saying it wasn't deregulatory enough.
While some admire McCain's principled stands, others say he's just plain stubborn. Ethanol groups would argue the latter. For more than a decade, McCain has held up ethanol tax breaks as Exhibit A in his case against corporate welfare. Yet he has never met with some of the industry's top lobbyists in Washington. Eric Vaughn, the president of the Renewable Fuels Assn., says he can only guess that McCain established his anti-ethanol stance in the late `80s, when 70% of ethanol came from agri-giant Archer Daniels Midland Co. Today, most ethanol production comes from farmer-owned co-operatives. "If he's going to attack the ethanol industry, at least he should attack us with updated information," Vaughn sighs. "I don't have the impression that Mr. McCain has the benefit of all the information. But he does have the benefit of his convictions."
McCain's convictions could cost him. Despite meeting with the Sioux City Chamber of Commerce and other Iowans, he won't change his mind on ethanol. His stand has forced him to lay low in this key state, which holds GOP caucuses on Jan. 24. Yet he says he has no regrets. "Why can't we take the sugar subsidies, the ethanol subsidies, and the gas and oil subsidies to fund a test voucher program" in poor school districts? McCain asks. "Because of the grip of special interests."BROAD APPEAL. Corporate America, too, has seen the two faces of McCain. Executives applaud him for limiting corporations' Y2K liability. Silicon Valley loves his stand against Internet taxes. And multinationals commend him for fighting against the use of unilateral trade sanctions to achieve foreign policy goals. Indeed, he votes with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce 86% of the time.
And if elected President, McCain would go to great lengths to keep Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. "When he dies, we should do like the movie Weekend at Bernie's. We should prop him up, keep the sunglasses on him. Have him set there until he really begins to start to smell bad," McCain jokes.
O.K., great news, Greenspan stays. But the other McCain drives execs to distraction with his corporate-welfare bashing and pork-barrel spending crusade. For years, McCain has fought tax breaks and other goodies tossed to special interests. And he can exhibit a Naderesque tilt on consumer rights. Earlier this year, he sparked a war with airline execs when he offered a passenger bill of rights. He pulled back when the industry agreed to self-regulate. "When he takes these [anti-business] positions, they're on issues that are pretty high-profile," says Karen Kerrigan, executive director of the Small Business Survival Committee. "We're living with the real good and some of the bad of John McCain."
Certainly the do-gooder McCain--the straight-talking outsider tested in the crucible of war--has broad appeal to a cynical electorate tired of packaged pols. McCain pledges to provide a moral compass to fill the vacuum left by a prevaricating President Clinton and a polarized Capitol Hill. His pledge: "I'll be responsible."
And many people believe him. Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, a group fighting to boost competition in the airline industry, says McCain's abrasive approach might hurt him in the short run but his eye is on the big picture. "He is a man who will go where others will not," Mitchell says. And he doesn't waste his time with doublespeak and spin. "Where another chairman says, `I'd like to respond to my friend and dear colleague,' McCain will say, `Listen, buddy, you're full of crap."'
That's the sort of straight talk that has taken the McCain campaign from nowhere to putative second place in the Republican contest. And perhaps in a backlash against the feel-your-pain President, folks in New Hampshire seem to relish McCain's orneriness. But like most New Englanders, Granite State voters also like to know exactly what they're getting, and the Real McCain may be quite different from the candidate stumping their state.By Lorraine Woellert in Hampton, N.H., with Paula Dwyer in WashingtonReturn to top