Thursday, April 24, 2008

"A little rough in the sandbox"

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If we all weren't so focused on the slow-motion Democratic death march, we would have already spent some time this week talking about "McNasty" and debating whether reports of his "volcanic temper" would imperil his prospects for the White House.

I am referring, of course, to John McCain. You may remember the name. He's the guy currently cruising America on his "It's Time for Action Tour," while Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton busy themselves with the ongoing task of pounding each other to jelly.

Obama and Clinton are on the front page every day, their perceived character flaws in full view. McCain's signature character flaw - his well-documented propensity for blowing his stack, for lashing out at colleagues and little people who cross him - did actually make it to the front page last Sunday, in one newspaper, but that little fire sputtered and died amidst the mega-focus on Pennsylvania's primary.

In a normal primary season, the story in The Washington Post would have garnered a great deal of attention. A united Democratic party would have circulated it. The cable TV chatterheads would have relentlessly flogged it. Bloggers would have feasted on the story's choicest tidbits, like the time McCain screamed at the young leader of the Arizona Young Republicans, jabbing a finger in the factotum's chest, calling him an "incompetent little (bleep)" all because the poor guy had rigged a speaking platform at the wrong height. Or the times that McCain hurled profanities at Republican colleagues in the midst of tirades. Or the time that he tried to wreck the career of a young Arizona Republican aide named Karen Johnson, all because Johnson had dared to verbally rebuke McCain during an encounter that had occurred years earlier.

The temper story was essentially vetted yesterday by Michael Gerson, now a Post columnist, who served six years as Bush's chief speechwriter. He wrote yesterday that McCain is a tad off the charts, even for Washington: "I can report that it is not common for one member to tell another '(expletive) you' - as McCain did to Sen. John Cornyn during the immigration debate."

This kind of material has surfaced before - actually, back in 1999, when he was gearing up for his first presidential campaign. At the time, many suspected the undetectable fingerprints of the rival George W. Bush campaign. (I know, it's hard to believe.) Word quickly circulated about a shouting and shoving incident between McCain and Iowa Senator Charles Grassley that took place in 1992, and there were incessant insinuations that McCain's long POW stint had rendered him dangerously imbalanced. McCain was forced to defend himself; during a GOP debate in late 1999, he spun his temper as a badge of honor ("From time to time, those of us...who stand in an independent fashion are going to break some China"), and also as an opportunity for Reaganesque self-mockery (reacting to a rival's statement by satying, "a comment like that really makes me mad"). But the temper factor was rendered moot when McCain's candidacy collapsed.

Now it's back. Indeed, it was back before The Post got around to bringing it up. Back in February, Mitt Romney's surrogates rediscovered it. One prominent Romney practitioner was Rick Santorum.

This, of course, was before Santorum got the memo that it was time for all good Republicans to fall in line behind McCain, and he has dutifully obeyed. But he was against McCain before he was for him, as evidenced by what he said about McCain in a robocall to voters on Super Tuesday: "I don’t think he has the temperament and leadership ability to move the country in the right direction." Then Santorum followed up in remarks to a reporter: "(McCain) is a little rough in the sandbox. Now this is coming from someone who is pretty rough in the sandbox too, but I am rough because of the causes I believe in and the issues and try not to make it personal, try not to make it strident. So I think it's a legitimate issue to have out there only because it's an issue that will be out there, and we'll hear a lot about it if he is the nominee."

I suspect the Democrats will find ways to talk about McCain's temperament, assuming they are not still consumed with the rites of self destruction. It's a legitimate character topic - far more valid than whether Barack Obama is Muslim, a lie that has reportedly been embraced by 15 percent of the American public - but the fact is, a temper is not by itself a disqualifier for high office. For a lot of high achievers, a temper is simply part of the package.

Bill Clinton had a bad temper ("purple rages" in the words of ex-aide George Stephanopoulos). Richard Nixon had bad temper (yes, he did precipitate Watergate, but he also was balanced enough to open China and negotiate arms deals with the Soviets). Dwight Eisenhower had a bad temper, a vein in his forehead wout pulsate, and his face would take on the coloration of a hot stove burner (one aide, Merlo Pusey, wrote that "sometimes his anger is aroused and it may set off a geyser of hot words. The President's emotions are close to the surface"). And in my own backyard, we had Mayor Ed Rendell, who once got so ticked at a pesky reporter that he put her head in a hammerlock as he walked down the hall.

I tend to think that most Americans won't be perturbed by the news that McCain cusses out colleagues, given the fact that most Americans probably believe that U.S. senators deserved to be cussed out. But a new ABC-Washington Post survey suggests that the Democrats may be able to leverage the temper factor. When people were asked whether McCain's temperament would help or hurt his ability to serve effectively as president, 48 percent said yes and 37 percent said no.

Those numbers were garnered a week before the Post ran its story, which means only one thing: The character issue first floated nine years ago has become part of the national consciousness. But what we can't know, for another six months, is whether it will be trumped by whatever tag the Republicans try to hang on Clinton or Obama.


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