Senator Hothead

Of the 55 republicans in the U.S. Senate, only four support John McCain for president. Most of the rest--39 in all, with two more signing on last week--back George W. Bush. Why can't McCain win the votes of his own colleagues? To explain, a Republican senator tells this story: at a GOP meeting last fall, McCain erupted out of the blue at the respected Budget Committee chairman, Pete Domenici, saying, "Only an a--hole would put together a budget like this." Offended, Domenici stood up and gave a dignified, restrained speech about how in all his years in the Senate, through many heated debates, no one had ever called him that. Another senator might have taken the moment to check his temper. But McCain went on: "I wouldn't call you an a--hole unless you really were an a--hole." The Republican senator witnessing the scene had considered supporting McCain for president, but changed his mind. "I decided," the senator told NEWSWEEK, "I didn't want this guy anywhere near a trigger."

Domenici softened the story, denying that McCain had used the word "a--hole." But one of McCain's own aides ruefully said with a laugh, "He may have used stronger language." McCain's reputation as a hothead in the Senate is well established. Last week GOP senators were furiously spinning to reporters--off the record, as usual--that their colleague from Arizona is too impatient and impetuous to be president. They argued that he would divide the Republican Party and, if elected, fail to motivate lawmakers to enact his agenda. McCain's loyal band of congressional defenders scoffed at this line of argument. "He's not running for Senate majority leader, he's running for president as a reformer," said Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat and fellow Vietnam veteran. "Lots of presidents have a temper. Sometimes Congress needs a swift kick."

McCain has avoided harsh media scrutiny, and some senators are just plain jealous of his friendly relations with reporters. "He says things that would get us [negative] headlines, but he gets a freebie," groused one lawmaker. Nonetheless, McCain's temperament is a campaign issue that remains to be explored. His 13 years in the U.S. Senate provide a revealing template for assessing McCain's ability to deal with others. The insurgent candidate can be winning when he wants to be, but he does not suffer fools--and the fact that senators can behave foolishly is not a complete defense for a style that can be a little too blunt.

To a certain and necessary degree, the U.S. Senate is built on insincerity and artifice. The elaborate rituals of senatorial courtesy help to paper over regional and ideological differences and soothe competing egos. McCain, however, has no patience with pretense, nor does he claim to. Senators are not used to having their intelligence or integrity challenged by another senator. "Are you calling me stupid?" Sen. Chuck Grassley once inquired during a debate with McCain over the fate of the Vietnam MIAs, according to a source who was present. "No," replied McCain, "I'm calling you a f---ing jerk!" (Grassley and McCain had no comment.)

McCain has always chafed at the go-along, get-along culture of Congress. In his first months as a senator in 1987, he was named as a member of the so-called Keating Five, a group of senators who were accused of intervening with federal regulators on behalf of Charles Keating, an S&L kingpin accused of fraud. McCain got off with a mild rebuke from the Senate Ethics Committee, but the experience left him bitter and wary of being seen as a tool of special interests.

He takes money from lobbyists and fronts for local interests just like any other senator. "He's hustling the same guys the rest of 'em are," said one veteran Washington lobbyist. "No more, no less." But he can be unpredictable. In 1993 his fellow senator from Arizona, Dennis DeConcini, was putting through a bill to build a $198 million federal courthouse in Phoenix. McCain decided the courthouse was too expensive, and shocked his fellow Arizona lawmaker by offering an amendment to cut the funding roughly in half. A McCain aide heard DeConcini turn to Sen. Dale Bumpers and mutter, "How would you like to have a f---ing colleague like that?" (DeConcini says he does not recall the incident and doesn't use "four-letter words.")

McCain cannot abide long-windedness. When certain champion talkers like Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Kay Bailey Hutchison start to hold forth, McCain will "pop out his tongue, lick his lips, clench his jaw and start snapping that rubber band he plays with," says a former Commerce Committee staffer. Bored at Commerce Committee hearings, McCain reads newspaper clips. When testimony runs long, chairman McCain has been known to drop the gavel and walk out of the hearing room. He demands straight talk from lobbyists as well as other lawmakers. When a large telephone company urged him to vote for the 1996 telecommunications bill, he told a visiting delegation, "You want me to vote for this bill because it's good for your company, right?" "No, no," responded a company spokesman, "it's because we really believe in universal phone access." "Oh, come on," snapped McCain, and terminated the meeting. (He voted against the bill.) The lobbyists were baffled. "Most congressmen want to hear arguments about why legislation would be good for the country," said one of the lobbyists. "But McCain's attitude is, 'I'll be the judge of that'."

McCain gets along with the Senate Republican leadership about as well as a rebellious teenager does with strict parents. He has a bipartisan streak that doesn't sit well with the GOP true believers. McCain is generally conservative and against government regulation, but not always: his bill to regulate the tobacco industry would have raised taxes by $500 billion. His well-publicized crusade to reform the campaign finance laws is highly threatening. The leaders deeply resent his attacks on pork-barrel spending, which they regard as a necessary tool to win the votes of lawmakers. McCain employs a staffer known as the "ferret" to find and expose pork-barrel provisions tucked away in major legislation. No one is immune. McCain recently attacked Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott for wanting to spend $370 million on a helicopter carrier that, McCain charged, the Navy does not need or want. Lott, whose home state of Mississippi will build the carrier, shot back that the Navy did indeed ask for the carrier. But a confidential memo surfaced in which Lott's staff instructed the Navy to request funding for the ship. McCain shows little respect for the majority leader. McCain's aide describes watching his boss's patience rapidly expire at meetings in Lott's office as various senators drone on. "McCain will start to go 'yup, yup, yup,' then just walk out of the meeting before it's over."

Impatient with the minutiae and drudgery of legislating, McCain is "closer to Reagan than Clinton in his grasp of details," says a former aide. He is well versed on foreign affairs and defense, less so on domestic policy. "He may not care deeply about re-authorizing the Fisheries Act," says an aide, "but he is a hands-on committee chairman." He knows how to win over staffers and colleagues with playful insults, though sometimes he goes a little too far. During the debate over the telecommunications bill, Sen. Ernest Hollings, the top Democrat on the Commerce Committee, once goofed and referred to the "RBOCs" (Regional Bell Operating Companies) as "Reeboks." McCain couldn't resist and cracked, "Next thing you know, we'll have Nikes and Adidas up here." Hollings looked miffed, his dignity wounded. ("I don't mind the kidding," he told NEWSWEEK.) McCain does not like to be mocked himself. During the debate over his tobacco bill in 1998, Domenici held up an intricate diagram designed to show that McCain wanted to create a vast government bureaucracy to regulate smoking. "That's chickens--t," seethed McCain.

He may be learning to hold his tongue. During the debate over campaign-finance reform, his opponents would "go to the floor and try to bait him, three and four at a time," recalled Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee. "He never lost his cool." And McCain is hardly the only senator with a temper. "Plenty of senators cork off at the elevator operators or staff. The only difference is that McCain corks off at them," observes Kerry. McCain does not hold grudges. A prominent Arizona politician recalled getting an angry phone call from McCain after criticizing him in a speech. "We're finished!" McCain exploded. The politician apologized. "Sorry's not good enough!" McCain yelled. The man held the phone away while McCain ranted on. But when he put the receiver back to his ear, McCain was asking him to dinner.

Senator Thompson predicts McCain's Senate colleagues will be similarly eager to make peace if McCain gets nominated and elected. "There will be a rapid reconciliation," says Thompson. At the weekly lunch of the Senate caucus last Tuesday, "the mood was funereal," said Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who, with Thompson, is one of McCain's four Senate backers for president (the other two are Jon Kyl of Arizona and Mike DeWine of Ohio). Many senators signed on with Bush when he looked like a sure bet. Now they're not so sure. Typically, McCain is in no great rush to win them over. Given the anti-Washington mood of voters, McCain would rather be seen as a reformer and a maverick than as a creature of the U.S. Senate. As his colleagues will tell you, that's no pose.