Former POW McCain’s Rise in Polls Leads to More Scrutiny
Melisa S. Illies and Aubrey Immelman
St. Cloud Times
November 28, 1999
In the first of our College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University presidential candidate profiles (St. Cloud Times, Nov. 7), Stephanie Anderson and Holly Berreau commented on Elizabeth Dole’s withdrawal from the 2000 presidential race. It was inevitable that Dole’s departure would prompt more intense public scrutiny of Arizona Sen. John McCain as the now unrivaled challenger for Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s front-runner status in the bid for the Republican nomination.
Unfortunately for McCain, his newfound ascent to prominence has been troubled by turbulence. At issue: persistent reports in the media of a “volcanic temper,” casting doubt on his fitness to govern.
The story — though nascent for some time in furtively whispered rumors — surfaced with a vengeance Oct. 21 when the New York Times reported that Sen. McCain’s “flaring temper and sometimes prickly personality may complicate his climb to the nomination.”
And it grew legs when McCain’s hometown newspaper, the Arizona Republic (Oct. 31), editorialized that “[m]any Arizonans active in policymaking have been the victim of McCain’s volcanic temper and his practice of surrounding himself with aides who regard politics as a ‘blood sport.'”
The paper called McCain’s attempts to spin the New York Times story “hogwash,” noting that McCain “often insults people and flies off the handle.” It concluded: “There is also reason to seriously question whether McCain has the temperament, and the political approach and skills, we want in the next president of the United States.”
This raises the question: What does a fiery temper say about character and personality, and what impediment — if any — does it pose to a president’s fitness to govern?
In his book, The Psychological Assessment of Presidential Candidates (New York University Press, 1996), Stanley Renshon asserts that the meaning of anger hinges on five critical questions.
First, are the temper outbursts occasional or regular?
In spite of the Arizona Republic’s claims that McCain “often insults people and flies off the handle,” none of the news accounts we examined suggests the outbursts were excessively frequent. Though characterized as “volcanic” or “volatile,” indications are that McCain’s lapses in emotional restraint, though recurrent, are intermittent and sporadic.
Occasional displays of anger, withering as they may be to those at wrath’s receiving end, probably do not constitute a catastrophic flaw in presidential temperament. They may, in fact, have an adaptive element.
Second, are there particular issues that set off the displays of temper? In his autobiography, Faith of My Fathers (Random House, 1999), McCain blames affronts to his honor or dignity as triggers for his anger. Then, according to a report in USA Today (Nov. 2), McCain “can hold a grudge for years.”
Tennessee Sen. Fred Thomson, “a McCain friend and supporter,” suggests, however, that McCain does not select his victims as precisely as his autobiography would have us believe. McCain, in the words of Thomson, “has been known not to suffer fools very gladly.”
Third, does the candidate easily recover from angry episodes, or does he nurse grudges? Former Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, national co-chair of the McCain campaign, points to McCain’s efforts to normalize U.S. relations with Vietnam and lauds McCain for his compassion and lack of vindictiveness.
But Arizona Gov. Jane Dee Hull — whose comments to the New York Times prompted the current brouhaha over McCain’s temper — contradicts Rudman by asserting that “John has a long memory” for personal slights. (As a state legislator, Hull endorsed a McCain rival for Congress in 1982.)
Adding to the confusion, Mike Hellon, Republican National Committee member from Arizona, told USA Today, “Once he’s blown, it’s over. It’s done with.”
Fourth, does the candidate berate or belittle those unlikely or unable to retaliate? For the most part, McCain’s wrath as reported in the media has been directed at political peers or reporters from the Arizona Republic, whom he has allegedly assailed as “liars” and “idiots.”
Certainly McCain is no coward whose tantrums target primarily subordinates and the defenseless.
Reason for caution
Our tentative conclusion is that McCain’s anger is expressed directly and appropriately, yet we red-flag this question for closer scrutiny as the campaign unfolds, and for good reason: Displacing one’s anger onto groups or individuals unlikely or unable to retaliate may be indicative of an authoritarian character structure or an underlying sadistic tendency.
Concerning the latter — a deeply ingrained, maladaptively aggressive predilection to revel in the humiliation and misfortune of others — the Arizona Republic’s characterization of McCain as “sarcastic and condescending,” though cause for concern, warrants independent verification.
Concluding our consideration of Renshon’s five questions, is the candidate aware of, and does he try to control his temper? When questioned by the Arizona Republic, McCain acknowledged his “propensity for passion,” though denying the suggestion that he insults people and is quick to “fly off the handle.”
And by his own admission in his autobiography, McCain is aware of his anger. Little wonder Washingtonian magazine once dubbed McCain “Senator Hothead.”
Of course, a volatile temper is not exactly a rarity among presidents. Even Bill Clinton, with his somewhat misplaced reputation for empathy, has his so-called “purple rages.”
As Elizabeth Drew wrote in On the Edge (Simon and Schuster, 1994):
“Other Presidents had tempers. Eisenhower’s was famously bad. Clinton’s temper was much less intimidating than Lyndon Johnson’s. The real significance of Clinton’s temper was what it said about his deeper nature. There was a self-indulgence in Clinton’s tantrums, an immaturity, a part of him that never grew up and a part that felt free to chew out aides, who couldn’t argue back and weren’t likely to quit.”
Could McCain have a Clintonian temper? In fairness to McCain, it is precisely his toughness, resilience, and temper that earned him his reputation as a fighter — both in Vietnam, where he verbally assailed his captors, and on Capitol Hill.
Thus, in one sense, it embodies passion, courage, and straight-shooting candor. But whatever the deeper meaning and political implications of an unruly temper — and getting to the bottom of matters such as these is, in part, what election campaigns are all about — character, personality, and temperament are legitimate public issues.
Thus, the jury is still out on whether McCain has the mettle to be president. In this regard, Renshon writes that occasional displays of temper motivated by the desire to achieve one’s goals is reasonable. What is key is whether the candidate has the strength of character to tolerate failure and frustration.
The crux of the matter is this: Is McCain’s temper proportional and primarily related to policy issues, or is it all about a prickly personality, emotional immaturity, and personal pique?
This, ultimately, will be a matter for the voters to decide.
Melisa Illies is a senior biology major from Melrose, Minn. She is a participant in the “Psychological Assessment of Presidential Candidates” course being taught this fall by Aubrey Immelman, associate professor of psychology at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict.