The mushroom cloud that hangs over McCain
Many fear the Arizona senator is too hot-headed to be president, says Alexander Cockburn
Increasingly certain that their Democratic opponent in the autumn will be Barack Obama, John McCain's political handlers are sketching out their strategy: to portray Obama as a mere novice in statecraft, devoid of those powers of mature wisdom and sober judgment with which the seasoned McCain is so richly endowed.
The danger here for McCain is that there are bountiful stories attesting to his volcanic lack of self control, capricious moral standards and lack of political judgment. In 1999, when McCain was battling George W Bush for the Republican nomination, the Arizona Republic, one of the most conservative dailies in the country, editorialised about "less flattering" aspects of their senator's character.
"Many Arizonans active in policy-making have been the victim of McCain's volcanic temper," the Republic stated. "McCain often insults people and flies off the handle." There is reason, the editorial concluded bleakly, "to seriously question whether McCain has the temperament, and the political approach and skills, we want in the next president."
Though the same paper has offered demure support for McCain this time around, Democratic campaign commercials in the autumn will surely be citing the paper's 1999 verdict, along with the considered judgment of Thad Cochran, the Republican senator from Mississippi who's known McCain for 30 years. "The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine," said Cochran. "He is erratic. He is hot-headed."
There was a famous fight in Arizona that went on for years about Mount Graham, on which the federal government wanted to put a telescope. Indians said it was sacred. Greens said its slopes sheltered the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel. In 1992, a couple of physicians, Robin Silver and Bob Witzeman, went to meet McCain at his office to discuss the issue.
At the mention of the words Mount Graham, McCain erupted into a violent fit. "He jumped up and down, screaming obscenities at us for at least 10 minutes," Silver said. "He shook his fists as if he was going to slug us." Witzeman left the meeting stunned. "To my mind," he said, "McCain's the most likely senator to start a nuclear war."
The last time anyone made that sort of charge against a senator from Arizona, it was about Barry Goldwater, who ran against Lyndon Johnson in 1964. A famously effective campaign ad showed a little girl picking a daisy, which then mutated into a mushroom cloud. Painted as a potential nuker of the planet, Goldwater lost in a landslide.
The US press has fawned over McCain the 'maverick' for years, but his colleagues in the Senate have long regarded him as a mere grandstander, posturing for C-SPAN's camera about wasteful spending, then meekly voting for the pork-barrel items he's just denounced.
They snicker at his affectations of moral purity, noting such seamy episodes as McCain's imprudent association with Charles Keating, an Arizona bank swindler, ultimately convicted and sent to prison. They point to the torrents of money pouring into McCain's campaign treasury from the corporations that crave his indulgence as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
In a damaging story suggesting ethical double-standards, the New York Times this week cited McCain aides as decrying their boss's unwise association - one they construed as possibly romantic - during his 2000 presidential bid with an attractive lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, then 32. The aides confronted Iseman (left), telling her to stay away. McCain denies any romantic involvement.
For such reasons it is foolish to think McCain will find it easy to put a shrewd debater like Obama on the defensive. And beyond such biographical impedimenta, the 71-year-old senator totters towards the autumn campaign under one huge burden which is not his fault. This week George Bush's approval rating sank to the lowest in the history of such polls, 19 per cent. A very large number of Americans have simply had it with a Republican in the Oval Office. ·
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