Fighting Words

One Angry Man

Should we worry about John McCain’s temper?

John McCain

So, a fresh and sly political subtext in a very bizarre campaign season. The two Democratic nominees remain icily calm when in each other’s vicinity—plain as it is that they cordially loathe and despise one another—while huge shudders of molten rage continue to shake the ample and empurpled yet graying frame of Bill Clinton as he broods on the many injustices to which life has subjected him. What a good time to shift the subject to the temperament (or temper) of Sen. John McCain and to hint, as did Michael Leahy in a major piece in the April 20 Washington Post, that we should wonder whether the Republican nominee has his tray table in the fully locked and upright position, whether he lives happily or unhappily in his own ZIP code, whether there are kittens in his granary or bats in his belfry, and whether his elevator goes all the way to the top.

“Anger management” is the euphemism that allows this awkward matter to be raised. In a solemn version of the old “Whose finger on the trigger?” question, Leahy was able to recruit the views of former Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., who opined that McCain’s rage quotient “would place this country at risk in international affairs, and the world perhaps in danger.” I once went on a TV panel with Smith and passed some green-room time with him, and I can assure you that premature detonations of any kind would certainly not be his problem. He combines the body of an ox with the brains of a gnat. Indeed, if his brains were made of gunpowder and were to accidentally explode, the resulting bang would not even be enough to disarrange his hair. He moved from being the most right-wing Republican senator from New Hampshire, switching to the U.S. Taxpayers Party after a distinct absence of what we call “traction” in his presidential run of 2000, tried to rejoin the GOP when he saw a nice, fat chairmanship become vacant on the death of Sen. John Chafee, failed at that, lost the nomination in his own state, moved to Florida, endorsed John Kerry in 2004, endorsed Duncan Hunter for the Republican nomination in December last year, and was last spotted on the Web page of the Constitution Party: a Web page that’s tons of fun to check out. And this cretinous dolt, who managed to do all the above without bringing out so much as a sweat on his massive and bovine frame, is the chief character witness against the impetuous McCain. Nice work.

However, we are still obliged to ask ourselves whether the senior senator from Arizona is a brick short of a load or, as heartless people in England sometimes say, a sandwich or two short of a picnic. Because “anger,” make no mistake about it, is the innuendo for instability or inadequacy. What if McCain doesn’t really have both oars in the water or is either too tightly wrapped or not tightly wrapped enough?

The anecdotes are both reassuring and distressing, and the best and the worst both come from Arizona. About two decades ago, facing a group in his state GOP that resisted proclaiming a state holiday for Martin Luther King Jr., he shouted, “You will damn well do this” and rammed the idea home with other crisp and terse remarks. Fair enough. However, a bit later, in 1986, he was pursuing a Senate career and took extreme umbrage at an Arizona Young Republican who had given him too small a podium on which to stand before the cameras. It can be tough being 5 foot 9 (as I am here on tiptoe to tell you), but most of us got over it before we were out of our teens, let alone before donning the uniform of the U.S. armed forces.

The podium example is the worrying one, because otherwise one could defend McCain by arguing that some things are worth becoming enraged about. Michael Gerson got this exactly wrong when he recently indicted McCain for denouncing the Christian right in 2000, calling them “agents of intolerance,” comparing them to Louis Farrakhan, and accusing them of being “corrupting influences.” Who could possibly have looked at the Jerry Falwell-Pat Robertson riffraff and said anything less? There was nothing “out of control” about that address. The problem there was not the senator’s rough speech but the way that he later sought accommodation with the same frauds and demagogues.

One reason that I try never to wear a tie is the advantage that it so easily confers on anyone who goes berserk on you. There you are, with a ready-made noose already fastened around your neck. All the opponent needs to do is grab hold and haul. A quite senior Republican told me the other night that he’d often seen John McCain get attention on the Hill in just this way. Not necessarily hauling, you understand, but grabbing. Again, one hopes that the nominee has been doing this for emphasis rather than as a sign that he is out of his pram, has lost his rag, has gone ballistic, has reported into the post office that he’s feeling terminally disgruntled today. (Or, as P.G. Wodehouse immortally put it, if not quite disgruntled, not exactly gruntled, either.)

Thomas Jefferson used to note of mild George Washington that there were moments of passionate rage in which “he cannot govern himself.” We often forgive what we imagine, to use Orwell’s words about Charles Dickens, are the moments when someone is “generously angry.” Yet how are we to be sure that we can tell the hysterical tantrum from the decent man’s wrath? The answer ought to be that we cannot know in advance of a presidency what causes people to become choleric, so anger management is yet another name—and yet another reason—for the separation of powers.