How tough is John McCain?

The GOP contender stands up to Milosevic, but will he defy the NRA?

By Jake Tapper

Published May 14, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

First, a confession: Sen. John McCain almost seduced me (professionally). I was thisclose to becoming one of those reporters who swoon whenever the Republican senator from Arizona flashes his winning smile and demonstrates his passion and boyish enthusiasm. Just another journalist infatuated with the prisoner of war turned politician.

And then he showed me that he was a mere mortal.

In Tuesday, in response to a question about what he would do if he were president in the aftermath of the Columbine High School shootings, McCain told me, "It's obvious that at a gun show people should be subject to background checks. I don't get it why in stores you get a background check, but you go three blocks down, there's no background checks."

There's a loophole in the existing gun control laws, I noted, because the gun lobby argued successfully to exempt gun shows.

"Well, it should be closed," McCain responded.

But a day later, on Wednesday, McCain voted to kill an amendment from Sen. Frank Lautenberg that would have closed that very loophole. The largely party-line vote was 51-47. Six Republicans voted for the measure. McCain was not among them. This after reports that the four guns used in the Columbine killings had been purchased at gun shows. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., complained, "It's like the NRA lives in here."

And then, a day after that, McCain changed his mind again, and signaled he'd support legislation to close the loophole; in fact, he might even draft it. Stay tuned, because the battle won't be over until the last vote is counted.

McCain's 48-hour flip-flop ain't no big thing for most politicians. But it must be said that McCain is supposed to be more than just a politician. John Sidney McCain III has been wooing congregants into the church of his courage and charisma from the moment he burst onto the American landscape as an unfathomably brave returning POW in 1973.

He first ran for Congress in 1982, and won a Senate seat just four years later, all the while garnering supporters and detractors with outspoken, often counterintuitive views on high-profile subjects. He's gone after government waste, fought to reform campaign finance laws, pursued big tobacco and lately, as his friend, Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., says, he's been "the only one who was acting presidential in the middle of Kosovo."

Add it all up, throw in a presidential candidacy and you have grown men falling at his feet as if he were Gwyneth Paltrow in a sundress.

"He wants to clean up campaign financing, and restore honor to the heart of politics," the normally acerbic Michael Lewis gushed for the New York Times Magazine. "A Maverick Takes on the Senate and Looks to 2000," headlined the regularly just-the-facts-ma'am National Journal. "John McCain Walks on Water," intoned Esquire. (Really.) This from the so-called liberal media, despite the fact that, on all but a handful of issues, McCain is politically about as conservative as they come -- pro-life, pro-impeachment, pro-gun, pro-GOP.

It's difficult to write about McCain without dealing with the gushing from the fourth estate. Media is as important to John McCain as is he to us. He loves the limelight, for one, but more importantly, it's an important element of his battle plan as he tries to emerge as a serious contender for the GOP nomination. As he explains it to me, his easy access to media will help him make up for the bigger bankroll of the front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush. And then, once it becomes a two-man race, his credibility, experience and straight talk will do the rest. Especially if Bush stumbles, as many Republicans think he can't help but do.

But beyond his need for media, or journalists' need to see him as a hero -- or, conversely, a sham to demythologize -- McCain is a compelling figure. In the end, he's a flawed, complex man -- as he'll be the first one to tell you -- and that makes him almost irresistible, at least to reporters.

"I'm a very imperfect person," McCain says in an interview with Salon News. "I don't live up to my own expectations in my life in many ways," he adds. "There's an impatience that sometimes is harmful to me in my relationships. Sometimes I move from one issue to another too quickly. Sometimes I'm not as considerate of my staff and my family as I should be. I could catalog many failings that I have as a human being. But I do try to recognize them and I try to improve. But I will not always be as good a person as some of the people I've had the opportunity to have met."

This combination of humility and candor has served him well with a press corps fed on a steady diet of braggadocio and evasion. "There's something about John McCain that comes through that's hard to measure," says one of his campaign co-chairmen, former New Hampshire Sen. Warren Rudman. "There's a quality to him that's interesting. It's an earnestness. A directness. An intensity. I can't really explain what it is, but people like him. And I think that will carry him to victory if nothing else."

But McCain's a Rorshach test; you see in him what you want to see. To his Republican opponents in the House and Senate, he's a hot-headed, grandstanding opportunist, while his Democratic foes see him as an ultra right-wing wolf hiding beneath the pelt of a charismatic sheep. To his first wife, he was a philanderer; to veterans he is the exemplar of the American fighting man.

"The media has had a difficult time conveying the essence of the whole man," says Jeff Barker, Washington correspondent for the Arizona Republic. "The Arizona media focuses on how scrappy he is, and the national media focuses on how he seems to be above the fray. But I think it's a combination of genuine courage and good political instincts -- and it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins."

But it's the members of his staff -- some of whom have worked for him for almost a generation -- who have it about right. They roll their eyes at his quirks, nudging each other knowingly, complaining about him like you might do about a parent. All the while they put in 14-hour days because at the bottom of it all they love not issues or a cause or an image, not any false concept of St. John McCain the Divine, but the man, just the man.

"I don't think he thinks of himself as a saint," says Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wisc., his partner on campaign finance reform. "I don't think he likes that kind of label. He's just out there trying to do the right thing."

First of all, for a saint he's got a flaming temper and, occasionally, a foul mouth.

One senator, a friend, tells the story of an acrimonious meeting toward the end of 1992, when the 12 members of the Senate Special Committee on POW/MIA Affairs were finishing up their report. It featured a hot debate over how to deal with former U.S. Marine Bobby Garwood, a former POW who'd been an accused defector.

The question was whether Garwood should be included in the report along with all the other POWs and MIAs, or if he had diminished his status and therefore only merited inclusion in the report's attachments. Half the room thought he was a traitor, a deserter who knew about POWs held after the war but didn't do anything about it, and McCain fell into that camp. The other half -- which included Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa -- thought that Garwood had been unfairly blamed.

"Bobby Garwood is a traitor, and I and a whole bunch of other POWs got beat because of him," the hot-headed McCain argued, according to a senator present during the debate.

Then Grassley started screaming. "Chuck has a temper, too," the senator relates. "So McCain started shouting back."

Grassley got in McCain's face, and the two pit bulls started barking at each other while the other senators in the room sat back and watched. The pair got so close to one another that the senator who tells me the story -- aware that because of war injuries, McCain's arms don't fully extend -- was convinced McCain "was going to drive the top of his head into Grassley's nose. I was convinced that bone fragments were going to go into Chuck's brain, and I was sitting there and was about to witness a murder."

McCain suddenly stood up. But instead of a head-butting homicide, he delivered a crushing blow of words.

"You know, senator," McCain said, seething, "I thought your problem was that you don't listen. But that's not it at all. Your problem is that you're a fucking jerk."

"He is a combatant," allows Sen. Smith of Oregon, who has yet to endorse any GOP presidential hopeful. "But I think people appreciate that he's a man of principle; he fights for what he believes in. John is not lukewarm. He makes friends and enemies with his mode of operations. His style is both a strength and a weakness."

He has a temper, and he can hold a grudge. "No question," Rudman says, "John isn't too popular up in the Senate. But all that means come the New Hampshire primary is that he may lose two votes."

McCain is fully capable of freezing out someone who has disappointed him. After the Arizona Republic, for instance, published a harsh editorial cartoon making light of a scandal involving painkillers his wife stole from a charity she founded, McCain refused to talk to the newspaper for more than a year. He regularly yells at or ignores fellow senators when he thinks they've done him wrong. One Arizona reporter reports that numerous subjects he's contacted have refused to speak about McCain with him since they're terrified of the repercussions.

The storm usually subsides almost immediately. The day after the one fight he and Feingold ever had in their four years of partnership on various government reform issues, McCain apologized, Feingold says. "He said, 'I didn't sleep all night, thinking about our fight.'"

It's a common refrain. And, to hear his allies tell it, they wouldn't want it any other way. "He's unafraid of getting into the ring and getting into battle," says Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb. "That's a characteristic I admire in anybody. And no matter how much he gets bloodied, he'll stay till the very end. You may lose the battle, but you'll have fun doing it."

McCain loses his high-profile battles quite often. His bills on tobacco and campaign finance reform keeled over by the side of the road, coughing up blood. Critics say his support for these issues is political opportunism, but that makes little sense. "I think anyone who would say that campaign finance reform is a way for John McCain to ride to the White House has a unique perspective on the popularity of the issue in Washington and in the Republican Party," says Meredith McGehee, vice president and legislative director for Common Cause. "It's been a very tough issue for him."

Indeed, GOP strategists wrinkle their noses at the mere mention of McCain, arguing he's not a team player, he's an in-your-face screamer, he's got demons. He and Senate leader Trent Lott enjoy a tumultuous relationship, one symbolic of the love/hate he has with both the Senate and the GOP -- they're enemies, then they're best buds. The trends last not days or weeks, but hours.

The idea that McCain embraces issues that put him at odds with his leader for his own political ends flies in the face of logic. Campaign finance reform is not a big vote-getter. Though it may enable McCain to wear an attractive chapeau that says "maverick," the issue is too complex to truly resonate with voters, and it wins him far more enemies among his Senate colleagues and the big-money PAC culture then it garners him brownie points. Same with tobacco.

And same with Kosovo. By pressing President Clinton to do whatever is necessary to win the NATO mission -- an order that he says includes ground troops -- McCain is hardly embracing a stance popular with either the public or his colleagues. The Senate voted on May 4 to table his resolution authorizing the president whatever he needed to win the war. "We have allowed American pilots ... to risk their lives for a cause that we will not risk our careers for," McCain said on May 3 in a speech that hardly endeared him to his colleagues.

But he admits there's no McCain doctrine that will determine when future intervention is required. "We always search for this magic formula," he says. "I'd love to have a McCain doctrine. But this is such a complex world we live in, with such varying situations, with varying threats, that I'm not sure you could ever develop an overall doctrine into one size fits all."

For the U.S. to use force, he says, "Our interests and our values have to be threatened. But the corollary to that is that you have to be able to beneficially be able to affect the situation." That's why, he says, he opposed sending the Marines into Lebanon in 1983 as a freshman congressman, and why he wouldn't have sent troops to Rwanda or the Sudan.

According to his supporters, McCain's courage on Kosovo will resonate with a public starving for leadership. "It tells people, here's a guy who doesn't need consultants to tell him what he believes in," says Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., another McCain 2000 co-chairman. "Contrast that with who's been leading this country for the last seven years."

"He's surged in New Hampshire," brags Rudman. "He went from 3 percent to 15 percent in just a month."

As Smith puts it, "He's won the Kosovo primary."

McCain has been brash ever since he was a kid. From high school through the Naval Academy, McCain was in an extended rebel-without-a-clue phase, always more interested in the three B's -- booze, brawls and broads -- than the three R's. (He graduated fifth from the bottom of the Naval Academy class of '58.)

Born into Navy royalty -- both his father and grandfather achieved the rank of admiral -- McCain was just another risk-taking fly boy until he was captured by the North Vietnamese. Shot down over Hanoi on Oct. 26, 1967, as John Hubbell wrote in "P.O.W.," "No American reached [the prison camp] Hoa Lo in worse physical condition than McCain."

He suffered unimaginable torture, particularly once the North Vietnamese realized that he was the son of the commander of the Pacific Fleet. Recognizing the propaganda value of letting McCain free, so as to demoralize less-connected soldiers and POWs, his Vietnamese captors offered McCain an immediate ticket home.

"I wouldn't even consider any kind of release," McCain said, according to the moving account of his POW experience in Robert Timberg's "The Nightingale's Song." "They'll have to drag me out of here." Leaving would be dishonorable, he thought. It would be detrimental to morale, and would violate the "first in, first out" rule of prisoner release.

They beat him senseless, over and over, until he signed a piece of paper confessing his "war crimes" -- a perfectly understandable, even relatively innocuous, action that he still has yet to forgive himself for. "The cockiness was gone," Timberg wrote, "replaced by a suffocating despair." The despair, the beatings and the brutality lasted five and a half years.

He returned to a hero's welcome, as well as months of grueling physical therapy and a collapsing marriage. He remains humble about it all, which is one of the reasons why reporters fall in love with him so quickly, as well as why he may make a compelling candidate.

"What I would like to tell you is that it turned me into a perfect individual motivated only by the most noble of principles and ambitions," McCain says of his experience. "But ... the fact is, that's not true. I was privileged to serve in the company of heroes; I failed in prison as well ... But I continue to strive to do the right thing, although I fail very frequently."

One failure -- though it wasn't the big deal opponents made it seem -- was his role as one of the fabled Keating Five -- the five senators accused of muscling regulators on behalf of savings and loan shyster Charles Keating. McCain was eventually cleared of all but poor judgment, but he refuses to cut himself any slack. By all rights, McCain could be bitter: The Democrat-controlled Senate Ethics Committee, which normally strives to be nonpartisan, refused the advice of its counsel and insisted on lumping him and then-Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, in with the far-more-sullied Keating Three, all Democrats, because they wanted at least one Republican to share the heat.

But McCain only criticized himself about the matter. "I can't tell you the hoops we have to go through in this office before a letter goes out with my name on it. The stuff we go through because ... appearance is reality and ... you can get into trouble."

Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., who's endorsed McCain's presidential run, says that stance shows McCain's political growth. "When he first came to Congress [in 1983], he was still trying to make up for his six lost years in the POW prison camp," Kolbe says. "He didn't tolerate delays, he didn't tolerate views that didn't seem to match his. He has changed." While Kolbe says that McCain's one major flaw remains his fickle short fuse, he allow that "he really has learned to reign that in."

And Kolbe has personal experience with McCain's willingness to take stands that won't endear him to the average GOP primary voter. "He was very supportive of me when I was 'outed' by the Advocate," Kolbe says. Kolbe went to McCain's office to tell him what was about to happen, but before the congressman could get a word out, McCain put up his hands in protest.

"You don't have to say anything more," McCain said. "It doesn't make a goddamn bit of difference to me if you're gay. You're a good congressman and a good friend." When Tempe, Ariz., Mayor Neil Giuliano went through a similar ordeal, McCain was just as supportive.

"One of the reasons I have this confidence about not changing is because I'm not afraid of losing," McCain says. "In 10 months, this nominating process will be over. And if I lose, I have to live in Arizona, have four wonderful kids, be in the Senate and be chairman of the Commerce Committee. I'm not afraid of losing."

In fact, he doesn't seem afraid of anything. Sometimes this is disastrous -- witness his awful joke about Chelsea Clinton. Other times he can make you want to give him a big sloppy kiss -- as CBS's Mike Wallace recently did when he said he would campaign for him if he got the nomination.

Which is why, when he looked at me matter-of-factly and told me that it was just common sense that the NRA-backed loophole exempting gun show firearms buyers from background checks was wrong, and should be closed, I believed him. It made sense. Though he's a longtime friend of the NRA, I knew he'd bucked big-time money lobbies of all shapes and sizes, and I believed he'd buck this one.

And then he caved. I felt disappointed, and exasperated, but having spent a
month studying and reading up on the man, I didn't write him off. On
Thursday morning, McCain awoke and, bolstered by a number of other GOP
senators who were alarmed at what had happened the day before, or else by
how it was playing in the media (or a potent combination of both), McCain
brokered a compromise. McCain thought Lautenberg's bill had been too
extreme -- mandating a three-day waiting period, even though some gun shows
don't last that long. But the GOP alternative, calling for "voluntary"
checks (read none), sat on the other extreme.

McCain was looking for
something in the middle, instant -- but mandatory -- background checks. "I'm
doing what it takes to close this loophole," McCain told his staff. The NRA
is said to be
"grudgingly" supporting the new moves, but ultimately the battle could get
nasty. McCain doesn't seem to care: "This is not an overly burdensome
requirement in the face of the tragic shootings at Columbine High School,"
he said in a statement issued Thursday evening. "Rather, it is a responsible
means of lessening the likelihood of unlawful gun purchases."

So in the end, he's not the superhero his supporters depict, nor is he the opportunistic bully described by detractors. In the end, he's just a man, as he told me -- many times -- himself. And he's betting that if voters get to know him, they'll appreciate him in all his complexity.

"I don't think the Republicans are smart enough to nominate him," says Feingold.

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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