It's 3 a.m. Who do you want answering the phone?

Not John McCain, say some military leaders: "I think his knee-jerk response factor is a little scary."

By Mark Benjamin
Published March 6, 2008 12:59PM (EST)

It's 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep
But there's a phone in the White House and it's ringing
Something's happening in the world
Your vote will decide who answers that call
Whether it's someone who already knows the world's leaders, knows the military -- someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world
It's 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep
Who do you want answering the phone?

That, of course, is the script from Hillary Clinton's now famous (or infamous) "3 a.m." television ad that ran in Texas just ahead of the March 4 primary. At the end of the ad, Clinton answers the phone.

Following Clinton's win of the popular vote in Texas, there seems to be general agreement among the pundits that a significant number of undecided voters were relieved by the idea of Hillary Clinton's answering the phone, rather than Barack Obama. The ad was a fear-based attack, building on a theme that has been central to Clinton's campaign. Clinton, the ad's message said, is the Democratic candidate better equipped to deal with the frightening world out there from day one. It may have scared up enough votes to keep Clinton's campaign alive by helping bring her a crucial win in Texas (notwithstanding the awarding of delegates there, still to come).

Polls show that the economy is a big deal to American voters in the 2008 election. But the apparent effectiveness of the 3 a.m. ad in Texas is a reminder of the importance of national security in voters' minds, and of just how high the stakes are for the next commander in chief. The United States is bogged down in two nasty wars, and the Army and Marine Corps are stretched thin. China and Russia are on the rise. The Middle East is roiling, and Iran continues to bluster and obfuscate over its nuclear program. Something unexpected and bad is likely to happen during the next presidency, maybe even at 3 a.m. Washington time.

But while the consensus is that the 3 a.m. ad helped Clinton, it has also drawn criticism as a tactic that ultimately benefits John McCain, particularly if he is to face Obama in the general election. In essence, Clinton has now turned the debate about commander-in-chief readiness into a contest of résumés. And the conventional wisdom is that John McCain -- ex-fighter pilot, former POW and war hero -- wins.

But that's not necessarily the case, say senior military officials and political analysts. In interviews with Salon this week, several experienced military officers said McCain draws mixed reviews among military leaders, and they expressed serious doubts about whether McCain has the right temperament to be the next president and commander in chief. Some expressed more confidence in Obama, citing his temperament as an asset.

It is not difficult in Washington to find high-level military officials who have had close encounters with John McCain's temper, and who find it worrisome. Politicians sometimes scream for effect, but the concern is that McCain has, at times, come across as out of control. It is difficult to find current or former officers willing to describe those encounters in detail on the record. That's because, by and large, those officers admire McCain. But that doesn't mean they want his finger on the proverbial button, and they are supporting Clinton or Obama instead.

"I like McCain. I respect McCain. But I am a little worried by his knee-jerk response factor," said retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who was in charge of training the Iraqi military from 2003 to 2004 and is now campaigning for Clinton. "I think it is a little scary. I think this guy's first reactions are not necessarily the best reactions. I believe that he acts on impulse."

"I studied leadership for a long time during 32 years in the military," said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott Gration, a one-time Republican who is supporting Obama. "It is all about character. Who can motivate willing followers? Who has the vision? Who can inspire people?" Gration asked. "I have tremendous respect for John McCain, but I would not follow him."

"One of the things the senior military would like to see when they go visit the president is a kind of consistency, a kind of reliability," explained retired Gen. Merrill McPeak, a former Republican, former chief of staff of the Air Force and former fighter pilot who flew 285 combat missions. McPeak said his perception is that Obama is "not that up when he is up and not that down when he is down. He is kind of a steady Eddie. This is a very important feature," McPeak said. On the other hand, he said, "McCain has got a reputation for being a little volatile." McPeak is campaigning for Obama.

Stephen Wayne, a political science professor at Georgetown who is studying the personalities of the presidential candidates, agrees McCain's temperament is of real concern. "The anger is there," Wayne said. If McCain is the one to answer the phone at 3 a.m., he said, "you worry about an initial emotive, less rational response."

Most recently, Wayne has been studying Clinton's personality. "I just gave a presentation on Hillary's temperament for the presidency. I came to the conclusion that it is not really a good presidential temperament, with one caveat -- if you compare it with McCain's."

There is no question that McCain has more national security experience than either Obama or Clinton. His five-and-a-half-year ordeal as a prisoner of war in Vietnam established him as a legitimate American hero. He served his first term in Congress starting in 1982 (when Obama was still an undergraduate at Columbia University) and has continued to be a leader on national security issues for most of his career, including serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

John Lehman, the Navy secretary during the Reagan administration and a McCain supporter, said he has known the Arizona senator for 30 years. Lehman said that in comparison with some of the people he has worked for, such as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, "John McCain is a pussycat."

"I have never seen him really lose it and really be just passionately furious," Lehman said. "When I have seen him lose his temper, it is for effect."

Lehman suggested that national security experience is the far more important issue. "It creates a matrix for judgment, not only with events. It also gives you a depth of knowledge of people and institutions," he explained. "You would not go to have brain surgery in a crisis to someone who is fresh out of medical school."

McCain's outbursts have only occasionally been captured by the press. The most recent episode appeared to have occurred last May, when McCain was embroiled in immigration reform negotiations with Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. Cornyn accused McCain of "parachuting" in on the negotiations. During the heated exchange that followed, McCain screamed "Fuck you!" at Cornyn, according to news reports at the time. McCain later apologized.

Such McCain episodes have occurred for many years. Strikingly, McCain has an icy relationship with some families of American service members still missing in Southeast Asia. That's in part because in a 1992 hearing he unloaded on a witness whose brother went missing during the Vietnam War. Dolores Apodaca Alfond expressed concern that the Senate panel looking into missing service members might shut down before it exhausted all the possible avenues of finding answers. "I do not denigrate your efforts," McCain thundered at her. "And I am sick and tired of you denigrating mine and many other people who have views different from you."

McCain later backpedaled from the outburst, admitting that he may have "appeared upset."

Grover Norquist, president of the conservative Republican group Americans for Tax Reform, has locked horns with McCain on domestic policy issues. He said that during those encounters, the senator has "never been anything but really pleasant to me." But Norquist adds that he has talked to U.S. senators who have told him that McCain can really blow up. "People say that you get these McCaingrams," Norquist said. "He yells at you, and before you get back to your office you get the apology note, which is the equivalent of somebody who knows that this happens and is prepared for it."

McCain's supporters will no doubt continue to assert that his experience far outweighs any alleged issues with temperament. But if past wartime presidents are a guide, experience of the kind McCain has isn't necessarily a prerequisite for performing well as commander in chief. Historians point out that presidents without any experience in the military have guided the country through some of its most dangerous conflicts.

The closest thing Woodrow Wilson had to commander-in-chief credentials was his term as governor of New Jersey. Wilson gave Franklin D. Roosevelt his only pre-Oval Office military-related experience -- by appointing him as assistant secretary of the Navy. Both presidents faced down world wars, but neither had fought in one.

"Whether it is being a prisoner of war or fighting courageously on the front -- which I respect and admire tremendously -- it doesn't necessarily give you the kind of broader perspective that you might want someone to have for making decisions that affect the lives of millions and the future of the globe," said Brian Balogh, a historian at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs. "There are people who tell you, 'I know. I saw it. I was there.' And then there are people who are often maligned with patriotic rhetoric, but who are standing at a bit of a distance" from a serious national security crisis, Balogh said. "But oddly enough, because they are standing at a bit of a distance and not personally risking their lives, they actually can see things better."

Such a view supports Obama's reiterating on the campaign trail that had he been in the U.S. Senate in 2002, he would have had the judgment and foresight to vote against the authorization to use force against Iraq, when most other senators, including McCain and Clinton, voted for it. At the time of the resolution authorizing force, Obama was a state legislator in Illinois, and delivered a speech opposing the war.

While Clinton has no direct military experience, her campaign pushes the argument that her knowledge of national security is on a par with McCain's, making her more qualified to be commander in chief than Obama. Terry McAuliffe, the campaign chairman, keeps saying that Clinton has "visited over 80 countries" and "knows world leaders." Clinton strategist Mark Penn admitted during a conference call with reporters last week that the 3 a.m. ad was designed to highlight a "perception" that Clinton is tougher than Obama. "I think this ad speaks to what people I think very much know in their heart about Senator Clinton," Penn told reporters. Clinton, he said, is "seen as someone who is both strong and able to make these decisions."

If controversial within the Democratic Party for potentially arming McCain against Obama in a general election, it may be the only fight Clinton can pick with Obama on national security, since the Democrats have campaigned on similar national security philosophies. Their emphasis is on "soft power," or the utilization of all possible government assets and branches to secure U.S. interests and combat terrorism globally. It means a commander in chief who is willing to emphasize diplomacy and international economic policy as well as the carefully calibrated use of military force when necessary. It means that the "war" on terrorism is fought by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development as much as it is with skilled, well-equipped ground forces that can train foreign armies and call in precision air strikes.

Many military experts are enthusiastic about this departure from the Bush administration's approach, which they commonly describe with a proverb: "When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail."

Eaton, the retired general supporting Clinton, admits that, just like Obama's own supporters from the military, he is ultimately making a personal judgment call about her personality and temperament. "There is a toughness to this lady," he says. But it is not because she fought in any more wars than Obama. "I am convinced of that, with everything that Hillary Clinton has been through for the last 15 or 16 years from the Republican Party, from government, from her husband."

McCain, who still bears the physical scars of his captivity in Vietnam, will no doubt continue to campaign on his war experience and national security record -- it's considered by many to be the turf where he is strongest. But if his Democratic opponent -- whether Clinton or Obama -- can shift the discussion to leadership qualities, it may help disarm the Republican nominee.

Retired Rear Adm. John Hutson, who has been a Republican his entire adult life, but who now supports Obama, put it this way about facing a national security crisis: "When everybody else goes nuts, the president of the United States needs to get cooler and cooler."

Mark Benjamin

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

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2008 Elections Afghanistan Barack Obama Hillary Rodham Clinton Iraq John Mccain R-ariz. Middle East Terrorism