McCain's temper -- a legitimate issue? Update & Bump: Mark Salter calls shenanigans

See Update for response from top McCain aide Mark Salter.
Michael Leahy writes about the much-discussed temperament of John McCain in the Washington Post today, an article which will undoubtedly generate much criticism and comment. McCain has had a reputation for a hothead for decades, one apparently well-earned from childhood onward. While some of its targets feel disturbed by it, McCain’s allies consider it an integral part of his success:

Since the beginning of McCain’s public life, the many witnesses to his temper have had strikingly different reactions to it. Some depict McCain, now the presumptive Republican nominee for president, as an erratic hothead incapable of staying cool in the face of what he views as either disloyalty to him or irrational opposition to his ideas. Others praise a firebrand who is resolute against the forces of greed and gutlessness.

“Does he get angry? Yes,” said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who supports McCain’s presidential bid. “But it’s never been enough to blur his judgment. . . . If anything, his passion and occasional bursts of anger have made him more effective.”

Former senator Bob Smith, a New Hampshire Republican, expresses worries about McCain: “His temper would place this country at risk in international affairs, and the world perhaps in danger. In my mind, it should disqualify him.”

A spokesman for McCain’s campaign said he would be unavailable for an interview on the subject of his temper. But over the years, no one has written more intimately about McCain’s outbursts than McCain himself. “My temper has often been both a matter of public speculation and personal concern,” he wrote in a 2002 memoir. “I have a temper, to state the obvious, which I have tried to control with varying degrees of success because it does not always serve my interest or the public’s.”

That temper has followed him throughout his life, McCain acknowledges. He recalls in his writings how, as a toddler, he sometimes held his breath and fainted during moments of fury. As the son of a naval officer who was on his way to becoming a four-star admiral, McCain found himself frequently uprooted and enrolled in new schools, where, as an underappreciated outsider, he developed “a little bit of a chip on my shoulder,” as he recalled this month.

Interestingly, most of those targets have turned into supporters. McCain made headlines by calling John Cornyn an unprintable name in 2006, but Cornyn supports McCain’s bid for the presidency. Former Phoenix mayor Paul Johnson got into a shouting match with McCain after McCain called him a liar during a public meeting, but says McCain has mellowed considerably in the last 16 years and now backs him. His Senate colleague Thad Cochran (R-MS) has felt the barb of McCain’s tongue over Cochran’s pork-barrel politics (in 2008, he has the most pork dollars in Congress), but also supports McCain despite McCain’s promise to “make him famous”.

Basically, McCain acts as if he has a chip on his shoulder, something to prove. McCain himself admits this, which may make it somewhat more human even if it really doesn’t address whether that will hinder him as President. It’s not as though other presidents have been meek and mild, however. Lyndon Johnson was rumored to have a terrible temper, and Bill Clinton has shown flashes of it when challenged publicly. Hillary Clinton supposedly had an even worse temper during their White House years.

Hugh Hewitt believes this to be a demonstration of media bias:

Perhaps the ongoing meltdown in the Democratic Party has demoralized the partisans inside the Post, or perhaps it is a just a very slow news cycle for reporters assigned to cover John McCain.

But Michael Leahy’s page 1 “McCain: A Question of Temperament” is going to be an exhibit in the museum of media bias and agenda journalism for a long time. … The sudden appearance of such a story –on page 1 no less when the Obama bitterness hurricane got buried by the Post— is one of the best indicators yet that those confident of an Obama win in November are beginning to understand that the inexperienced and very left-wing three year senator from Illinois is going to need a lot of help.

I don’t recall where the Post ran their coverage of the Crackerquiddick story; if it got buried, then Hugh has a point about relative coverage. However, I disagree that covering the issue of temperament at all is an indication of media bias. It seems to me that temperament is a quality for legitimate analysis when selecting an executive in the private or public sector, and any track record of public eruptions is fair game for reporters.

McCain hasn’t given the media any recent eruptions and has never shown himself as irrational in his anger. Moreover, people understand and relate to anger; voters might respond better to a man who gets angry rather than contain himself in Madison Avenue packaging 24/7. Passion generates many emotions, and expecting complete dispassion from an executive may not be reasonable. Michael Dukakis lost a debate and probably an election by acting dispassionately to a hypothetical on the death penalty involving his wife Kitty, looking like a bloodless bureaucrat rather than a leader.

McCain’s temper is a legitimate area of scrutiny, but if it doesn’t erupt, the Post will only run this article once. Obama, on the other hand, keeps stumbling and revealing his character on the campaign trail with events like Crackerquiddick and his responses to the Wright Stuff, which guarantees a lot more focus and scrutiny on those points than on McCain’s temper.

Update & Bump, 7:44 pm: Top McCain aide Mark Salter insists that not only did Michael Leahy fabricate some of this story, he left out most of Salter’s rebuttals and mischaracterized what he did use. Ramesh Ponnoru posted Salter’s rebuttal:

If one half of it were true, it would give me pause. As it happens, the piece is 99% fiction. [Reporter Michael] Leahy is a nice guy, but the story was one of the more dishonest I’ve read in a while. I talked to him for over two hours. Some of the instances, like the Bob Smith one, he never even raised with me so I could respond. For others, he declined to print my rebuttal. He used my quotes in ways that made them seem as if I were confirming his thesis when I insisted that McCain’s temper is no greater than the average person’s, and that I personally know 20 or 25 Senators with much worse tempers. He argues, sometimes heatedly, with his peers, but he doesn’t hold grudges or pick on people subordinate to him. If you want to tell what members of Congress have ungovernable tempers, you need only look at how rapidly their staffs turnover. As a twenty-year veteran Hill staffer, I can assure you that is the best indicator of which members have bad tempers. McCain’s staff serve tenures well beyond the norm, because they are treated exceedingly well by him.

The story about the Young Republican in 1982 is entirely fictional. The Bob Smith incident is entirely fictional. The Karen Johnson story is entirely fictional. Most of the others are exaggerated beyond recognition. Let me give you two examples of Leahy’s reporting practices that serve to underscore that he had a thesis he wanted to prove and forced facts to make them fit it.

I am quoted regarding the Renzi incident saying something like “no punches were thrown,” making it seem as if i was excusing any incident as evidence of bad temper unless McCain drew blood. In fact, Leahy suggested to me that McCain had thrown a punch (I believe he got this from a defamatory book published recently by a Democratic activist). I responded directly to an accusation. More, I told him that McCain hadn’t lost his temper at all. McCain routinely refers to people and colleagues as “boy.” He does to me, to Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman, and almost everybody. It’s like saying hey, buddy. He means nothing by it. Renzi was relatively new to Congress, and got upset when McCain refered to him in this completely innocuous way. All McCain told Renzi was that he meant nothing by it, and Renzi should calm down or words to that effect. That was it. And I explained all that to Leahy. None of it made it into the story. That wasn’t only place in the story he declined to quote me fairly or to quote my explanation at all.

When he asked me about Karen Johnson, who says McCain tried to block her from getting a job, I asked for details: what job; who did he call, when did it happen, etc. He said he couldn’t give them to me because he had promised his source he wouldn’t share those kind of details with McCain in advance of publication. Source didn’t ask for her identity to be protected and didn’t put the details off the record.

They all appeared in the story. I explained to Leahy that this was a very unusual form of confidentiality, that an incident that was given to him on the record could not be shared with the subject of the story so that we could provide an informed response. There is only one reason that a source would act for that kind of selectively targeted and temporary confidentiality, to deny us the ability to disprove the story, which we could have done in ten minutes. It’s like telling someone he’s been accused of pedophilia, asking for a response, but declining to identify the incident in question. Mr. Leahy was unpersuaded.

In sum, this is one of the more shoddy examples of journalism I’ve ever encountered. But for the infamous NYT story, I’d say it was the worst smear job on McCain I’d ever seen.