McCain embraces his inner Peter Finch

After a few weeks of attempts by Democrats (and the media) to get John McCain to lose his temper publicly — with absolutely no success — John McCain has decided to embrace his passion rather than deny it. Speaking today in Rochester, Michigan, McCain admitted that he gets angry, especially when he sees fraud and waste in government. He thinks we should be angry, too, when we see that, and that we shouldn’t take it any more:

Republican John McCain pretended to snarl when asked about his temper Wednesday in Michigan. “How dare you ask that question!” McCain said, chuckling. His questioner persisted, reading a comment by a fellow Republican, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, that the idea of McCain as the GOP presidential nominee sent a chill down his spine.

“I’m all too familiar with the quote,” said McCain, who has since smoothed things over with his colleague.

McCain, whose temper has earned him the nickname “Senator Hothead” by more than one publication, said he does get angry — about corruption and runaway spending in Washington. “You know something, the American people are angry, too, and they’re not going to take it anymore,” he said.

If he really had a temper problem, McCain said, he would not have been able to work with fellow senators such as Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat; Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat; and his friend Joe Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee who now is an Independent.

The line paraphrases one from the movie Network delivered by Peter Finch, who played a lunatic newscaster that struck a chord with viewers by saying, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!” The line resonated with movie viewers, too, and entered the cultural lexicon as a populist chant. Finch played a character somewhere between Lou Dobbs and Keith Olbermann, with a bit of Al Franken at the 2004 Republican Convention thrown in for good measure.

McCain takes a clever approach to the issue of anger management. So far, he has shown no particular nastiness on the campaign trail, so the effort to paint him as an unstable hothead has flopped. However, this gives him an opportunity to display passion about the ills of federal government, especially the stupidity and corruption that angers most voters. To whom will voters relate more — someone who offers academic criticism of business as usual, or someone with an actual track record of reform who sounds pissed off about the need for more of it?

James Carville once said that the best strategy for beating an opponent was to turn their strength into a weakness. The best defense in politics could be turning a vulnerability into a strength. At least McCain can have some fun turning this particular table on the Democrats.