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In the aftermath of the Keating Five, McCain realized that his career was in a "hell of a mess." He had made George H.W. Bush's shortlist for vice president in 1988, but the Keating scandal made him a political untouchable. McCain needed a high horse — so his long-standing opposition to campaign-finance reform went out the window. Working with Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, McCain authored a measure to ban unlimited "soft money" donations from politics.
The Keating affair also taught McCain a vital lesson about handling the media. When the scandal first broke, he went ballistic on reporters who questioned his wife's financial ties to Keating — calling them "liars" and "idiots." Predictably, the press coverage was merciless. So McCain dialed back the anger and turned up the charm. "I talked to the press constantly, ad infinitum, until their appetite for information from me was completely satisfied," he later wrote. "It is a public relations strategy that I have followed to this day." Mr. Straight Talk was born.
Unfortunately, any lessons McCain learned from the Keating scandal didn't affect his unbridled enthusiasm for deregulating the finance industry. "He continues to follow policies that create the same kind of environment we see today, with recurrent financial crises and epidemics of fraud led by CEOs," says Black, the former S&L regulator. Indeed, if the current financial crisis has a villain, it is Phil Gramm, who remains close to McCain. As chair of the Senate Banking Committee in the late 1990s, Gramm ushered in — with McCain's fervent support — a massive wave of deregulation for insurance companies and brokerage houses and banks, the aftershocks of which are just now being felt in Wall Street's catastrophic collapse. McCain, who has admitted that "the issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should," relies on Gramm to guide him.
McCain also did his part to loosen regulations on big corporations. In 1997, McCain became chairman of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the insurance and telecommunications industries, as well as the CEO pay packages of those McCain now denounces as "fat cats." The special interests with business before the committee were big and well-heeled. All told, executives and fundraisers associated with these firms donated $2.6 million to McCain when he served as the chairman or ranking member.
The money bought influence. In 1998, employees of BellSouth contributed more than $16,000 to McCain. The senator returned the favor, asking the Federal Communications Commission to give "serious consideration" to the company's request to become a long-distance carrier. Days after legislation benefiting the satellite-TV carrier EchoStar cleared McCain's committee, the company's founder celebrated by hosting a major fundraiser for McCain's presidential bid.
Whatever McCain's romantic entanglements with the lobbyist Vicki Iseman, he was clearly in bed with her clients, who donated nearly $85,000 to his campaigns. One of her clients, Bud Paxson, set up a meeting with McCain in 1999, frustrated by the FCC's delay of his proposed takeover of a television station in Pittsburgh. Paxson had treated McCain well, offering the then-presidential candidate use of his corporate jet to fly to campaign events and ponying up $20,000 in campaign donations.
"You're the head of the commerce committee," Paxson told McCain, according to The Washington Post. "The FCC is not doing its job. I would love for you to write a letter."
Iseman helped draft the text, and McCain sent the letter. Several weeks later — the day after McCain used Paxson's jet to fly to Florida for a fundraiser — McCain wrote another letter. FCC chair William Kennard sent a sharp rebuke to McCain, calling the senator's meddling "highly unusual." Nonetheless, within a week of McCain's second letter, the FCC ruled three-to-two in favor of Paxson's deal.
Following his failed presidential bid in 2000, McCain needed a vehicle to keep his brand alive. He founded the Reform Institute, which he set up as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit — a tax status that barred it from explicit political activity. McCain proceeded to staff the institute with his campaign manager, Rick Davis, as well as the fundraising chief, legal counsel and communications chief from his 2000 campaign.
There is no small irony that the Reform Institute — founded to bolster McCain's crusade to rid politics of unregulated soft money — itself took in huge sums of unregulated soft money from companies with interests before McCain's committee. EchoStar got in on the ground floor with a donation of $100,000. A charity funded by the CEO of Univision gave another $100,000. Cablevision gave $200,000 to the Reform Institute in 2003 and 2004 — just as its officials were testifying before the commerce committee. McCain urged approval of the cable company's proposed pricing plan. As Bradley Smith, the former chair of the Federal Election Commission, wrote at the time: "Appearance of corruption, anyone?"
"HE IS HOTHEADED"
Over the years, John McCain has demonstrated a streak of anger so nasty that even his former flacks make no effort to spin it away. "If I tried to convince you he does not have a temper, you should hang up on me and ridicule me in print," says Dan Schnur, who served as McCain's press man during the 2000 campaign. Even McCain admits to an "immature and unprofessional reaction to slights" that is "little changed from the reactions to such provocations I had as a schoolboy."
McCain is sensitive about his physical appearance, especially his height. The candidate is only five-feet-nine, making him the shortest party nominee since Michael Dukakis. On the night he was elected senator in 1986, McCain exploded after discovering that the stage setup for his victory speech was too low; television viewers saw his head bobbing at the bottom of the screen, his chin frequently cropped from view. Enraged, McCain tracked down the young Republican who had set up the podium, prodding the volunteer in the chest while screaming that he was an "incompetent little shit." Jon Hinz, the director of the Arizona GOP, separated the senator from the young man, promising to get him a milk crate to stand on for his next public appearance.
During his 1992 campaign, at the end of a long day, McCain's wife, Cindy, mussed his receding hair and needled him playfully that he was "getting a little thin up there." McCain reportedly blew his top, cutting his wife down with the kind of language that had gotten him hauled into court as a high schooler: "At least I don't plaster on the makeup like a trollop, you cunt." Even though the incident was witnessed by three reporters, the McCain campaign denies it took place.
In the Senate — where, according to former GOP Sen. Bob Smith, McCain has "very few friends" — his volcanic temper has repeatedly led to explosive altercations with colleagues and constituents alike. In 1992, McCain got into a heated exchange with Sen. Chuck Grassley over the fate of missing American servicemen in Vietnam. "Are you calling me stupid?" Grassley demanded. "No, I'm calling you a fucking jerk!" yelled McCain. Sen. Bob Kerrey later told reporters that he feared McCain was "going to head-butt Grassley and drive the cartilage in his nose into his brain." The two were separated before they came to blows. Several years later, during another debate over servicemen missing in action, an elderly mother of an MIA soldier rolled up to McCain in her wheelchair to speak to him about her son's case. According to witnesses, McCain grew enraged, raising his hand as if to strike her before pushing her wheelchair away.
McCain has called Paul Weyrich, who helped steer the Republican Party to the right, a "pompous self-serving son of a bitch" who "possesses the attributes of a Dickensian villain." In 1999, he told Sen. Pete Domenici, the Republican chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, that "only an asshole would put together a budget like this."
Last year, after barging into a bipartisan meeting on immigration legislation and attempting to seize the reins, McCain was called out by fellow GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. "Wait a second here," Cornyn said. "I've been sitting in here for all of these negotiations and you just parachute in here on the last day. You're out of line." McCain exploded: "Fuck you! I know more about this than anyone in the room." The incident foreshadowed McCain's 11th-hour theatrics in September, when he abruptly "suspended" his campaign and inserted himself into the Wall Street bailout debate at the last minute, just as congressional leaders were attempting to finalize a bipartisan agreement.
At least three of McCain's GOP colleagues have gone on record to say that they consider him temperamentally unsuited to be commander in chief. Smith, the former senator from New Hampshire, has said that McCain's "temper would place this country at risk in international affairs, and the world perhaps in danger. In my mind, it should disqualify him." Sen. Domenici of New Mexico has said he doesn't "want this guy anywhere near a trigger." And Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi weighed in that "the thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine. He is erratic. He is hotheaded."
McCain's frequently inappropriate humor has also led many to question his self-control. In 1998, the senator told a joke about President Clinton's teenage daughter at a GOP fundraiser. "Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly?" McCain asked. "Because her father is Janet Reno!"
More recently, McCain's jokes have heightened tensions with Iran. The senator once cautioned that "the world's only superpower . . . should never make idle threats" — but that didn't stop him from rewriting the lyrics to a famous Beach Boys tune. In April 2007, when a voter at a town-hall session asked him about his policy toward Tehran, McCain responded by singing, "bomb bomb bomb" Iran. The loose talk was meant to incite the GOP base, but it also aggravated relations with Iran, whose foreign minister condemned McCain's "jokes about genocide" as a testament to his "disturbed state of mind" and "warmongering approach to foreign policy."
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