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For the week of Dec. 29, 1999 through Jan. 4, 2000

John McCain’s dark side fueled by obsessive ambitions

Commentary by PAT MURPHY

Those of us who’ve known John McCain since he began his Arizona political career made two mistakes.

First, overestimating the Washington media’s willingness to look beyond a politician’s self-serving façade.

Second, underestimating McCain’s skill in camouflaging his bullyboy ways and reincarnating himself as a lovable maverick glowing with political virtue.

If McCain becomes President, America will have more than a prickly president with a low boiling point. He carries grudges, fibs rather than admits mistakes, cannot endure criticism, threatens revenge, controls by fear, is consumed with self-importance.

Shifting blame also is second nature.

It was vintage McCain who exploded when The Arizona Republic questioned whether the man dubbed "Senator Hothead" in Washington was fit to handle presidential powers. Instead of conceding what’s common knowledge, McCain erupted into denial, blaming a newspaper vendetta (rubbish!) and George W. Bush for "orchestrating" the criticism (more rubbish!).

McCain’s artfully contrived persona of a high-minded champion of political virtue works: Washington reporters blindly lionize McCain.

But venerable Washington Post columnist David Broder warned on NBC’s "Meet the Press":

"After the experience we all had with President Clinton, I’m not inclined to discount the view of home state reporters and journalists who have covered a candidate over the years," meaning McCain.

But except for Boston Globe reporter Walter Robinson who spent several weeks digging into McCain’s Arizona behavior and reporting his dark side, Washington reporters avoid disturbing their "hero" perception of McCain.

ABC’s 20/20 almost gave the nation a clearer snapshot. Sam Donaldson taped an interview with Amy Silverman, of The Phoenix New Times, regarded as Arizona journalism’s expert on McCain. But the segment was canceled the night before airing, fueling speculation that McCain’s powerful Senate Commerce Committee’s oversight of broadcasting makes TV wary of offending him.

As an early McCain acquaintance and now a former friend, I find him to be a man of obsessive ambitions with self-destructive petty impulses. McCain admits to a lifelong thin skin: as an infant, he held his breath until he was unconscious when angry. In Washington, he’s resorted to physical pushing and shoving of colleagues when irritated.

When feeling inferior, McCain belittles: he snidely said, for example, that he slept better knowing that George W. Bush guarded the Texas border as a pilot in the National Guard.

When he explodes, McCain is quick to threaten, "I’ll destroy you!"

After McCain settled in Arizona with his young second wife, a millionairess, he asked me at dinner for help with a political career.

As editorial page editor of The Arizona Republic, and later publisher, I demurred. We socialized, however, including dinners in his home, and even once discussed writing a book.

But our friendship was shattered by a story and editorial exposing McCain as a liar. He’d boasted to me and my wife over lunch in Washington that he planted complex questions with the chairman of the Senate Interior Committee to sabotage testimony of Arizona’s Gov. Rose Mofford, a Democrat, about the Central Arizona Project, which delivers Colorado River water to Arizona urban areas.

When reporters later asked McCain about planted questions, he feigned insult and denied any dirty trick.

I informed editors in Phoenix of the deceit. Within hours of a story and an editorial appearing, McCain was in meltdown, shrieking on the phone,"I know, you’re out to get me!"

Several years later, McCain admitted the dirty trick and apologized to Mofford, who was then out of office.


  • When NBC refused to support his TV rating system, McCain wrote NBC president Robert Wright threatening to work to have the FCC lift NBC licenses of locally owned stations.

  • When Barbara Barrett, wife of Intel CEO Dr. Craig Barrett, ran against McCain’s protégé, Arizona Gov. J. Fife Symington III, McCain offered to buy her out of the 1994 GOP primary. Barrett refused. Furious, McCain threatened revenge, which materialized only in minor ways.

  • Barrett lost, but Symington later was forced out of office after being convicted on seven counts of fraud. Barrett, meanwhile, continues a successful international law practice and serves on major corporate boards.

  • Maricopa County (Phoenix) schools superintendent Sandra Dowling, a Republican, refused McCain’s demand to abandon support of Barrett. Dowling told Morley Safer during a "60 Minutes" interview about Arizona politics that McCain exploded and threatened to "destroy" her. Thereafter, her son lost his appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy, where McCain sits as an ex-oficio member of the Board of Visitors. McCain denied any connection.

  • One of my Arizona neighbors, Dianne Smith, wrote McCain protesting his criticism of Anita Hill in confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. A widow then in her 60s, Ms. Smith was flabbergasted when McCain phoned her, shouting at her for "questioning my integrity."

  • He recruits Republicans to run against Arizona GOP officeholders whom he considers insufficiently loyal to him. McCain’s candidates inevitably lose.

  • Upset about coverage in The Phoenix New Times by Amy Silverman, McCain phoned her father, Richard Silverman, general manager of the Arizona water-electricity utility Salt River Project to complain. McCain’s intent seemed clear—using muscle on the federally chartered SRP in hopes Silverman would pressure his daughter to cease.

  • Although McCain promised Arizona voters that "I’ve never tried to exploit my Vietnam service to my country because it would be totally inappropriate," his presidential campaign is built on his POW years.

  • While he moralizes about corrupt corporate money, McCain unabashedly rakes in tens of thousands of dollars from Washington lobbyists plus asking corporations for their jets for campaigning. A lobbyist told Newsweek: "He (McCain) sees no connection between twisting our arms for money and then talking about how corrupt the system is."

  • As he lectured about campaign finance corruption, McCain’s handpicked candidate for Arizona attorney general, state Sen. John Kaites, was being investigated for violating Arizona’s campaign finance law.

  • McCain attacks tobacco addiction, but ignores alcohol addiction. No surprise: his wife’s fortune stems from the family beer and wine distributorship, Arizona’s largest.

  • While serving Arizona’s First Congressional District, McCain lived in a modest townhouse in suburban Mesa. Impatient for bigger things, he took over a lavish home owned by his wife’s father in a pricey Phoenix neighborhood 25 miles away. Papers taken out for renovations were in the name of "Smith." McCain denied deceiving voters, and blamed others—architects—for using "Smith."

  • McCain’s friendship with master swindler Charles Keating wasn’t his only misjudgment in friends.

  • McCain’s Arizona protégé, Gov. Fife Symington, claimed to be a successful tycoon. In fact, he was bankrupt, later convicted on seven counts of fraud and forced to resign. McCain’s wife was a front row regular at Symington’s criminal trial in Phoenix. McCain still calls Symington "my friend."

  • McCain picked my publisher predecessor, Duke Tully, to be godfather of his first child. Tully boasted he was an Air Force hero of the Korean and Vietnam wars—but ultimately was exposed as a phony who never served in the military. McCain says he considers Tully "my friend."

  • McCain is no friend of free speech. He favors the "flag desecration amendment" that would criminalize "abuse" of Old Glory, and the number of news reporters he’s threatened to have fired because of stories he dislikes would staff a large newspaper.

  • McCain bullied Arizona legislators into creating a Republican-only presidential 1996 primary to benefit Sen. Phil Gramm at a cost of more than $2 million to all taxpayers. Gramm pulled out, and never showed up for the Arizona election.

  • A person who was there tells how McCain reacted when a delegation went to his Senate office in 1991 to discuss liberalizing flight duties for women in military aviation. After greeting them with "Hi, honey, Hi sweetie," McCain launched into an angry diatribe, disparaging the women as "a bunch of Pat Schroeders"—the Colorado Democrat known for championing feminist causes.

Although he’s on his best behavior now, the campaigning McCain is not recognizable to Arizonans who know his real persona.

Pat Murphy is the retired publisher of the Arizona Republic and a former radio commentator.


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