McCain Balances Public Temper With Private Acts of Compassion
Fri Mar 7, 12:03 AM ET
March 7 (Bloomberg) -- As he competed for the Republican presidential nomination in more than 20 states last month, John McCain also made time to tape a memorial tribute to David Ifshin.
Ifshin, who died in 1996, had traveled to Hanoi in 1970 to denounce the Vietnam War in a broadcast that was piped into McCain's prisoner-of-war cell. In later years, the two men reconciled, and just days before a Feb. 19 commemoration of Ifshin's life at Syracuse University, McCain's videotape arrived without fanfare, said Ifshin's widow, Gail.
``It just brought tears to my eyes,'' she said.
Little known beyond his family and small circle of friends, McCain has a softer, compassionate side that co-exists with his temper. Those who have seen him in private moments and in personal relationships say the Arizona senator has demonstrated extraordinary kindness, bringing to the political realm a human dimension often obscured by the heat of the moment.
Critics have questioned McCain's temperament, including his suitability to be commander-in-chief, since his first run for the presidency in 2000. In January, Republican Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi told the Boston Globe that ``the thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine. He is erratic. He is hot-headed. He loses his temper and he worries me.''
Taming His Temper
McCain, 71, has acknowledged his temper, saying he ``works all the time'' at taming it. ``Every time I lose my temper, I've regretted it,'' he said in a 1998 interview.
McCain's eruptions are legendary among his fellow Republicans in the collegial Senate. During last summer's immigration debate, he directed the F-word at Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas.
McCain controls his anger ``most of the time,'' said former Republican Senator Bill Cohen of Maine, who served as defense secretary under President Bill Clinton and was best man at McCain's second wedding.
Mark Udall, a Democratic Colorado congressman, has seen the other side of the McCain personality. McCain was one of the few people to regularly visit his father, former Arizona Representative Morris K. Udall, as he lay dying in a hospital.
Mentor and Friend
When McCain arrived in the House in 1983, Morris Udall, a liberal Democrat, became his mentor and friend. By the late l990s, the senior Arizona congressman was incapacitated by Parkinson's disease and bedridden at a veterans' hospital.
``John continued to visit my dad when he had almost literally no visitors except us family members,'' Mark Udall said. ``He was basically unable to communicate verbally and was semi-conscious.'' Week after week, McCain sat reading to Udall and telling him about doings on Capitol Hill.
Udall's daughter, Ann Udall, head of the Lee Institute, a nonprofit community organization in Charlotte, North Carolina, later persuaded McCain to change his mind and support fetal- tissue research that could lead to a cure for Parkinson's.
``John was very thoughtful and very reflective on the issue,'' she said.
Matt James, Morris Udall's chief of staff, remembered McCain's reply after he thanked him for visiting his boss.
Prisoner of War
``I know what it's like to be a prisoner,'' James said he was told by McCain, who was detained in North Vietnam for five- and-a-half years.
McCain becomes most passionate when describing the treatment of wounded veterans. His mother said she saw that passion two years ago when he entered her hospital room in tears.
``I thought it was about me,'' said Roberta McCain, who was being treated for a hip injury.
Instead, she said her son had just come from the room of a of a Naval Academy graduate whose legs had been blown off in Iraq and was on his death bed.
Hours later, McCain told Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine about the encounter.
``He was moved to tears even then -- on the Senate floor,'' Collins said. ``This is a man who's been through the unspeakable, but it has not hardened him to the trials and tribulations of others.''
Ifshin saw those qualities in McCain after the two men apologized to one another in 1986 -- Ifshin for his actions in Vietnam and McCain for having attacked Ifshin in a 1984 speech.
Ifshin served as general counsel to Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign and worked as a lobbyist. He and McCain later teamed up to establish the Institute for Democracy in Vietnam, which promotes human rights.
After Ifshin became ill, McCain visited him at his Maryland home.
``We just sat in the living room and had a long conversation,'' Gail Ifshin said. ``It meant a lot.''
McCain delivered a eulogy at Ifshin's funeral, saying his friend had taught him ``the futility of looking back in anger.''
McCain's willingness to ``let bygones be bygones'' may stem from a ``sense of urgency about accomplishing things because of the life he had been granted again,'' Mark Udall said.
Gail Ifshin said that more than a decade after her husband's death, McCain remains ``kind and attentive'' to her and her three grown children, she said.
``His level of sensitivity and caring, the ability to see beyond his own world -- it's emblematic of the man I've come to know,'' she said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Edwin Chen in Washington at email@example.com