Statesman or Henchman?
United States Senator John McCain is live on KTUC-AM talk radio in Tucson. He's speaking with a caller named Rosemary, an elderly woman who's deeply concerned about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. "You make some excellent points, Rosemary, and I wish that everybody were as concerned about the issue as you are. And I appreciate the call," McCain says, his voice oozing sincerity and confidence.
He announces a station break. As a canned commercial fills the studio, McCain removes his headphones and leans over, conspiratorially. "I believe that Rosemary has a bumper sticker that says 'Visualize World Peace,'" he says with a sneer.
Back at work in KTUC's foam-walled studio, McCain chomps the same piece of peppermint gum for three hours, answering question after question after question from listeners. Bosnia. Whitewater. Vietnam. His white hair is combed sideways over his head, clamped down by the oversize black headphones. His fleshy neck pours out over the top of a crumpled white dress shirt and striped tie.
Although his demeanor is even and cordial throughout the radio shift, his hands betray the storm that lurks beneath the surface. His hands wring constantly, as if every bit of nervous energy, every distraction, every unspoken slam, is channeled through them.
Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
TicketsTue., Aug. 29, 6:40pm
All You Can Eat Value Pack - Mercury v Sun
TicketsFri., Sep. 1, 7:00pm
Phoenix Rising Football Club vs. Seattle Sounders 2
TicketsSat., Sep. 2, 7:30pm
All You Can Eat Value Pack - Mercury v Dream
TicketsSun., Sep. 3, 1:00pm
Phoenix Mercury vs. Atlanta Dream
TicketsSun., Sep. 3, 1:00pm
He certainly doesn't want to repeat his performance of a couple of months ago on Pat Murphy's KTAR-AM talk show in Phoenix. After McCain left the air, Murphy was inundated with complaints from listeners who believed McCain had been unduly rude to an elderly female caller who disagreed with McCain's views.
"I just have to depend on what the callers said," says Murphy, who no longer has a tape of the exchange. "They were more upset than I was."
There will be no such complaints after the Tucson Q and A. John McCain stays under control. That's what elder statesmen do, and that's what he intends to become. So it's something he and his staff work on.
He's choosing his fights carefully, so on the air, Rosemary gets stroked.
Sandra Dowling is another story.
As hundreds of Arizona's Republican faithful milled around the ballroom of a downtown hotel on a Saturday in January, gossiping and strategizing before the general session of the 1994 GOP state meeting was to convene, Dowling, the Maricopa County superintendent of schools, made the mistake of making eye contact with John McCain.
McCain, who will soon be Arizona's senior U.S. senator, wanted to talk to Dowling about her vocal support of GOP gubernatorial hopeful Barbara McConnell Barrett. McCain is a committed Fife Symington man.
In what Dowling describes as "a heated, face-to-face discussion," McCain openly berated Dowling for her allegiance to Barrett. Support Symington, he commanded, or there would be consequences. Have at me, countered Dowling, who has never been a big Symington fan. As their voices rose above the otherwise staid gathering, onlookers backed away.
Dowling recalls, "He told me that I was going to suffer the political wrath. . . . He was just flat-out mad."
McCain laughs when reminded of his tiff with Dowling. He maintains that Dowling, not he, lost composure. "Sandra Dowling was probably more rattled than Sandra Dowling has been her entire life," he says between chuckles.
"When I told Sandra Dowling there were consequences . . . I did it because I think it's in the best interest of the state and the party," the senator adds. "I have to do what I think is best."
Despite attempts by the party's fixers to keep the primary path uncluttered for Symington, Barrett, a former federal aviation official and now a local attorney, is in the GOP governor's race. That hasn't stopped McCain from informing Barrett herself that she is making a mistake.
"I told her [Barrett] there are consequences associated with causing other candidates to be defeated," McCain says.
The bylaws of the Arizona Republican party do not provide for anyone with the title of "Enforcer." But that hasn't stopped John McCain from appointing himself to the post. He is the distributor of consequences. He keeps the lesser party players in line. If they cooperate, Republicans seeking lower offices can expect a helping hand. If they don't cooperate, they can expect a backhand.
McCain, 57, is not up for reelection til 1998, yet he is as big a player as any candidate this political season. The senator offers his name, his staff, his advice and his contributor lists to Republican candidates at all levels of elective office.
Survey the political landscape, and McCain or McCain's people are evident in every nook and cranny.
McCain's resources make him a formidable player. He is solidifying his position by paying almost as much attention to other people's races as he does to his own. Republican candidates clamor for his endorsement, because if they get it, they have an inside track on elective office.
He insists his blessing doesn't mean much. "It's almost like a pacifier, a comfort. . . . People don't give a damn," McCain says.
But McCain recalls how much an endorsement from Paul Fannin meant to his own first congressional race, back in 1982. And while McCain has hesitated to hand out a public endorsement in the fall's contested primaries--a big no-no, particularly in Republican politics--he's playing favorites behind the scenes.
In Congressional District 1, where Sam Coppersmith's departure gives the Republicans a prime opportunity to reclaim McCain's old seat, state Senator Matt Salmon is widely regarded as McCain's pick.
Salmon downplays the relationship between fund raising and endorsements, even though McCain's name on the invitation to Salmon's December Washington, D.C., fund raiser was a boon.
"Oh, golly, I don't know," says Salmon when asked about the most valuable aspect of McCain's backing. "I've never run for Congress before--and he has--and giving me his insights is real valuable. That's the best thing."
Aw, shucks. The true value of any endorsement--public or private--takes the form of cold, hard cash. A senior-senator-in-waiting who can tap that cash from political action committees and wealthy individuals can swing an election, especially in races in which no incumbent is running. Congressional Districts 1 and 4--the latter which is being vacated by Jon Kyl in his bid for the Senate--fill that bill.
McCain's in-your-face admonishments are a departure from the tradition of bygone Arizona Republican stalwarts such as Barry Goldwater and John Rhodes, whose influence was as constant yet unobtrusive as the Arizona sunshine. They were encouraging, but not frenetic, in their support of local GOP candidates. If someone got out of line, it was GOP kingpin Harry Rosensweig, not the elected senator or representative, who did the enforcing.
In the Goldwater days, it was who you knew, not how much you could raise, that won you a seat. "It was a different era," says Bruce Wright, legislative scholar and chief of staff to former U.S. representative Mo Udall. (Wright's now with the Office of the President at the University of Arizona.) "They [Goldwater, Rhodes and Udall] all grew out of a time, you know, [when] the very best of our state leaders ran for congressional office. They held those offices for a very long time; they developed relationships. They came out of pioneer families and had all known each other for a good number of years."
McCain, by contrast, had lived in Arizona less than two years before he ran for Congress. He moved to the state from Washington, D.C.; his second wife, Cindy, is princess in the local Hensley & Company beer-distributing kingdom. After just two terms in Congress, McCain leapfrogged his congressional colleague, old-timer Bob Stump, to land in the Senate.
McCain may be concentrating on grassroots politics because his star was long ago eclipsed in the nation's capital. During the Eighties, he was one of the darlings of the national party, a courageous aviator who survived a North Vietnamese POW camp. His name was floated for top governmental posts. He spoke at the 1988 Republican National Convention. Some believed he was vice presidential material--hell, presidential material, maybe.
That all changed when McCain was tagged one of the Keating Five. In 1992, Arizona voters forgave him for island-hopping with Charlie Keating, giving McCain an easy reelection victory over a neophyte Democrat. While McCain's still viewed as a solid soldier--he even finagled some speaking time at his party's 92 national convention--the taint of the Keating scandal may never fade from his national persona.
So with Keating Five cohort and Arizona delegation dean Dennis DeConcini preparing to ride off into the sunset, McCain is rushing in to fill the void. He's getting as many of his players into the game as he can.
The March edition of the Arizona Republican Caucus newsletter speaks to the good will McCain is amassing: "Love him or hate him, McCain does more for Republican candidates in this state--at all levels--than any other Republican official around." It's ironic that John McCain is sticking his nose into statewide and local political races. He makes no secret of his preference for national and international issues. In the days prior to his 1992 general election, while other candidates were feverishly pressing Arizona flesh, McCain was abroad, posturing on the POW-MIA issue in Vietnam.
Staff tends to parochial matters; McCain can't be bothered.
Fife Symington and McCain have been tight for years, sharing the same Washington, D.C., political consultant, J. Brian Smith, and the same D.C. attorney, John Dowd.
The links between the senator's and the governor's staffs have strengthened significantly in the last year. Wes Gullett, who masterminded McCain's 1992 reelection victory, left the senator in 1993 after seven years to become Symington's chief of staff. Gullett is given much of the credit for righting Symington's reeling vessel, and for Symington's consequent improvement from a deathly standing in opinion polls. And--oh, yes--Gullett's wife is Deb Amend, McCain's state director.
McCain's decision to cast his lot with Symington may be one reason his relationship with Attorney General Grant Woods--a rival of Symington's--has cooled (or, perhaps, the cause of it). Given McCain's penchant for aligning himself with winners, the rift might be considered surprising.
Smith, who, in addition to Symington and McCain, also counts Woods among his clients, says he can't begin to understand the dynamic among the three. "It would take someone with the training of a psychologist or a psychology major to probably begin to make some sense of it," Smith says.
McCain and Woods were once like brothers. After McCain won a seat in Congress in 1982, Woods became his first district director.
"We used to be very close friends," says McCain, acknowledging that the alliance has eroded in the past few years. He refuses to say why.
It's unclear how much impact the estrangement from the Enforcer has had on Woods' political future. Indeed, Woods' popularity--GOP operatives say Woods is the most admired Republican in the state--may have something to do with McCain's disdain, with the senator taking exception to being passed in the opinion polls by his former protg.
So in an election year in which virtually every other candidate with promise is trying to advance, Woods apparently isn't going anywhere. At one time, Woods coveted the Senate seat that Dennis DeConcini will vacate this year. But lacking the fund-raising punch that comes with a McCain blessing, Woods backed off, leaving a clear path for McCain's anointee, District 4 U.S. Representative Jon Kyl.
Woods also backed off on the governor's race, publicly announcing his support of Symington's reelection campaign. He may jump in if the governor is indicted.
While it may be common for a United States senator to involve himself in his state's gubernatorial race, McCain's focus has narrowed of late. He has become deeply involved in the politics at Phoenix City Hall, where two of the three candidates McCain backed in last fall's "party neutral" Phoenix City Council election now occupy chrome-and-purple offices.
Former McCain staffer Karl Gentles ran Cody Williams' successful campaign. McCain endorsed Williams and signed a fund-raising letter for the candidate.
McCain appeared at a fund raiser for Craig Tribken's unsuccessful challenger, Ron Gawlitta, and lent his name to an endorsement letter. The senator also loaned Gawlitta contributor lists. McCain staffers tried to solicit contributions for Gawlitta from at least one Phoenix heavyweight--former Salt River Project general manager and former state regent Jack Pfister.
But it was Sal DiCiccio, a former district aide to McCain, who benefited most from the senator--including a fund raiser at the McCain manse on North Central Avenue. Ironically, McCain had backed DiCiccio's opponent--incumbent Kathy Dubs, also a Republican--in the previous council election.
Until last fall, DiCiccio's most remarkable political accomplishment had been to serve as a press aide for then-Maricopa County sheriff Dick Godbehere, who, incidentally, was recruited by McCain. Now DiCiccio is a Phoenix city councilmember, thanks to McCain.
"He [McCain] was the only one who helped me in my campaign," DiCiccio says. "I didn't get any help, really, from any of the [other] party stalwarts." It's no accident that while the Democrats flounder, pitting strong candidates against one another in the upcoming U.S. Senate primary, Jon Kyl--a key cog in the emerging McCain political machine--is the lone Republican candidate.
The Democrats can also be counted on to beat themselves up in the gubernatorial primary. McCain doesn't want the Republicans to make the same mistake.
So the Enforcer has little talks with misguided people such as Sandra Dowling.
John McCain is blunt in his assessment of Paul Johnson: "I don't trust him."
That might explain why the city council race between Sal DiCiccio and Kathy Dubs shaped up as a power struggle between McCain and then-Phoenix mayor Paul Johnson--or, perhaps, because Johnson has long been viewed as a prime gubernatorial candidate, as a power struggle between McCain/Symington and Johnson.
Johnson allies supported Dubs, a political novice who was blindsided by the influence exerted on her race by the heavyweights.
Upon his election, DiCiccio immediately began to question policies of the "world's best-run city"--particularly with regard to costs surrounding the building of the spanking-new City Hall. Johnson-loving city staffers bristled at this, particularly when DiCiccio paraded McCain through the new building on a tour.
"I'm asking a lot of questions around the city cause I just think that it's important to find out why they do the things that they do sometimes," DiCiccio says.
He hadn't even been sworn in, let alone issued city council stationery, when DiCiccio started looking for chinks in the city's--and Johnson's--armor.
On November 19, DiCiccio wrote City Manager Frank Fairbanks, requesting further investigation into the people involved with Forestry for Phoenix, a pet Johnson environmental project that spent tens of thousands of unaccounted-for dollars and planted precious few of the trees it was supposed to. Three of the people involved with Forestry for Phoenix--Chris Warner, Mike Morgan and Claude Mattox--were heavily involved in Dubs' campaign.
DiCiccio received Fairbanks' report on January 31, but was not impressed by it.
"I think staff just basically asked the questions . . . and they didn't do any in-depth investigation in that report. And it got to be a political hot potato because it involved the mayor [Johnson]," he says.
Morgan, who also received a copy of Fairbanks' report, wasn't impressed, either. In a missive dated February 5, he asked Fairbanks for a run-down of the costs associated with answering DiCiccio's request, and questioned DiCiccio's motives.
"Councilman DiCiccio has started his term by engaging in a witch hunt," Morgan wrote. "My only 'offense' that precipitated my selection for this witch hunt was to be audacious enough to support DiCiccio's . . . opponent in this last election."
DiCiccio insists he's his own man. He points to his support of Thelda Williams for interim mayor, and of recall target Salomon Leija, both Democrats--and most certainly not potential cogs in the McCain machine.
The DiCiccio-Dubs race was hardly the first time McCain and Johnson had butted heads. They sparred over the Indian School land deal, and have maintained a running scuffle over McCain's pet project: a regional airport.
When McCain took an active interest in the city council election, some observers, including Johnson, assumed he was lining up regional-airport support.
None of the three candidates McCain backed in the council race has ever been on the record in solid support of the regional airport, although DiCiccio says he wants to keep all options open. And McCain says he's taken the regional airport off his agenda for now.
Johnson, who resigned as mayor last week to seek the Democratic nomination for governor, isn't buying that. "It's [the regional airport] not off the agenda of the people who would like to see it in the East Valley, and I would just lay you odds that if you would wait until after the 94 election for governor, that it is one of those things that is going to find its way back out front on the agenda."
Through his position on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, McCain has made inquiries into the inner workings of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. McCain insists he's just doing his job; after the Keating debacle, he's careful to question everything, he says. Johnson supporters accuse McCain of trying to make Sky Harbor, Johnson and city staff look bad in order to push his regional-airport concept.
"Unfortunately," Johnson says, "John has a way of making a lot of people afraid. Even for me, I mean, I have no doubt that there will be retribution for what he reads and what I'm saying. I mean, there's just no doubt, and so there's a great deal of trepidation with me in dealing with the answers to these questions, because he's a guy that doesn't forget and he goes after ya."
It is not pleasant when John McCain goes after ya.
Over the years, political reporters have collected McCain tantrum tales the way sportswriters tally Suns statistics.
McCain is fond of saying he doesn't suffer fools gladly, that he has no time for "boring, well-intentioned people."
At the same time, he has come to recognize his temper as a liability. He and his allies--including Arizona junior-senator hopeful Jon Kyl--promise it's under control.
"I'll acknowledge that early on, John could be pretty fiery sometimes. But I think that is diminishing, has diminished over time, and I don't think you'll see very much of that now," Kyl says.
"It was a little bit like when a 5-year-old throws a tantrum and . . . you don't acknowledge it because it only fuels it," says one recipient of a recent McCain tirade.
Lately, McCain and his staffers have made it a habit to issue apologies to select recipients of the senator's ire. That doesn't make the outbursts any less volatile.
Last fall, McCain interrupted a meeting about the proposed downtown Phoenix baseball stadium and--while Jerry Colangelo looked on, perplexed by the distraction--proceeded to lash Democratic political consultant Jay Thorne.
Thorne's sin: He had gone on the record in New Times, calling Jay Heiler the "Nazi of the week" on Governor Fife Symington's staff.
Thorne chose not to comment on McCain's broadside. As he often does when confronted with tantrum anecdotes, McCain laughs when reminded of the incident with Thorne.
"He got a little heat, and then I said, 'Look, it's over,'" the senator says. ". . . I think the worst thing you can do in politics is hold a grudge."
That may not work in all cases--consider the feud with Paul Johnson--but it holds true in some. Political junkies will remember that former U.S. representative Sam Steiger penned an article in 1985 for Prescott's Northern Arizona Life (later reprinted by New Times) in which he excoriated McCain.
In part, Steiger wrote: "[McCain] is unprepared by either training or experience to represent Arizona, or, indeed, any other region of this country. He was elected after a difficult and expensive primary, largely because he had been a prisoner of war in the Vietnam conflict. Let us examine that precept.
"In my little war, Korea, if you got captured, it meant you had screwed up. If you stayed captured for any length of time, it meant you had not tried to escape, and therefore you spent a great deal of time explaining why you did not escape. One would think it would offend the public, the constant repetition of that failure in combat. Mr. McCain has never failed to invoke his POW experience at any gathering, regardless of the advertised topic. In the past, that would have been the height of bad taste. Now it is clearly a recipe for political success."
These days, Steiger can be reached at McCain's Phoenix office, where his title is special assistant to the senator.
Surprisingly, when asked to pick one Arizona politician to call his hero, John McCain chooses retired Tucson congressman Mo Udall, the liberal Democrat who is as renowned for his wit and grace as McCain is for his temper.
As he prepares to take a leadership role in the Arizona congressional delegation next January (another post he'll yank away from Bob Stump, who deserves it through seniority), McCain says he hopes to emulate Udall's leadership style.
"I'm envious without malice," says McCain, "at the way he was able to engender an atmosphere of good will in even the most difficult circumstances."
"What?" says Paul Johnson. "Did he say that? . . . I'll bet you Mo Udall wouldn't consider him his prize student." Bruce Wright says Udall generally limited his involvement in party politics to voter-registration drives. And McCain's reputation among current Arizona delegation staff is not that of peacemaker; quite the contrary.
But Wright says he's not surprised to hear of McCain's admiration for Udall's style. McCain was elected to Congress at the peak of Udall's power. Despite their different political affiliations, Wright says, Udall welcomed McCain to the Arizona delegation and helped him along. Maybe, Wright continues, John McCain is entering a new phase of his political persona: statesman. "You act in a different way when you're in a particular position," says Wright. "I think John now sees himself as emerging as sort of the dean of the delegation or as the lead person for Arizona. He would probably approach . . . issues a little differently." Paul Johnson begs to differ, no matter what the consequences.
"There's no doubt Mo Udall was a compromiser," Johnson says. "I mean, he could take you into a room and tell you what was important and what needed to happen, but he always did it with a sense of humor and he made you laugh. When you left the meeting, you never felt bad. You felt really positive; you felt positive about yourself, positive about him."
As for McCain? Johnson says, "He needs to take a refresher course.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.